First Things First (FTF) in Arizona had an ambitious goal: lower the number of children entering kindergarten with unnoticed, untreated developmental delays, vision or hearing issues. However, when the organization began to look at how children 0-5 are screened to identify potential delays, they found fragmented services, restrictive eligibility criteria and barriers for families throughout the state. Stakeholders and providers were not communicating with each other on a regular basis , and families were often unclear about when and where to access screenings. These issues led to major gaps in services and a high number of children with unmet needs.
FTF has begun to address the problem with a federal Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems grant for planning and improvement across the state. But figuring out how to engage the wide range of state partners and stakeholders to create meaningful change remains a challenge. At the same time, FTF’s Phoenix South Regional Partnership Council committed to a community process to engage local partners to better coordinate screenings and services for young children.
Enter ACS. “For the past 18 months, we’ve been convening partners and stakeholders to talk about how to improve the screening process,” says Dr. Karen Peifer, Senior Director of Children’s Health at First Things First. “We knew that having external facilitation services would be helpful in this process, so we hired ACS.”
At the same time, ACS has helped FTF’s team in the Phoenix South region launch a demonstration project and convene a learning collaborative, led by Senior Director Jennifer Johnson. “Screening and referral services for children ages zero to three has always been a big part of our plan, but in Phoenix South, the council realized we have a need to coordinate and share information between the multiple service agencies. We needed to create a community of practice to streamline and be more efficient with the work, rather than creating more programs. ACS is helping us move that conversation forward by convening identified stakeholders, synthesizing information to create meaning, and helping people articulate their perspectives and ideas.”
The ACS team has facilitated several meetings at both the state and regional level for FTF, and conducted and shared research findings on screening systems, tools and processes. Now, ACS is helping both the state and regional teams create plans for advancing best practices into a broader community network.
Any effort that brings together multiple stakeholders requires sensitivity in facilitation and the ability to think quickly to steer conversations away from turf issues and toward the common goal. “ACS serves as a neutral party with an objective perspective to de-politicize issues and provide support from a system-building perspective,” says Johnson. “Locally, people are sometimes influenced by their own knowledge base, their own interests or piece of the work, and their own experiences. ACS helps us all move forward with a broader view.
“At the state level, differences can be amplified,” adds Peifer. “Everyone may have the same goal in mind, but they define and communicate about that differently. Even the way in which our stakeholders might define an ‘early intervention system’ is different. ACS helps us to create a common language for the work we each are doing and to define our individual efforts within the larger system. That’s allowed us to move the collaborative work forward.”
The key, says ACS Senior Director Rebecca Cohen, is knowing the field, the players and the issues before stepping into the room, then listening with an open mind. “You have to always listen first. We may be experts in facilitation and communication, but all of the stakeholders in the room are experts in their own right. Our goal is always to draw out their best thinking and use that to create a plan of action that feels authentic and actionable.”
“I have great trust in ACS,” says Johnson. “I know they will listen and interpret the group well, and they’ll foster open, honest dialog.”
“Even when we don’t all agree, we have meaningful dialog on how to move forward,” Peifer agrees. “ACS helps us resolve differences and maintain respect and appreciation for one another.”