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California Infant/Toddler Learning and Development Foundations.

The California Infant/Toddler Learning and Development Foundations represents part of the California Department of Education’s (CDE’s) comprehensive effort to strengthen young children’s learning and development through high-quality early care and education. The foundations describe competencies infants and toddlers typically attain during the birth-to-three-year period. In order to make developmental progress, young children need appropriate nurturing. Both supportive home environments and high-quality early care and education programs can facilitate children’s attainment of the competencies specified in the foundations by providing safe environments and an emotionally secure base for active, playful exploration and experimentation.

During the infant/toddler years, all children depend on responsive, secure relationships to develop and learn. As stated in the CDE’s Infant/Toddler Learning and Development Program Guidelines (2007), high-quality programs offer infants and toddlers primary relationships in small groups. Such programs provide personalized care that reflects consideration for individual differences among children. Programs also develop partnerships with children’s families to connect children’s experiences at home with their experiences in the infant/toddler program. These partnerships with families are the cornerstone of culturally sensitive care. Connections with children’s early cultural and linguistic experiences are critically important for their social-emotional well-being, the development of their identity, and learning. In addition, children may have a special need that requires particular accommodations and adaptations. To serve all children, infant/toddler programs must work to provide appropriate conditions for each child and individually assist each child’s movement along a pathway of healthy learning and development.

Over 20 states have either developed infant/toddler standards documents or are in the process of doing so. Many of them have sought to align infant/toddler standards with preschool learning standards. Because both infant/toddler and preschool foundations in California cover a broad range of learning and development domains, the term foundations is used rather than standards. This term was selected to convey that learning across all developmental domains builds young children’s readiness for school. In essence, the foundations pertain to young children’s current and long-term developmental progress. This focus is consonant with the position of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE) on early learning standards. As the position statement sets forth, “Early childhood is a distinct period of life that has value in itself as well as creating the foundations for later years” (NAEYC and NAECS/SDE position statement 2002, 3).

In California, priority has been placed on aligning the infant/toddler learning and development foundations with the preschool learning foundations in four major domains:

The domains represent crucial areas of early learning and development that contribute to young children’s readiness for school (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000; NAEYC and NAESC/SDE 2002). The foundations present key concepts in each domain and provide an overview of development in that domain. Young children can be considered from the perspective of one domain, such as social-emotional development or language development. Yet, when taking an in-depth look at a single domain, one needs to keep in mind that learning, for young children, is usually an integrated experience. For example, an infant may make a cognitive discovery about cause-and-effect while making the connection that a cry leads to a comforting response from an adult.

The foundations developed for each of these domains are based on research and evidence from practice. Suggestions of expert practitioners and examples illustrate the foundations. The purpose is to promote understanding of early learning and development and guide efforts to support the development and well-being of infants and toddlers.

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Overview of the Foundations

The foundations for each of the four domains are listed in this section.

Social-Emotional Development Domain

The social-emotional development domain covers the following foundations:

The many competencies covered by the social-emotional development foundations underscore the prominence of this domain during the first three years of life. The emotional security that infants seek to develop with others and their ability to interact effectively with both adults and other children support their learning and development in all domains.

Language Development Domain

The language development foundations cover the following competencies:

Many early childhood experts consider language development to be one of the greatest accomplishments in the first three years of life. There are many specific milestones and dimensions of language development, such as phonology and syntax. As to practice, the four foundations provide a level of detail that is accessible to families and infant care teachers seeking to enhance children’s early language development and communication.

Cognitive Development Domain

The following foundations make up the cognitive development domain:

As the above list suggests, the foundations for the cognitive development domain cover a broad range of knowledge and skills. For infants and toddlers, these various competencies are interwoven and develop together. As children move out of the birth-to-three period, some of the cognitive competencies become differentiated and can be aligned with traditional preschool content domains such as mathematics and science. In effect, infants’ and toddlers’ playful exploration and experimentation in the cognitive domain represent an early manifestation of mathematical and scientific reasoning and problem solving.

Perceptual and Motor Development Domain

Infants’ and toddlers’ perceptual and motor competencies are receiving increasing attention in research and practice. The perceptual and motor development foundations are defined as follows:

Infant/toddler programs can foster children’s perceptual and motor learning and development through environments that offer safe and appropriate physical challenges.

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Organization of the Foundations

The publication begins with a chapter that focuses on the first four months of life. Separate foundations in each domain were not written for the first four months because every aspect of early development relates to all domains simultaneously. Although development during the first four months is undifferentiated, it has a profound influence on subsequent development in every domain. The chapter on the early months highlights the inborn behaviors that enable children to orient toward adults and begin to communicate needs. At the same time, the chapter describes how, right from the beginning of life, children are “active participants in their own development, reflecting the intrinsic human drive to explore and master one’s environment” (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000, 1).

For each of the 28 foundations, a description is specified at three points of development: at around eight months of age, at around 18 months of age, and at around 36 months of age. In addition, behaviors are listed that lead to the level of competency described for each of those three age levels. The behaviors leading up to an age level reflect the ongoing change that occurs during each age period. At around eight months of age, 18 months of age, and 36 months of age, children move to a different way of functioning and have different developmental needs. For most foundations, the change from one age level (from eight months to 18 months or from 18 months old to 36 months) is quite pronounced. The foundations are designed to give a general sense of development at these three points along the developmental continuum. The subtleties of individual children’s developmental progress at any given time are presented in the CDE’s Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) (2005). This teacher observation tool for infants and toddlers shows five or six developmental levels spanning the birth-to-three age range for outcomes that will be aligned to the foundations. When alignment of the DRDP to the infant/toddler foundations is complete, the DRDP will provide additional detail about the developmental progression of a foundation.

