Pre-K Data on Children, Families, and Workforce Members from Focal Populations Can Help Decision Makers Create More Equitable Systems

Publication Date:

December 15, 2022

All children and families are deserving of high-quality pre-K services and systems that help children thrive, value who they are, and offer positive and equitable environments. Comprehensive data on families’ access to, experiences with, and outcomes in pre-K can help system leaders[1] promote more equitable systems to support all pre-K children and families, as well as the system’s workforce members. An equitable system[2] reflects a set of connected policies, programs, services, and infrastructures created in partnership with communities to reflect the strengths, needs, values, languages, and cultures of participating children, families, and workforce members. We conceive of equity as both an outcome and a process that is achieved through intentional and informed action. Within the pre-K system,[3] equitable outcomes happen when children and families’ access to, experiences within, and impacts from pre-K do not vary based on their identities. Equitable processes are those whereby programmatic pre-K policies and practices are both shaped to support equitable outcomes and are shaped by those most impacted by inequities.

Systemic inequities persist within the pre-K system—as they do in many U.S. institutions—despite policy efforts to expand the supply of pre-K, invest in quality improvement initiatives, and prioritize enrollment for those who have been marginalized. This category includes, but is not limited to, children, families, and workforce members from Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Indigenous backgrounds; those experiencing poverty; those with disabilities or developmental delays; those who are immigrants; and those who are multilingual learners. This brief aims to describe the experiences of these specific groups of children, families, and workforce members[4] (referred to as focal populations) that face inequities and discuss how a comprehensive pre-K data system can bolster ongoing efforts to ensure that all children experience the benefits of pre-K and that all families and workforce members are supported. These focal populations will be central to the development of a forthcoming Pre-K Data Equity Framework (the Framework) through Child Trends’ Early Childhood Data Collaborative.

In the following sections, we first review the elements of high-quality, equitable pre-K and describe how such systems establish a strong foundation for children’s successful development. Then, we review how the Framework can help promote pre-K environments in which all children, families, and workforce members can thrive when systems attend to both their diversity and their shared and unique needs, strengths, and identities. The next section focuses on the equity challenges and data needs of each of our focal populations. Finally, in recognition that people hold more than one identity, we describe how intersectional identities[5] across focal populations can present unique strengths and challenges.

High-quality, equitable pre-K systems are foundational to children’s success

The pre-K system has the potential to set children on a trajectory of well-being and achievement starting in their early years, and to build upon the interactions and experiences within their daily lives. High-quality pre-K programs—such as those with strong curricula, professional development and workforce support, and educational engagement—represent a key step toward strengthening children’s early and later learning and development. Additionally, high-quality pre-K programs play a critical role in supporting families and staff. Parents have greater capacity to work or pursue their education when their children are enrolled in pre-K programs. The pre-K workforce is better equipped to support families and children when they are well-compensated, offered high-quality training and professional development, and have their wellness needs met. To live up to the promise of providing all children with a strong foundation for lifelong learning and development, pre-K programs must reach into all communities and reflect the lived experiences of those they serve.

Despite pre-K’s potential, its history and the available research on its implementation show that discriminatory policies and practices have contributed to inequitable access to and disparate outcomes for children, families, and the pre-K workforce. Discrimination entails unfair treatment based on a person’s identity. Disparities—such as those found in pre-K discipline, where boys and children of color experience higher rates of expulsion—have led to the development of federal provisions and guidance to address discrimination within early childhood programs. Those who make decisions around policy and practice often do not reflect the diverse races and ethnicities, cultures, abilities, or socioeconomic statuses of those impacted by pre-K systems, thereby reinforcing inequitable processes and outcomes.

All children deserve high-quality pre-K experiences that set them on a path for success, and those facing systemic inequities deserve supports and resources that level their opportunities to thrive. Pre-K leaders are in a unique position to recognize and be responsive to the strengths and lived experiences of communities that are marginalized by supporting policies and practices that advance equity.

