Head Start Programs

views updated May 18 2018

Head Start programs


Head Start is a federally funded preschool program that provides comprehensives services to both low-income children and their families.


Head Start is a federal program for preschool children three to five years of age in low-income families. Its aim is to prepare children for success in school through an early learning program. The Head Start program is managed by local nonprofit organizations in almost every county in the country. Children who attend Head Start engage in various education activities. They also receive free medical and dental care, have healthy meals and snacks, and enjoy playing indoors and outdoors in a safe setting.

Head Start helps all children succeed, even those with disabilities. Services are also available to infants and toddlers in selected sites.

Head Start began in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty program launched by president Lyndon B. Johnson. Nearly half the nation's poor people were children under age 12, and Head Start was developed to respond as early as possible to the needs of poor children. A few privately funded preschool programs for poor children in inner cities and rural areas showed marked success in raising children's intellectual skills. Many low-income children also had unrecognized health problems and had not been immunized. Head Start was imagined as a comprehensive program that would provide health and nutritional services to poor children, while also developing their cognitive skills. The program aimed to involve parents as well. Many parents of children in the program were employed as teachers' aides so they would understand what their children were learning and help carry on that learning at home.

The program was political from its beginning. Head Start was launched with much fanfare by Lady Bird Johnson, Lyndon Johnson's wife. Measuring the program's success is not a simple matter, however. Head Start saves taxpayers' money, because children who attend Head Start are more likely to graduate high school and get a job than their peers who do not attend. While the savings long-term that result from this program cannot be estimated in dollar value, some sources have suggested that $6 are probably saved for every $1 invested in the Head Start program. Other studies merely suggest that Head Start graduates are more likely than their peers to stay in the proper grade level for their age in elementary school.

In the early 2000s, Head Start serves nearly 700,000 children across the nation. Most programs are half-day and include lunch. The curriculum is not the same in every program, but in most programs school readiness is stressed. Children may be taught the alphabet and numbers and to recognize colors and shapes. Health care is an important part of the program, and children in Head Start are surveyed to keep them up-to-date on their immunizations, and testing is also available for hearing and vision. Most centers are accredited by the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

What Head Start programs offer

Head Start provides children with work that helps them grow mentally, socially, emotionally, and physically. The staff in these programs recognizes parents as the first and most important teachers of their children. They welcome parental involvement in the programs and will work as partners to help both the parent and child progress.

The staff create an environment that offers the child love, acceptance, understanding, and the opportunity to learn and to experience success. Head Start children socialize with others, solve problems, and have other experiences that help them become self-confident. The children also improve their listening and speaking skills.

The children spend time in stimulating settings where they form good habits and enjoy playing with toys and working on tasks with classmates. Children leave Head Start programs more prepared for kindergarten, excited about learning, and ready to succeed.

Head Start routine

When the children arrive at the Head Start center, they are greeted by their teachers or student aides. They put whatever they have brought from home in a place that is their own to use every day. Classroom time includes many different tasks. Some teachers begin the day by asking the children to sit in a circle. This encourages the children to talk about an idea or experience they want to share with others. In some centers, the children plan their work. They choose among art, playing and blocks or table toys, science, dancing to music, looking at books, or pretend housekeeping. Children can switch tasks when they are ready for a change.

Each day, the children have time to work in small groups with other children and to play outdoors on safe playground equipment when weather allows. In bad weather indoor play is planned. At lunchtime children receive a nutritious meal and brush their teeth after eating. All children are taught to wash their hands before meals and are encouraged to develop good personal and health habits. If they come for an afternoon session, they receive a healthy snack.

Choice of programs

Several different choices are available to meet the varying needs of families:

  • Five days per week with half-day preschool classrooms offer various developmental correct educational actions.
  • Five days per week, extended-day classroom, are often the choice for working families.
  • The combination program option (CPO) strongly focuses on involving the parent, guardian, or primary care-giver in the child's education. Children are invited to take part in a developmentally correct education classroom experience two or three days per week. A home visitor meets with every family in their home to provide continuing support and resources at least twice a month.
  • Home-based programs provide families with one-hour home visits weekly, and children attend a classroom one day each week. In the home, parents and the visitor plan classwork together.

Family services

Head Start offers children other support services and a chance to be involved in programs designed to help the whole family. Some participating parents learn the English language; others learn to read. Head Start also offers support to parents interested in getting a high school General Equivalency Diploma (GED). If a family member has a special problem, such as drug or alcohol abuse, job loss, or other problem, the family can receive help through Head Start.

