Early Head Start for Low-Income Families with Infants and Toddlers. (Reports from the Field)

By Fenichel, Emily; Mann, Tammy L. | The Future of Children, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Early Head Start for Low-Income Families with Infants and Toddlers. (Reports from the Field)


Fenichel, Emily, Mann, Tammy L., The Future of Children


In January 2001, the Commissioner's Office of Research and Evaluation and the Head Start Bureau released the first program impact findings from a rigorous national evaluation of the Early Head Start (EHS) program--an initiative that serves low-income expectant parents and families with infants and toddlers. (1) The program provides high-quality child and family development services, a focus on staff development, and a commitment to community partnerships. The evaluation's analysis of child and family outcomes, covering the first two years of the lives of 3,000 children who participated in 17 of the first-funded EHS sites, found a pattern of consistent positive impacts on child and family functioning.

Specifically, the evaluators found that when two-year-old children who had experienced a year or more of program services were compared with a randomly assigned control group, the EHS children performed significantly better on measures of cognitive, language, and social-emotional development. The EHS parents scored significantly higher than control group parents did on many measures of the home environment, parenting behavior, and knowledge of infant/toddler development. The EHS families were also more likely to attend school or job training, and their levels of parenting stress and family conflict declined. (1) These domains of child and family functioning are known to be associated with later child outcomes that include social abilities, literacy, and school readiness. Future reports from the EHS evaluation will provide considerable additional detail, for instance, about how different subgroups of low-income families and children fare. The evidence in this first report, however, carries significant weight.

The evaluators found that strong program implementation contributed to positive program impacts. The EHS programs that scored high on key elements of Head Start's "Program Performance Standards" early on (described in detail in this article) had stronger impacts on the use of services by enrolled families than did other EHS programs. They also showed more significant positive impacts on children's development and parenting behaviors. Although other differences among programs and communities may have contributed to these findings, it appears that the full implementation of Head Start's Program Performance Standards plays an important role in producing the desired outcomes. (1) This evidence of the importance of program implementation echoes a recommendation made by the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development that "much greater attention be paid to the challenges of program implementation ... as an integral component of all early childhood evaluation research." (2) Attention to imple mentation is also critical to the practitioners and policymakers who are responsible for EHS.

As this report briefly reviews EHS's short history and describes the program's key components, it focuses on the initiative's vision of quality, which includes flexibility in the service of individual and community needs. That vision is reflected in the performance standards that guide program operations and in the federal government's approach to monitoring local grantee operations. Realization of the vision appears to contribute to the benefits reaped by the children and families who participated in well-implemented EHS programs.

What Is Early Head Start?

Early Head Start is one of the federal government's most visible investments in low-income families with infants and toddlers. Its mission is to promote healthy prenatal outcomes for pregnant women, enhance the development of very young children, and promote healthy family functioning in families with infants and toddlers whose incomes are below federal poverty guidelines. (3) Congress created EHS when it reauthorized the Head Start Act in 1994, stipulating that EHS should receive a set portion of the annual appropriation for Head Start (which serves preschool children). …

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