How a pre-K data framework can promote greater equity

The goals of the Pre-K Data Equity Framework will be to help pre-K leaders collect and use data to understand the nature of, and the contributors to, persistent pre-K system inequities; and to inform continuous improvement of policies and practices that encourage a more equitable system. In addition to providing a broad picture of children, families, and workforce members in a pre-K system, the Framework will be designed to help pre-K leaders develop a nuanced, in-depth understanding of focal populations who continually face barriers related to pre-K access, experiences, and outcomes.

a young boy picks up a bag of food

Families experiencing poverty

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Pre-K leaders can use data to identify barriers for families experiencing poverty and to inform programmatic and policy improvements to better meet their needs. The Pre-K Data Equity Framework will encourage collection of data on the types of barriers these families face and can better equip leaders and programs to meet families’ needs through responsive and flexible programming.

The official threshold used to define poverty in the United States is intended to reflect insufficient income for meeting basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and utilities. However, many experts critique the official threshold for being too low and not accounting for geographic differences in the cost of living. The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), however, does account for current living needs and expenses. Despite the fact that child poverty rates are at their lowest point in 25 years—largely due to federal social safety net programs—there are still 1 in 10 children experiencing poverty, based on SPM figures. Additionally, 3 percent of all children live in what is considered deep poverty, or in families with net resources that amount to less than 50 percent of the supplemental poverty threshold. Although there have been broad declines in poverty, disparities persist: The social safety net yields less benefit for children in immigrant families or from Hispanic or Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander backgrounds, relative to their non-immigrant, Black, or White peers.

Poverty is driven by a range of historical and structural inequities, such as low and unequal wages, workforce discrimination, high costs of living that require more than half of a family or household’s income to be spent on housing, unfair housing policies and practices like redlining that create racially segregated communities with concentrated poverty, unequal access to paid family and medical leave and other benefits that force a choice between income and health, and mass incarceration—the latter of which promotes poverty, shapes job opportunities post-incarceration, and hinders positive child outcomes. The pervasiveness of systemic inequities contributes to the generational nature of poverty and to related stress for families. Such systemic inequities also contribute to disproportionality in who experiences poverty, such as situational poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic or job loss, and shapes families’ access to supports to manage related financial hardship. Families and children of color—including Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Indigenous families—are disproportionately more likely to experience poverty and related trauma.

The quality of a child’s education can prevent—or promote—poverty, even from the earliest experiences in the education system. Children from families experiencing poverty are more likely to live in communities where accessible pre-K programs are of low quality and have limited funding and resources, thereby undermining their opportunity to benefit from high-quality pre-K programs. Similarly, rural communities, disproportionately impacted by poverty and child care desserts, contend with challenges around sufficient supply of existing early childhood programs. Although socioeconomically diverse classrooms may offer some benefits for children, the importance of high-quality pre-K programs—regardless of their demographic makeup—cannot be overstated. Families experiencing poverty may also be at a disadvantage when navigating such challenges as transportation to and from pre-K programs, limited sick leave to adhere to programs’ sick policies, or program hours that do not align with work hours, including inflexible and nonstandard work hours.

There are some false perceptions that families experiencing poverty do not want to be involved in their child’s education. However, families experiencing poverty value their children’s education and desire to be involved despite barriers such as cultural differences and experiences with racism. For example, Black mothers of preschoolers enrolled in Head Start viewed parents’ role in children’s learning as either a primary role or as a collaborative partnership with the child’s teacher. Parents saw helping children within the home environment as a key means of staying involved—for example, by leveraging children’s television shows for home projects or practicing positive classroom behaviors. The lived experience of families experiencing poverty can inform more supportive program environments.

Data on the types of barriers faced by families experiencing poverty can better equip pre-K leaders and programs to meet these families’ needs through responsive and flexible programming.

children play with building toys

Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Indigenous families

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Data can help pre-K leaders identify and address inequities in program access, quality, and treatment experienced by Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Indigenous children. The Pre-K Data Equity Framework will help capture data for disaggregation by race and ethnicity as a first step toward identifying and dismantling practices and policies that exclude or result in biased treatment on the basis of race/ethnicity.