Head Start staffers refer families to medical, social welfare, or employment specialists they know in the community, and follow up to be sure the family receives help. Parents can become Head Start volunteers and learn more about child development. This experience may later qualify the volunteer for training that may lead to new employment in the childcare field. Parents also have a voice in the Head Start program by serving on various committees. Parents' experiences in Head Start have raised their own self-confidence and improved their ability to pursue a better life.

Support services for families take various forms. Family counseling advocates work with families to secure proper support to meet individual family needs. Referrals, crisis interventions, and short-term counseling provide families with the necessary tools to become self-sufficient. Health services employ at least one full-time nurse for children and other family members. Nurses screen children within 45 days of enrollment for vision and hearing problems, as well as check each child's height and weight. Nutrition and dental services provide students with breakfast and lunch daily. Children in an extended-day program also receive daily snacks. A registered dietitian provides individual nutrition counseling and nutrition workshops. Children learn about good eating habits through weekly nutrition education or cooking projects. A registered dental hygienist helps families find a dentist for their child if needed. Dental screenings are completed on each child within 45 days of enrollment, and hygienists work with children and families to achieve good oral hygiene . The program also includes a family liaison, a person who promotes parental participation in the children's education and in workshops on literacy, nutrition, budgeting, health, and other topics. Family orientations are scheduled regularly that give families an opportunity to share in an educational activity with their child. The program offers various educational programs for families such as English as a second language (ESL) and computer science. Disabilities staff serves children with special needs. Developmental screening and assessment are provided for the students. Some programs even offer limited bus transportation and interpreters as needed.

Common problems

School phobia and separation anxiety affects 35 percent of school-age children. The child with school phobia becomes anxious even at the thought of leaving home for school. Complaints of abdominal pain , nausea , vomiting , lack of appetite, and headache occur when it is time to go to school and resolve quickly once the child is allowed to remain home. Symptoms do not occur on weekends or holidays unless they are related to going other places, such as Sunday school. These children want to go to school and often earn good grades, but fear and anxiety prevent them from going.

School phobia in young children has been connected to separation anxiety. A child with separation anxiety is not afraid to go to school but is afraid to leave home. Sometimes children develop school phobia from bullying at school, an excessively critical teacher, and rejection by peers. Events such as marital conflict, moving to a new house, or the arrival of a new sibling can cause fear of going to school.

School phobia affects boys and girls equally. Almost all children with school phobias have average or above average intelligence . School phobia occurs most often at the start of school for children who are three to five years of age.

Most children who enroll in Head Start attend a half-day center-based program. This sometimes causes a problem for homebound or working parents who need to have another form of child care when the four-hour session ends. However, some communities may operate a full-day program or provide Head Start services at home. In a home-based program, a home visitor teaches parents how to provide learning experiences for their children.

Parents working or volunteering in Head Start programs must learn to work with children other than their own. Sometimes they have problems breaking the maternal attachment with their child if the child is attending the same class session. Teaching the child to be independent when their parents are present may not be difficult.

Staffing and funding Head Start programs is a common problem. Hiring qualified personnel in sufficient numbers may be a problem in schools with high enrollment. Staffing ratios and qualifications are established in federal guidelines and are checked by local boards or state department. The staffing needed may also vary with the age and mental health of the children.

Parental concerns

Parents are first concerned about finding a Head Start program in their service area. They can consult the Head Start directory (on the Head Start Bureau web site). Eligibility in Head Start is determined by the federally identified poverty line.

Parents need to communicate with teachers and stay informed about their child's progress. Visiting the classroom and attending parent-teacher conferences and school activities are important. Showing respect for the teacher and supporting the child's efforts helps the child learn.


Peer influence Peer approval or disapproval of the child's behavior or performance.

School phobia Childhood anxiety about leaving home to attend school.

Separation anxiety Childhood fear of leaving parents for any reason.



Lombardi, Joan, et al. Beacon of Hope: The Promise of Early Head Start for America's Youngest Children. Washington, DC: Zero to Three, 2004.

Vinovskis, Maris A. The Birth of Head Start: Preschool Education Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Zigler, Edward, et al. The Head Start Debates. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2004.


National Head Start Association. 1651 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314. Web site: <www.nsha.org>.


"Bush Administration Sued for Attack on 1st Amendment Rights of Head Start Instructors and Parents/Volunteers." National Head Start Association, January 11, 2003. Available online at <www.nhsa.org/press/index_news_061103_release.htm> (accessed December 15, 2004).

