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Early Head Start Policy Recommendations

Policymakers must recognize and respond to the resources and service gaps in each community by reaffirming their commitment to Early Head Start’s unique mission of providing high-quality child development and comprehensive services to young children and families who are most in need. They can do this in five key ways:


  1. Increase federal and state investments in Early Head Start, and programs modeled on Early Head Start, to ensure that more eligible infants and toddlers are served. Almost all infants and toddlers who qualify for Early Head Start lack access to this proven program. To ensure more eligible infants and toddlers are served, policymakers should pursue all avenues to expand the program.
    • Congress should continue directing federal funding to expand Early Head Start capacity. This can be done by preserving its mission of supporting early development and strengthening families whose children are most at risk of falling behind, including during the prenatal period.
    • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should encourage programs to convert funded Head Start slots to Early Head Start openings wherever doing so meets community needs. The 2007 reauthorization included a process for doing so that ensures programs have time to meet infant-toddler standards and are ready to provide appropriate services for the youngest children.
    • State policymakers should direct state resources to fund comprehensive services for infants and toddlers who are most in need by expanding Early Head Start. Currently, few states provide funding to expand Early Head Start capacity.
  2. Continue to anchor Early Head Start in adequately resourced community assessments and informed local choices for the program options most needed in communities. Early Head Start research identifies the value of offering multiple and flexible options in communities. To ensure that communities are able to best meet the needs of local families, policymakers should:
    • Ensure that Early Head Start programs are supported in offering the high-quality services through the program options that make sense for their community. In order to provide well-managed and high-quality services in home visiting, center-based care, or family child care, programs must be adequately funded and supported through training and technical assistance.
    • Continue the option for local programs to partner with child care centers and provide extra training and technical assistance resources. Partnerships help improve the quality of child care while supporting continuity of care for infants and toddlers. This provides a ready way to expand Early Head Start services as well as to infuse Early Head Start standards into community child care. However, care is needed to ensure that such arrangements do not limit Early Head Start to working families.
  3. Grow a well-qualified and fairly compensated Early Head Start workforce, prepared to serve the youngest children and families. Highly qualified staff for Early Head Start are critical to meeting the needs of today’s families. Federal and state policymakers should incentivize those interested in employment with scholarships, tax credits, student loan forgiveness, and stipends to ensure a qualified, adequately compensated workforce for our youngest children. Staff development should be promoted through apprenticeships, coaching, and professional development opportunities to retain a robust and expert workforce through less staff turnover and greater continuity of care.
  4. Emphasize enrolling more pregnant women in Early Head Start to maximize the time they and their children benefit. Mothers who enroll during pregnancy gain more in emotionally supporting their children than mothers who enroll later, and their children demonstrate stronger impacts on their social-emotional and cognitive development at age three. While 98% of Early Head Start grantees help pregnant women access comprehensive prenatal and postpartum care, including nutrition, health, and mental health services, only about 6,000 slots are available to serve pregnant women across the country. Federal leadership and resources – incentives, technical assistance, and removal of barriers – are needed to enroll more pregnant women while continuing to allow families to enter the program later in their child’s life.
  5. Fund new research to assess how the program that is implementing new Head Start Program Performance Standards is benefiting families and children. The original Early Head Start evaluation was conducted in the program’s infancy and has provided a rich body of research about the program’s early implementation and effectiveness. Twenty years later, programs are operating under new performance standards updated to reflect the deepening understanding of both early brain development and the importance of close relationships critical to that development. While the currently funded Baby FACES project provides valuable descriptive information about program operations and the families and children served, a new, rigorous, randomized impact evaluation with a nationally representative sample would provide much needed information on how the program is currently benefiting children and families.


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