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In applying the tenets of NAEYC’s Code of Ethical Conduct to their own work, early childhood educators are expected to respect the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual; respect the diversity in children, families, and colleagues; and recognize that children are best understood and supported in the context of family, culture, community, and society. Head Start and Early Head Start, like the Child Care and Development Block Grant, incorporate these core values, and act to build on the strengths of low-income children, families, and communities while providing supports and services to help them thrive.
- What is Head Start?
- How does Head Start work?
- How does Head Start support families and children?
- How does Head Start support early childhood educators?
- How can you support Head Start?
- Highlighted Partner Resources
Early Head Start and Head Start promote the school readiness of young children birth to five in local communities by providing a comprehensive approach that focuses on four major components:
- Education: Providing learning experiences to help children grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally.
- Health: Providing health services and supports such as immunizations, dental, medical, and mental health, and nutritional services, developmental screenings and early identification of health problems.
- Parent Involvement: Involving parents in the planning and implementation of activities through policy councils and committees that make administrative decisions. Parents also participate in classes and workshops on child development; and volunteer in the program.
- Social Services: Provide supports to families to address job training, housing and other needs expressed by families.
The Head Start program, which focuses on children ages 3-5, has a proud history, having originated in 1965 as part of a sweeping effort to combat poverty in America. Early Head Start, with its focus on infants, toddlers, and pregnant women, was established in 1998 to better reflect the increasing consensus around the importance of the earliest years in a child’s life.
The cornerstone of Head Start’s high quality programming is the set of Program Performance Standards, which were overhauled in 2016 for the first time since their creation in 1975. The Performance Standards, which every Head Start and Early Head Start program must use to establish required teaching practices, learning environments, curricula, assessments, and professional development, are designed to work seamlessly with the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework, which describe what young children should know and be able to do across developmental domains.
Read NAEYC’s recommendations, submitted during the rulemaking process, to get our take on how the Administration could strengthen and improve the standards—which they did!
The Head Start Act is a federal law, which was last reauthorized in 2007. The Office of Head Start, in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees the program, awarding grants to local public and private non-profit agencies in every U.S. state and territory, in migrant worker camps, and in tribal communities to implement the program in accordance with the Performance Standards. Although all grantees must meet certain requirements, they each have the flexibility to choose different programs models depending on the needs and resources of the community; for example, they may choose to be center-based or home-based, and they may choose to be part-day or full-day, as long as they are reaching a set (and increasing) number of hours over the course of the full year.
In addition to providing core services and supports, including compensation for educators,some federal funding is set aside for training and technical assistance; for research, evaluation, and demonstrations of innovative program models; and for required monitoring activities. Programs are monitored regularly and receive their grants for intervals of five years; those that do not meet a certain set of conditions are subject to having their grants opened up to a competition in their area, as part of a process called the Designation Renewal System (DRS). (Read about the National Head Start Association’s take on DRS here).
Head Start also operates as part of a broader early childhood landscape; the Head Start Collaboration Offices, for example, are located at the state level, and facilitate partnerships between Head Start agencies and other state entities that provide services to benefit low-income children and their families. Early Head Start - Child Care Partnerships provide another example of how early childhood programs can work together to provide the best possible services for expanded numbers of children and families.
Head Start helps families whose income falls below the federal poverty line access high-quality early childhood education. Local programs may serve up to 10 percent of the children with family incomes over the poverty line, and an additional 35 percent of children from families whose incomes are between 100 and 130 percent of the federal poverty level, as long as certain conditions are met. Programs must use ten percent of the spaces for children with disabilities.
As a two-generation model providing comprehensive services, Head Start confers benefits on participating children and families immediately, by providing crucial early learning opportunities to some of our nation’s most vulnerable young children and by supporting and empowering their families towards being involved leaders who are connected to each other and the services they need. Many of these initial benefits then extend throughout children’s educational journeys and into adulthood. The impacts of Head Start, as demonstrated through exhaustive research studies, which also show the importance of high-quality education throughout the K-12 journey to sustain acquired gains, include both learning and health outcomes that demonstrate improved lives among children and families.
Head Start shares our commitment to having a diverse, effective early childhood education profession, and, like NAEYC, has been a national leader in advancing this profession—from the Child Development Associate, initially developed for Head Start itself, to the most recent reauthorization, which established a requirement that half of all Head Start teachers hold bachelor’s degrees with training in early childhood education. In 2017, Head Start has met and exceeded this requirement; upwards of 70% of Head Start teachers nationally now possess a BA degree—the result of intensive support, investment, and access to professional development. In addition, all early childhood educators, whether based in a Head Start setting or not, have access to many of the materials, training, and technical assistance developed by national centers such as the one on Early Childhood Development, Teaching, and Learning.
Despite its growth and success, Head Start remains underfunded, reaching approximately 50 percent of eligible young children, while Early Head Start reaches fewer than 5 percent. In addition, the program has been the subject of mixed research outcomes, leading some to call into question its impacts, even as the program engages in a process of continuous quality improvement to address identified shortcomings and benefits from studies that demonstrate its success in breaking long-term cycles of generational poverty. As a supporter of Head Start and its model, we urge you to:
- Help Head Start alumni, current parents, and educators tell their stories about how #HeadStartWorks!
- Sign up for NAEYC’s America for Early Ed and Children’s Champions email alerts and updates so you can help children, families, and educators succeed!
- Partner with Head Start in your community: encourage your school district to work with Head Start grantees in your area as part of their ESSA plan; engage with Early Head Start - Child Care Partnerships; and find ways that align with your role and talents so that you can be an active collaborator and supporter.
- Call your federal and state elected officials and tell them you support increased investment in Head Start, as well as policies that ensure funding is directed towards local communities who can best meet the needs of their children and families—and you want them to support those investments and policies as well.
- Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (ECLKC), Administration for Children and Families
- National Head Start Association
- The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners? Lessons from Head Start’s Last Decade, Bellwether Education Partners
- The Long Term Impact of the Head Start Program, Brookings Institution
- Disparate Access: Head Start and CCDBG Data by Race and Ethnicity, CLASP