Aliene S. Linwood, RN, DPA, FACHE

Head Start

views updated May 09 2018

Head Start


Head Start began as an eight-week summer demonstration program in 1965, a small part of a larger antipoverty effort of the Lyndon B. Johnson (19081973) administration. The program was created to promote school readiness by enhancing the cognitive and social development of low-income children through provision, to such children and their families, of health, educational, nutritional, social, and other services that are determined, based on family needs assessment, to be necessary. Low-income children are those who come from families whose annual income falls below official poverty thresholds, although up to 10 percent of Head Start participants in local groups are allowed to come from families who do not meet the low-income criterion. Head Start is one of the few antipoverty measures that has enjoyed continued bipartisan political support in the U.S. Congress, and by 1975 what became known as the National Head Start Association was formally organized as an advocacy group for the program. Head Start operates full-day (six hours per day for four or five days per week year round) in about 50 percent of its local programs, with many service options. Although Head Start has served families with children three years of age and under in some programs since 1967, in 1995 the Early Head Start program awarded the first formal grants for birth-to-age-three services.

By the early 2000s Head Start had served about nineteen million children since its inception. In 1968 Head Start began funding a program that eventually was called Sesame Street, a Carnegie Corporation preschool television show. During its 2004 fiscal year Head Start enrolled nearly 906,000 children. Of these, 52 percent were four-year-olds, another 34 percent were three-year-olds, and another 9 percent were under three years of age; 31.2 percent were Hispanic, 31.1 percent were black, and 26.9 percent were white; and 12.7 percent had physical or mental disabilities. The average cost per child was $7,222, for a total cost of nearly $6.1 billion.

Although Head Start is a federal program, it is administered through the states and operated by local public and private for-profit and not-for-profit agencies. Hence, there is a great diversity of programs across the country and within states, thereby making difficult efforts to evaluate how well Head Start works in the nation as a whole. A national reporting system was created only in 2002, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued its first Head Start impact report in 2005. Data based on that reporting system indicate that Head Start children achieve a 38 percent gain in letter recognition and improved prewriting skills, but they still lag behind their more advanced peers at entry into kindergarten and such gains are likely to dissipate over time. One regional study reported in 2000 by Sherri Oden and others found that girls who attended Head Start in Florida in 1970 to 1971 were significantly more likely to graduate high school or earn a GED (95% versus 81%) and significantly less likely to be arrested at age twenty-two (5% versus 15%) than were girls in the nonHead Start comparison group.

Two studies by Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas relied on national-level data to examine the effects of Head Start participants. Their 1995 study showed that Head Start was associated with significant gains in test scores among both whites and African Americans, but that African Americans quickly lost those gains. Head Start also reduced the probability that whites would repeat a grade, but no such effect was found for African Americans. In their 2000 study, Currie and Thomas again reported that test scores faded out more quickly for black children than for white children, but they also showed that black children who attended Head Start were more likely to attend schools of worse quality than other black children. No such pattern was found for white children. These results suggested that the fade out effects for black Head Start children may be due to the inferior schools they attend.

A long-term study based on national-level survey data reported by Richard Caputo in 2003 indicated that Head Start children had the lowest income to poverty ratios between 1985 and 1998 (2.6 versus 3.3 for nonpreschoolers and 3.8 for other preschoolers). In regard to economic mobility between 1985 and 1998, both Head Starters and other preschoolers had statistically similar and greater upward mobility (0.67 and 0.51 deciles respectively) than did nonpreschoolers (0.16 deciles). These findings, however, should be interpreted cautiously given the lack of experimental controls. More rigorous studies with random assignment into experimental and control groups are necessary to provide more definitive knowledge about both the short-term and long-term effects of Head Start.

SEE ALSO Education, USA; Great Society, The


Bennett, W. Steven, and Jason T. Hustedt. 2005. Head Starts Lasting Benefits. Infants & Young Children 18 (1): 1624.

Caputo, Richard K. 2003. Head Start, Other Pre-school Programs, & Life Success in a Youth Cohort. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 30 (2): 105126.

Caputo, Richard K. 2004. The Impact of Intergenerational Head Start Participation on Success Measures among Adolescent Children. Journal of Economic and Family Issues 25 (2): 199223.

Currie, Janet, and Duncan Thomas. 1995. Does Head Start Make a Difference? American Economic Review 85 (3): 341364.

Currie, Janet, and Duncan Thomas. 2000. School Quality and the Longer-Term Effects of Head Start. Journal of Human Resources 35 (4): 755774.

Oden, Sherri, Lawrence J. Schweinhart, David P. Weikart, et al. 2000. Into Adulthood: A Study of the Effects of Head Start. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2004. Biennial Report to Congress: The Status of Children in Head Start Programs. Arlington, VA: National Head Start Training and Technical Assistance Resource Center.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2005. Head Start Impact Study: First Year Findings, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: Author. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/hs/impact_study/.

