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 3–5 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: http://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 http://www.nhsa.org/press/index_news_061103_release.htm (accessed December 15, 2004).

Aliene S. Linwood, RN, DPA, FACHE

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