Starting Smart and Strong


Why Starting Smart and Strong?

The first five years of a child’s life offer a unique opportunity to lay the long-term foundations for their success in school and life. Yet, only 50 percent of California children are enrolled in preschool, and fewer than 1 in 3 young children receive vital screenings to determine if they are reaching developmental milestones.

We believe that helping kids learn and grow must include quality interactions with adults that inspire their curiosity to learn and explore the world. That’s why we’re working with three California communities—Oakland, Fresno and East San Jose—to explore best practices for adult-child interactions by helping them provide stronger teaching, caregiving, and access to developmental screenings for California’s youngest children by 2025. We hope to test and expand solutions, and to scale what works in order to create lasting change in children’s lives.

Starting Smart and Strong is a shared, community-driven commitment to unite and accelerate healthy development efforts and early learning efforts. We honor the diversity and unique assets within each community and believe in their ability to imagine and drive change and set priorities. Recognizing that no two communities’ approaches to early childhood development are the same, we have taken a place-based approach which means we offer direct grantmaking and technical support to the communities of Oakland, Fresno, and East San Jose.

The Big 5: Practices for Successful Adult-Child Interaction

Early on we realized that all adults in children’s lives help to create the healthy, nurturing, and engaging connections that children need to grow. Decades of research have shown that interactions with adults provide a crucial foundation as children develop. Yet, few children experience high-quality interactions with adults in their lives on a regular basis. At the outset of Starting Smart and Strong, we identified five practices that parents, teachers, and caregivers should practice when interacting with children:


Providing rich learning activities that build on the child’s interest

Create a world of wonder by knowing what a child is excited about—extend learning using natural interests.


Reading, singing, and telling stories

Use a variety of sounds, words, melodies, and rhythms to “bathe” or immerse children in language.


Knowing the stage of a child’s development and what comes next

Know a child’s level of development and know what comes next to offer just the right amount of practice and challenge.


Creating nurturing relationships and use positive guidance

Provide warmth and support, teach positive behavior, and prevent rather than punish challenging behaviors.


Being responsive and expanding verbal and non-verbal communication

Build connections in a child’s brain through back and forth turn-taking, which supports language development and healthy bonds.

Our Journey

In 2014, we set out on a ten-year journey to support community leaders and partners in Fresno, Oakland, and San Jose as they work to put the “Big 5” best practices into action. Recognizing that each community has different structures, challenges, and opportunities, we decided to take a place-based approach to our work. In their own unique way, each community is working to provide:

  • Professional development and training for caregivers and educators
  • Resources and support for parents, family, friends, neighbors, and other informal caregivers
  • Access to quality health care and developmental screenings
  • Strong and sustainable early learning systems and a plan to scale what works

We have set out on a ten-year path to eventually scale what works:

Our People

Meera Mani

Vice President, Families and Communities

Jeff Sunshine

Deputy Director

Bernadette Sangalang

Children and Families Director

Katie Harkin

Children and Families Associate Program Officer

Diana Garcia

Program Research Analyst

How to Get Support

The Children, Families, and Communities Program is not accepting unsolicited proposals, but welcomes your ideas for funding requests. Before you send a request, please review this page. If your work is aligned with the program strategy and geographic focus, please send your request using the form here.

Select photos courtesy of Hasan Reed Photography