Within and across focal racial/ethnic groups—including Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Indigenous groups—children and families represent a range of diverse cultures and experiences. However, these groups have experienced persistent disparities due to systemic racism—for example, in housing (e.g., predatory lending, exclusionary zoning, discriminatory appraisals) and health care industries (e.g., lack of timely treatment; lower-quality care; employer-sponsored health care that disproportionately excludes Black, Latino, and American Indian and Alaska Native persons in low-wage jobs; and disparities in maternal health).

Such disparities existed within the early childhood system even in its earliest forms. Historically, early childhood systems were developed and administered in ways that deprioritized Black children and families. For example, day nurseries limited or denied enrollment of Black families, necessitating creation of day nursery programs by and within Black communities. Similarly, pensions provided to mothers experiencing poverty for caretaking in the home often barred Black mothers. Although current early childhood systems have sought to prioritize groups that are traditionally underserved, racial and ethnic disparities remain. For example, among 3- and 4-year old children, Hispanic children had the lowest school enrollment in 2020 (33%) whereas White children had the highest enrollment (43%).

Within early care and education, enrolled children and families of color experience such challenges as limited access to high-quality programs and biased treatment. For example, Indigenous and Hispanic/Latino families are more likely to live in child care deserts, resulting in more limited access to early educational experiences. Children of color have disparate access to pre-K programming, which can reflect challenges around the availability of options—or, especially, of high-quality options. For example, within a universal pre-K model, Black children had greater access to lower-quality programs than White children, a disparity related, in part, to differential proximity—or how close a program was located to the places where children and families lived. Program quality may be tied to factors such geographic location or racial/ethnic (and economic) segregation across programs—although high-quality programming should be available to all children regardless of where programs operate or the demographics of a community. Additionally, teachers were found to view Black and Hispanic pre-K children as having more behavioral problems than their White peers, despite no discernible differences in observed behavior; this perception has implications for teacher-student interactions, children’s learning, and overall experiences in pre-K.

Disparities in discipline are also apparent among pre-K children. For example, Black and American Indian or Alaska Native children experience high rates of exclusionary discipline. Black children are also more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White counterparts for similar behaviors. Additionally, Black pre-K girls experience the highest rates of exclusionary discipline compared to girls of other racial/ethnic backgrounds. Exclusionary discipline further limits access to care and can negatively impact children’s emotional well-being.

Data about enrollment and experiences in pre-K programs, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, is a first step toward identifying and dismantling practices and policies that exclude or result in biased treatment of Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Indigenous families.

a young girl and her teacher practice sign language

Families of children with disabilities or developmental delays

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Pre-K leaders can use data to understand indicators of need for a disability identification, inform needed supports, strengthen inclusivity, and develop a holistic view of skills and knowledge among children with disabilities. The Pre-K Data Equity Framework will help capture data to better understand disparities around enrollment, exclusionary discipline, and service provision experienced by children with disabilities within pre-K.

In 2019, about 6.7 percent of children ages 3 to 5 were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an increase from 5.9 percent in 2010. Children with disabilities accounted for just under a quarter (22.7%) of pre-K enrollment in 2017-2018. Participation in pre-K programming can aid in identification of and provision of services for children with a disability. However, there are variations in identification across programs: Programs that serve a majority of children and families of color are less likely to identify children of color than programs serving a majority of White children and families. There are also disparities in disability identification by type of disability, with identification of intellectual disabilities highest for Black students and specific learning disabilities higher among Pacific Islander, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Black students. An overrepresentation of Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students served under IDEA in later grades—a disparity not found in earlier grades—indicates that there may be missed opportunities in identification and support.

Inclusive learning environments—or those that allow for full and meaningful participation of children with disabilities through appropriate services and supports alongside children without disabilities—have benefits for children with and without disabilities. These benefits include improved language and social skills for children with disabilities and, for children without disabilities, the development of life skills such as helping, empathy, and compassion. Yet within pre-K settings, children with disabilities are often placed within segregated learning environments, a practice that is linked to later segregation from K-12 environments and is more pronounced for Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students in later grades. There are also higher rates of exclusionary discipline among children with disabilities than among children without disabilities.