Zigler, Edward, and Susan Muenchow. 1992. Head Start: The Inside Story of Americas Most Successful Educational Experiment. New York: Basic Books.

Richard K. Caputo

Head Start

views updated May 18 2018


HEAD START, an antipoverty preschool program initiated in 1965 under the Economic Opportunity Act, was designed to serve the needs of children from low-income families. It was based on the philosophy that early intervention, coupled with compensatory education, would enable children from impoverished backgrounds to adjust to school and community. Originally a summer program, it expanded to full-year sessions comparable to a regular school year after educators and psychologists determined that the short program was not sufficient to obtain meaningful results. Most classes operate five days a week, with sessions of half and full days. In the 1970s the target population was broadened to include children with handicaps and children whose first language is not English. Established during the Democratic presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, Head Start has received bipartisan government support, and, in 1991, it received its largest allocation ever—nearly $2 billion—with passage of the Head Start Expansion and Quality Improvement Act to ensure availability of Head Start to every eligible four-year-old.

Supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Head Start offers a child development program to improve health, social and emotional adjustment, intellect, and self-esteem. Although a federal agency oversees Head Start, the program is administered through local organizations, mostly community action agencies, which submit proposals for funding. In 1995 grantees ran approximately 24,000 classes. Each program site must meet several requirements, including the provision of educational activities, health care, and meals and snacks as part of an over-all nutrition program. Classes resemble a nursery school, with activities modified to meet the needs of individuals and the group. Families receive instruction in areas such as nutrition and the use of community services and resources. Parents are encouraged to participate as members of advisory boards and as volunteers and staff members. A family-needs assessment and annual home visiting are mandated. Because the program concentrates on meeting the needs of each child, it necessitates a high adult-student ratio, the ideal being one adult (including volunteers) to every five children. As of 1994, every class was required to have at least one teacher with a child development associate degree (CDA) or other early childhood degree or credential. The CDA degree is one of many offshoots of Head Start, developed out of the program's need for an affordable body of well-trained caregivers. Some programs are attempting to recruit teachers with bachelor's degrees, but low salaries are a deterrent. Several states supplement federal allocations to narrow the gap between Head Start and public school salaries.

Head Start has produced mixed results. Difficulty in carrying out studies has led to an appraisal of specific program elements. During the program's early days, researchers found improvement in IQ scores, but follow-up studies in New York City public elementary schools revealed that six months after leaving Head Start, participants scored no higher on achievement tests than nonparticipants with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. A widely publicized 1969 study by the Westinghouse Learning Corporation concluded that full-year Head Start programs barely affected achievement and that summer programs yielded negative effects. Analysis of these data several years later, corrected for sample selection bias, found positive effects. Most analysts agree that Head Start produces immediate benefits for children—improved health, higher scores on academic tests, and increased self-esteem. Many parents receive training and become directly involved in their children's education. Long-term results are less dramatic and clear-cut. Data from a 1987 study of 3,500 Philadelphia Head Start children showed no lasting effect on achievement scores, but the children were more likely to attend school regularly in the age-appropriate grade. Studies confirm that Head Start graduates fare better than their counterparts on such measures as repeating a grade and placement in special education classes. Edward Zigler, a psychologist and proponent of Head Start, contends that, although the program can be viewed as highly successful, particularly if evaluations consider family changes, it cannot compensate for deficits attributable to a wide range of community problems. Despite its growth, Head Start serves fewer than half of all eligible students. In 2002 it served about 915,000 children.

Home Start is an evolving program that works with parents and children directly in their homes and provides a combination of home and center activity. Behind this approach is the premise that intervention with parents, the first and primary educators of children, can produce positive effects on their families. Home Start is considered particularly effective with children in rural areas where resources and transportation are scarce.

In 2002 President George W. Bush announced his intention to strengthen and improve Head Start and other early childhood development programs, but he failed to include funding for such improvements in his 2003 budget. Children's advocates argued that without increasing child-care funding and funding to other early childhood programs, no progress would be made.


Ellsworth, Jeanne, and Lynda J. Ames, eds. Critical Perspectives on Project Head Start: Revisioning the Hope and Challenge. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Lacy, Gary L. Head Start Social Services: How African American Mothers Use and Perceive It. New York: Garland, 1999.

Mills, Kay. Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start. New York: Dutton, 1998.

Peters, Barbara J. The Head Start Mother: Low-income Mothers' Empowerment Through Participation. New York: Garland, 1998.

Zigler, Edward, and Susan Muenchow. Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Myrna W.Merron/d. b.

