Culture of Continuous Learning Project | Theory of Change

Publication Date: February 6, 2020
Cover of "The Culture of Continuous Learning Project: A Breakthrough Series Collaborative for Improving Child Care and Head Start Quality" Theory of Change brief.

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Making and sustaining improvements in practice in early care and education (ECE) programs is challenging. Policymakers and practitioners are seeking new strategies to support improvement that can be tailored for and tested in the unique context of ECE settings. The Culture of Continuous Learning (CCL) Project addresses this critical need in the field by testing the feasibility of using a structured method called the Breakthrough Series Collaborative (BSC) for promoting continuous quality improvement focused on children’s social and emotional learning (SEL) in child care and Head Start programs.

The BSC helps teams within ECE programs develop the organizational capacity to test and implement improvements in SEL practices. It uses a collaborative approach to connect teams across ECE programs. Participation takes between 12 and 18 months. The BSC methodology (Institute for Health Care Improvement, 2003) was developed in the health care field and has been used successfully in other industries but is not yet extensively used in ECE settings.

The BSC differs from typical approaches to quality improvement in ECE by addressing organizational culture and putting in place processes that promote and sustain practice change.


The purpose of this Issue Brief is to describe the theory of change for the BSC-SEL implemented in the CCL Project. The theory of change explains how and why the BSC is expected to support improvements in SEL practices and in the organizational factors that facilitate sustained changes. It shows the linkages between BSC-SEL activities and outcomes.

The theory of change for the BSC-SEL provides a foundation for the design of the Feasibility Study for the CCL Project. The research questions and measurement approaches for the study were developed to capture the outputs, mechanisms, and outcomes of the BSC-SEL.

The theory of change can spark dialogue among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners about the BSC-SEL and how it compares to other quality improvement approaches.

Key Findings and Highlights

The BSC-SEL produces outputs that establish new structures for collaborative learning (for example, team meetings) and work routines for teams in ECE settings that enable participants to begin developing and testing changes in their practices.

The outputs activate a set of mechanisms that change the organizational culture and climate in ECE programs.

The mechanisms include shifts in relational dynamics within and across programs:

  • Participants develop psychological safety that supports them in voicing a new or different idea and learning from failures as well as successes.
  • Participants experience an increase in self-efficacy that empowers them to generate ideas and test changes in practice.
  • Power dynamics among participants shift, so that frontline staff’s and parents’ expertise are as respected and valued as the perspective of administrators.
  • Across ECE programs, participants are exposed to new ideas they may not have considered, as well as opportunities to learn from the successes and failures of other organizations.

The mechanisms also include an inquiry mindset in which participants approach their problems of practice with curiosity and a desire to test possible solutions and strategies to learn what works and what may not work.

Articulating the mechanisms in the theory of change promotes an understanding of how the BSC-SEL differs from other quality improvement methods in supporting and sustaining changes in practice.


Douglass, A., Halle, T. & Tout, K. (2019). The Culture of Continuous Learning Project Theory of Change. OPRE Report #2019-100, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Breakthrough Series Collaborative
Culture of Continuous Learning
Early care and education
Social and emotional learning
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