Broader disciplinary practices within pre-K settings that remove or exclude children from the learning environment may also delay or prevent identification of a disability. Missed identification hinders children’s receipt of services under IDEA, including special protections around discriminatory discipline. Given that Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children experience exceptionally high rates of discipline in pre-K settings, they may also have disproportionate experiences around identification for and receipt of needed services. Among those receiving services, systemic challenges around cross-system coordination of comprehensive services can limit their full participation in pre-K settings. Families of children with disabilities also face other challenges, such as concerns over quality and safety, turnover of qualified special education staff, and uncertain availability of disability accommodations to fully meet care needs.

Data systems can be used to better understand rates of enrollment, exclusionary discipline, and service provision for children with disabilities, as well as the extent of disparities within these areas; it can also give a holistic view of these children’s skills and knowledge.

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Children in immigrant families

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Pre-K leaders can leverage data systems to inform efforts to enroll and sustain engagement among children and families from immigrant backgrounds, and to better equip pre-K systems to support and serve these families. The Pre-K Data Equity Framework will help clarify the presence and diversity of children and families from immigrant backgrounds being served in pre-K, as well as the differing needs and experiences within and across immigrant communities.

Nearly 25 percent of children under age 5 have a parent who is an immigrant. Early childhood settings may be the first source of exposure to American culture for families who are immigrants. Immigrant families take on the challenge of navigating new systems and cultures while fighting to preserve their own. There is a diversity of experiences within the immigrant population, and multiple aspects of identity—such as race/ethnicity, income, and language—influence how they are treated and how others perceive them. Within and across immigrant groups, a multitude of rich cultures and past experiences enrich children’s development and can be affirmed in programs. Immigrant communities draw on various forms of cultural capital, such as high aspirations, family and social networks, and resistance to inequity, many of which can support children’s education and learning. However, immigrant families are disproportionately likely to experience challenges around such issues as poverty or health care access due to systemic barriers and exclusionary policies, like eligibility requirements for social safety net programs or health insurance.

Research demonstrated that children of immigrants benefit from high-quality pre-K, yet their rates of enrollment are lower than that of their non-immigrant peers. Only 36 percent of children from immigrant families are enrolled in pre-K compared to 41 percent for non-immigrant families. Concerns around immigration policies and privacy have impacted families’ enrollment and attendance in early care and education programs and their access to subsidy programs. Additionally, immigrant children and families may experience challenges in programs that do not address language and communication barriers or that have unwelcoming environments, which can also limit access to important information about types of programs, subsidies, or networks of support and resources. Further, staff at these programs may also be less familiar with cultural norms and values or lack knowledge about the related stress or trauma that families of immigrants may have experienced—all of which impacts the quality of care they can provide.

Data systems can inform efforts to enroll, support, and sustain engagement of children in immigrant families; better equip pre-K systems to understand the diversity within and across immigrant communities being served; and better meet their needs.

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Families with multilingual learners

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Pre-K leaders can use data to identify effective communication and engagement strategies to better engage children and families with multilingual learners. The Pre-K Data Equity Framework will encourage the collection of data on the home languages and dialects of children and staff within programs to support efforts to offer accessible language options, appropriate curricula, and capacity-building supports for the workforce. 

Multilingual learners make up about 23 percent of the pre-K population. Being multilingual has a range of benefits, such as brain development, executive function, academic skills, and cultural ties. It is common for these students to have their first exposure to English when enrolled in a pre-K program. Multilingual learning environments that maintain children’s home languages and foster their overall English language development can support optimal outcomes for multilingual children’s academic and social-emotional development. However, programs often have a shortage of multilingual staff. Indeed, families with multilingual learners often consider language preference, match between home and program language, and languages of instruction when selecting care. Programs struggle with supporting multilingual learners and their families, reflecting the need for supportive policies to, for example, monitor English and native language acquisition and engage in culturally and linguistically responsive approaches. Notably, children and families’ linguistic capabilities include different and valid ways of communicating within or across languages, such as their use of multiple dialects or code-switching.