See alsoChild Care ; Childhood ; Education ; Education, Cooperative ; Education, Experimental ; Family ; Maternal and Child Health Care ; Poverty ; War on Poverty .

Head Start

views updated May 21 2018

Head Start

Head Start is a U.S. federal program that provides education and social services to low-income three- to five-year-old children and their families. Head Start began as a summer program for about 500,000 children in 1965 and by the early twenty-first century served almost 1 million people annually in a mixture of school-year and full-year programs. Head Start's programming and politics reflects Lyndon Johnson's efforts to build the Great Society in the 1960s. Unlike other Great Society programs, a coalition emerged to ensure Head Start's survival and expansion.

Head Start developed out of two trends in particular. First, the emerging academic interest in "compensatory education for cultural deprivation" taught that government intervention early in children's lives could help children over-come what many expert-advocates considered inferior parenting by poor and minority families, especially women. Second, the New Left sought to build a movement focused on civil rights and community action that would enable oppressed communities to take over government and social service institutions.

Expert-advocates and civil rights activists fought over Head Start's treatment of the parents of children enrolled in the program. Expert-advocates tended to want to educate parents, while civil rights activists wanted to empower them, and Head Start centers around the country displayed elements of both sides' desires. After arguing since Head Start's inception in 1965, the two groups reached a compromise in 1970 that required Head Start centers to create Policy Councils with parent majorities.

Neither expert-advocates nor civil rights activists correctly predicted how parents would actually experience Head Start. Head Start helped create a stronger sense of community among poor parents, especially poor mothers. As a result, parents advocated for themselves and their children more with local institutions and became a crucial part of the Head Start coalition, lobbying politicians on its behalf. This political organizing began without central coordination and led to the creation of the National Head Start Association, which organizes parents and Head Start employees to lobby on Head Start issues.

Despite disagreements over parent involvement, expert-advocates, and civil rights activists united in distrust for public schools and in their desire to use Head Start to reform the public school system. Throughout its history, members of the Head Start community helped establish broader changes throughout public education, pushing expanded early childhood education, comprehensive services and parent involvement.

This tense but effective coalition of expert-advocates, civil rights activists, and parents helped Head Start survive an era marked by academic and political challenges to many Great Society programs, including some studies that questioned its effectiveness and a brief attempt by the Nixon administration to eliminate it. By the late 1970s and 1980s, the coalition was aided by emerging research demonstrating the lasting benefits of Head Start in children it served. Research found that children enrolled in Head Start were less likely than their peers to be referred to special education or required to repeat a grade throughout their public school experience. Later studies found that children enrolled in Head Start were less likely than their peers to become pregnant as teenagers or become involved with the criminal justice system. Opponents could no longer argue that Head Start provided no benefit to children. The coalition continues to play a crucial role in its expansion and contemporary policy questions, such as how to increase academic standards in the program, whether to move it from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education, and what are the appropriate means of assessing the program's effectiveness.

See also: Education, United States.


Ames, Lynda J., and Jeanne Ellsworth. 1997. Women Reformed, Women Empowered: Poor Mothers and the Endangered Promise of Head Start. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Zigler, Edward, and Karen Anderson, eds. 1979. Project Head Start: A Legacy of the War on Poverty. New York: Free Press.

Zigler, Edward, and Susan Muenchow. 1992. Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment. New York: Basic Books.

Josh Kagan

Head Start

views updated May 29 2018


Head Start was launched in 1965 as part of the Lyndon Johnson administration's "war on poverty," with the goal of bridging the school-readiness gap that exists between disadvantaged and more privileged pre-school children. The program calls for extensive involvement of parents, and it attempts to provide the children with better preschool skills. Since its inception, Head Start has been extensively researched, and studies have shown mixed results. The immediate positive effects on children's school performance declined in subsequent years. But Head Start "graduates" are more likely to complete high school and less likely to repeat a grade or be placed in special education classes. Their families are also more likely to benefit from measures such as mental health services, nutrition education, and social services for the child and family.



Conger, John J. "Hostages to Fortune: Youth, Values and the Public Interest." American Psychologist 43 (1988):291-300.

Lee, V. E., Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, E. Schnur, and F. Liaw. "AreHead Start Effects Sustained? A Longitudinal Follow-Up Comparison of Disadvantaged Children Attending Head Start, No Preschool, and Other Preschool Programs."Child Development 61 (1990):495-507.

Zigler, Edward F., and Sally J. Styfco. "Head Start: Criticisms in aConstructive Context."American Psychologist 49 (1994):127-132.Zigler, Edward F., and Jeanette Valentine, eds. Project Head Start:A Legacy of the War on Poverty. New York: Free Press, 1979.