For each foundation at each of the three age levels, broad information on infant development summarizes children’s competencies. Together, the three descriptions define the developmental progression of a foundation. Underneath each description are examples of possible ways that children may demonstrate a foundation in a particular age range. The diversity of examples gives a sense of the variation among infants and toddlers. A foundation for a particular child should be considered on the basis of how the child functions in different contexts—at home, in child care, and in the community. An individual child may not function like any of the examples listed under a foundation, yet she may already be able to demonstrate the level of competency described by that foundation. The examples suggest the varieties of contexts in which children may show competencies reflected in the foundations. Infant care teachers often think of alternative examples when they reflect on how a particular foundation applies to the young children in their care.

Guiding Principles

Several guiding principles influenced the creation of the infant/toddler learning and development foundations. These principles stem from both developmental theory and research and from best practice in the infant/toddler care field.

  1. The family and its culture and language play a central role in early learning and development.
  2. Infancy is a unique stage of life that is important in its own right. Development in infancy can be described by three age periods—birth to eight months, eight months to 18 months, and 18 months to 36 months. Each age period is distinct, although there is often overlap from one to the next.
  3. Infants and toddlers are competent yet vulnerable at every stage of development. Nurturing relationships provide the foundation for emotional security and optimal learning and development.
  4. Emotions drive early learning. Infants and toddlers are active, curious learners who are internally driven to interact with social and physical environments. Infants and toddlers learn in a holistic way rather than one domain at a time.
  5. Early development includes both quantitative and qualitative change. With quantitative shifts, the infant extends or adds competencies to similar existing competencies. With qualitative shifts, the infant combines new knowledge and abilities with existing knowledge and abilities to function in a different and more complex way.
  6. Early development reflects an interplay of differentiation and integration. For example, young infants typically use their mouths to explore all objects to learn about them (less differentiated behavior), whereas older children mainly use their mouth to taste or explore different kinds of food (more differentiated behavior). An example of integration is that older children may be able to engage in several behaviors such as talking, walking, and carrying an object simultaneously (more integrated behavior), whereas younger children may need to focus all of their energies on doing one behavior at a time (less integrated behavior).

Those principles apply to the foundations, curriculum planning, and assessment practices aligned to the foundations.

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Universal Design for Learning

These foundations support infant/toddler programs in the effort to foster the learning and development of all young children in California, including children with disabilities or other special needs. In some cases, infants and toddlers with disabilities or other special needs will reveal their developmental progress in alternative ways. It is important to provide opportunities for children to follow different pathways to learning. Therefore, the infant/toddler learning and development foundations incorporate a concept known as universal design for learning.

Developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), universal design for learning is based on the realization that children learn in different ways. In today’s diverse infant/toddler programs, making the environment, play materials, activities, and experiences accessible to all children is critical to successful learning. Universal design is not a single approach that will accommodate everyone; rather, it refers to providing multiple approaches to learning in order to meet the needs of diverse learners. Universal design provides for multiple means of representation, multiple means of engagement, and multiple means of expression (CAST 2007). “Multiple means of representation” refers to providing information in a variety of ways so the learning needs of all children are met. “Multiple means of expression” refers to allowing children to use alternative ways to communicate or demonstrate what they know or what they are feeling. “Multiple means of engagement” refers to providing choices within the setting or program that facilitate learning by building on children’s interests.

The examples in the infant/toddler learning and development foundations have been worded to portray multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. A variety of examples are provided for each foundation, and inclusive words are used to describe children’s behavior. For example, rather than stating “The child looks at an object” or “The child listens to a person,” the more inclusive wording of “A child attends to an object” or “The child attends to a person” is used.

When reading each foundation, an infant care teacher needs to consider the means by which a child with a disability or other special need might best acquire information and act competently. To best meet a child’s needs, a parent and an early intervention specialist or related service provider are vitally important resources.

The Foundations and Infant/Toddler Care and Education in California

The CDE’s learning and development foundations are at the center of California’s infant/toddler learning and development system. The foundations describe how children develop and what they learn and are designed to illuminate the competencies that infants and toddlers need for later success. Together the components of the infant/toddler learning and development system provide information and resources to help early childhood professionals support infants, toddlers, and their families.

As a unifying element of California’s infant/toddler learning and development system, the foundations offer a common language for infant/toddler program directors, teachers, and families to reflect on children’s developmental progress and plan experiences that support children’s learning and development during the first three years of life.

Professional development is another key component in fostering infant/toddler learning and development. Professionals now have opportunities to become informed: through the infant/toddler learning and development foundations, the CDE’s Infant/Toddler Learning and Development Program Guidelines, the CDE’s Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP), and the Program for Infant/Toddler Care (the comprehensive approach to training collaboratively developed by the CDE and WestEd). The foundations can become a unifying element for both preservice and in-service professional development efforts. For infant/toddler programs, directors and teachers can use the foundations as a basis to reflect on children’s developmental progress and to plan experiences that support children’s learning and development from birth to three years. The foundations are designed to provide infant care teachers with knowledge of the competencies necessary during the first three years of a child’s life and later on in preschool and school.


California Department of Education (CDE). 2007. Infant/Toddler Learning and Development Program Guidelines. Sacramento: CDE Press.

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). 2007. Universal Design for Learning External link opens in new window or tab.. (accessed June 8, 2007).

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE). 2002. Early Learning Standards: Creating the Conditions for Success. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. 2000. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. Edited by J. Shonkoff and D. Phillips. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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