Data on the home languages and dialects of children and staff within programs—and on families in surrounding communities—can help pre-K leaders better identify and offer needed language accessibility, appropriate curricula, workforce supports, and family engagement strategies (such as two-generation approaches for helping families of children learn English while maintaining their home language).

a preschool teacher teaches her class

Pre-K workforce members

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Pre-K leaders can use data to clarify and address disparities within pre-K workforce members’ experiences that can undermine their well-being and capacity to support children and families. The Pre-K Data Equity Framework will support the collection of data on workforce characteristics, compensation, educator training, and related policies and practices to help us better understand inequities affecting the workforce.

Given the importance of understanding the identities (and identity-related experiences) of children and families served in pre-K, it is also important to recognize that pre-K workforce members can also hold these same identities and experience similar inequities. In 2012, estimates of the national early care and education center- and home-based workforce were, respectively, 17 percent and 14 percent non-Hispanic Black, 14 percent and 15 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent and 17 percent non-U.S. born workforce members. Pre-K workforce members—as with the children and families they serve—face inequities in their jobs and lives based on race/ethnicity, income level, immigration status, and language. For example, Black pre-K educators are paid, on average, $1.71 less per hour than their White peers. Insufficient wages are associated with the economic insecurity of the early educator workforce, with 43 percent of pre-K and kindergarten teachers turning to public programs for food and income support to meet basic needs.

Although staff from immigrant backgrounds expand the racial and linguistic diversity of the early care and education workforce, help fulfill the cultural and linguistic matches that many families seek, and benefit children’s learning, they are much less likely to be represented in pre-K teacher and program director roles than their U.S.-born peers.

Data systems that track information around workforce characteristics, compensation, educator training, and related policies and practices can help us understand inequities affecting the workforce that impact their ability to provide stable and supportive learning environments for pre-K children.

Focusing on intersectionality is central to improving equity

Data can support pre-K leaders in understanding the amplifying effect that intersectionality can have on inequities, as well as the value that children and families with intersectional identities bring to pre-K programs and communities.

Children, families, and pre-K workforce members have multiple identities and lived experiences that intersect in ways that are often supportive of children’s learning. These intersections can help children build cultural traditions, rich language development, and resilience in the face of challenges. Yet intersecting marginalized identities, such as racial and ethnic identity and income, are often associated with structural and historical inequalities that “operate together and exacerbate each other.” For example, Black (26.5%), Hispanic (20.9%), and Indigenous (20.6%) children experience the highest rates of poverty and their families are more likely to experience poverty over the course of their lifetimes and intergenerationally. Black and Hispanic families have greater likelihoods of co-occurring hardships like loss of income and greater health challenges. Research has shown that, even with overall declines in exclusionary discipline practices, Black children with disabilities are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than White and Hispanic children and children without disabilities. Without examining the intersection between race and disability status, researchers may not have discovered this alarming trend. Data are critical to understand the amplifying effect that intersectionality can have on inequities, as well as the tremendous value that children and families with multiple identities and lived experiences bring to pre-K programs and communities.


While pre-K programs collect a multitude of data, what data are collected and how they are collected may vary greatly. Therefore, as a field, we cannot fully understand the diverse needs and unique strengths of children, families, and the workforce—and cultivate the necessary conditions for them to thrive—without reliable data to drive progress toward a more equitable pre-K system. The Pre-K Data Equity Framework will be designed to explicitly focus on equity by identifying essential questions and corresponding data that pre-K leaders can use to better understand and counteract institutional policies and systemic barriers that produce disparities—not just individual outcomes. Pre-K leaders will be able to use the Framework to understand the key data needed to answer questions about understanding and addressing inequities; advancing the pre-K system as a whole; and, ultimately, improving how all children, families, and workforce members experience the pre-K system. Comprehensive data about the programmatic aspects of pre-K—administration, supply, outreach, eligibility and enrollment, utilization, experiences, and transition to kindergarten—can be used to improve policies and practices that provide equitable opportunities for and ensure equitable treatment of focal populations. Policies and practices that advance equity include:

  • Increasing enrollment in high-quality care among populations that have been marginalized (e.g., implement strategies to increase outreach, access, and enrollment and to promote quality improvements in classrooms and programs)
  • Promoting positive and enriching pre-K experiences (e.g., eliminate bias in classroom interactions and disciplinary actions)
  • Developing affirming policies and practices (e.g., adopt culturally inclusive policies, provide professional development to support implementation of policies, and hire multilingual staff and use multilingual materials)

Data play an important role in building systems that promote positive life experiences and trajectories for children, families, and workforce members who are Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Indigenous; those experiencing poverty; those with disabilities or developmental delays; those who are immigrants; and those who are multilingual learners. Ultimately, the Framework will highlight how pre-K leaders can use data to ensure and strengthen equitable access, experiences, and outcomes within the pre-K system.

To read more about the project, our timeline, and how to contact our team, please visit our project page.


Thank you to our colleagues who supported the development and review of this product, including Alison Sapp, Gabriella Guerra, Silvana Esposito-Hackett, Van-Kim Lin, Elizabeth Jordan, Dale Richards, and Carlise King, as well as consortium members and our Child Trends communications team.


Below, we offer definitions to facilitate understanding of our approach to equity and who is included within each focal population. In defining focal populations, we acknowledge that members of each population may identify themselves differently from person to person and from group to group. When discussing findings of specific research, we use the specific term used within the research, which may differ from the term we use for the respective focal population.


Equity is both a process and an outcome.[a] As an outcome, we define equity as the condition achieved when personal characteristics outside individuals’ control (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability status, religion, age, class, etc.) no longer predict, in a statistical sense, how they fare. As a process, equity is applied when those most impacted by structural inequity are meaningfully involved in the assessment, creation, and implementation of the institutional policies and practices that impact their lives. This includes taking an intentional approach to achieving equity by partnering with the people most impacted by inequity to document disparities, identify underlying structural causes of disparities, and propose informed solutions.

People living in poverty

For this work, we define children and families living in poverty as those who have family incomes below a given threshold of what is minimally required to meet their basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and utilities.

Two of the most accepted measures to assess poverty thresholds for the United States are the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) and the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). Each measure has different assumptions built in about what counts as a resource, as well as the minimum thresholds of resources needed to cover basic needs. States, localities, and Tribal communities may use different poverty thresholds for pre-K eligibility requirements.[b]

Black people

When referencing Black people, we refer to “individuals who may identify as African American —those who were primarily born in the United States and are descended from enslaved Africans who survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade—as well as the smaller but increasing populations of people living in the United States who may identify as Black African or Afro-Caribbean. Black also includes individuals who reported being Black alone or in combination with one or more races or ethnicities in their responses to the U.S. Census—for instance, an individual who identifies as Black only, as well as someone who identifies as Black and White combined or Afro-Latino.”

Hispanic/Latino people

For this work, when referencing Hispanic and Latino people (also referred to among some groups as LatinX/Latiné)—and acknowledging that these terms are often used interchangeably—we are referring to individuals who identify themselves as having origins in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, or “another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.”

Hispanic origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person—or the person’s parents or ancestors—before arriving in the United States. People who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.


We define Indigenous Peoples as inclusive of populations that existed prior to colonization and invasion and that underwent colonization and dispossession of their lands. Indigenous Peoples are distinct from these colonizing societies culturally, linguistically, ethnically, and racially. Indigenous Peoples with connection to the lands now called the United States (and U.S. territories) are often referred to as Native American, although each People has a name they call themselves. While these Indigenous Peoples have inherent sovereignty, the U.S. federal and state governments do not legally recognize the sovereignty of all Indigenous Peoples with connections to lands within U.S. and territorial borders, instead referring to lists of federal and state recognized Tribes, whose names may include various terms such as Nation, Community, Village, Tribe, and Band (Federally Recognized Tribes List Act of 1994, Pub. L. 103-454, 25 U.S.C. § 479a (1994)). The term Native American Tribal Nations is used to reference the 574 (as of this writing) sovereign Tribal Nations who are considered “federally-recognized” tribes; however, we acknowledge the inherent sovereignty of all Indigenous communities regardless of their “federal recognition.” American Indian (AI) is an umbrella term often used to refer to Indigenous Peoples in the 48 states within the contiguous United States. Alaska Native (AN) is an umbrella term often used to refer to Indigenous Peoples in Alaska. Within each of the geographic areas associated with these umbrella terms, there are over 200 unique, sovereign Tribal Nations. An umbrella term often used to refer to Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. Pacific Islands is Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI), which includes Indigenous Peoples in Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Island territories of Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In addition to U.S.-based Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous people from other countries have also immigrated to the United States. We use the term Indigenous paired with Peoples, Tribe(s), or Nation(s) to refer to populations with inherent sovereignty, whereas Indigenous paired with people or community(ies) is used to refer to the individuals or collections of individuals within those populations.[c]

Children with disabilities and their families

We use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of a disability as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).”

For purposes of this work, we are referring to children who have an Individualized Education Plan focusing on the educational needs of the child, or an Individualized Family Service Plan focusing on the supports needed by the family to strengthen their child’s development, or those who have been identified and/or referred for special education services.


“Foreign born” and “immigrant” are used interchangeably and refer to persons with no U.S. citizenship at birth. This population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, persons on certain temporary visas, and persons residing in the United States without legal documentation.

For purposes of this work, our definition includes children who are immigrants as well as children living in immigrant families. The term “children of immigrants” (or children in immigrant families) refers to children under age 18 with at least one immigrant parent.


Multilingual learners refer to children who have developed or are developing proficiency in English and in one or more other languages, which may be their home language(s). They may be mostly dominant in one language or proficient in multiple. Many are on a continuum between dominance in one language and full proficiency in two or more. The term is intended to capture students who are dual language learners or English learners.

[a] Gross, E. (2019, Sep 16). Equitable Research Reporting [Webinar]. In Professional Development and Child Care and Early Childhood Education Policy and Research Analysis Workforce Workgroup Series. Adapted from Racial Equity Tools’ racial equity definition

[b] D. Thomson, personal communication, March 10, 2022.

[c] H. Jean Gordon, & D. Around Him, personal communication, March 10, 2022.

Suggested Citation

Thompson, J., Bredeson, M., & Boddicker-Young, P. (2022). Pre-K data on children, families, and workforce members from focal populations can help decision makers create more equitable systems. Child Trends.

Credit for image accompanying Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Indigenous families: Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages


[1] “Pre-K leaders” encompasses individuals who are in positions that are responsible for making decisions about how a pre-K program is funded, administered, or operated. This category includes, but is not limited to, pre-K administrators, curriculum specialists, program directors, and workforce specialists.

[2] Adapted from definitions developed by the BUILD Initiative and Julia Coffman’s Framework for Evaluating Systems Initiatives.

[3] The Framework is designed for publicly funded pre-K programs that serve 3- and 4-year-old children to support the development of language, literacy, math, and social skills prior to school entry. This includes state-funded, locally funded, and tribal pre-K and Head Start programs. We acknowledge that many children attend private pre-K programs; while these programs are not the primary focus, the Framework components are applicable for use in these settings as well.

[4] Workforce members refers to qualified or licensed teachers, educators, assistants, or others who are paid and work directly with children and are responsible for their learning and caregiving within center-, school-, or home-based settings; this definition is adapted from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment and the International Standard Classification of Education.

[5] Intersectionality acknowledges how forms of inequality across various identities—such as race, class, and gender—are not mutually exclusive but are often interactive and cumulative.

[6] Please see our Definitions resource for key terms and focal populations; where applicable, terms used reflect what is used in the cited research (e.g., when referencing a specific group within the broader focal population), which may differ from our definitions.