Research on Early Head Start has provided rich insight into the importance of comprehensive early childhood programs with support beginning prenatally.
Early Head Start was the subject of a Congressionally mandated, randomized control trial study shortly after the program’s inception, with follow-up studies after the intervention ended. The basic findings showed that participation had positive impacts on developmental outcomes for children and their parents’ ability to support that development. The evaluation data has yielded an extensive literature of additional analysis. It is now possible to identify key overarching messages about Early Head Start’s benefits. In particular, the research findings reaffirmed the value of Early Head Start’s key focus on the parent-child relationship. Other important take-aways include:
Enrolling early is best, for both pregnant mothers and their children. Early Head Start mothers who enrolled during pregnancy made more gains in emotionally supporting their children, and their children demonstrated stronger impacts on their social-emotional and cognitive development at age three. Children in Early Head Start are not only more likely to be immunized, but their parents offer more stimulating home environments, read more with their children, use less physical punishment, and have higher levels of self-sufficiency. Further, Early Head Start reduced aggressive behavior at age three, which helped produce fewer social behavioral problems at age five.
Continuous services yield the best results. At age five, children who had Early Head Start followed by a formal preschool program at age four to five, such as Head Start, had the best outcomes. Families with multiple risk factors appear to particularly benefit from five continuous years of comprehensive services: when Head Start (but not other types of preschool programs) followed Early Head Start, it conferred strong additional benefits for these children’s achievement outcomes and family well-being when the children were in preschool.
Examining subgroup findings is key to more precisely targeting and improving services for children and families. Particularly strong and lasting impacts were found for African American children, including through fifth grade. Further, for children who had attended center-based Early Head Start programs, at fifth grade, grade retention was cut by more than half compared with the control group. In the landmark Perry Preschool study, reducing grade retention was one of the key economic benefits.
Investing in Early Head Start has unexpected child welfare benefits. Participation in Early Head Start led to a long-term reduction in children’s involvement with the child welfare system, and this was likely due to the impacts the program had on parenting and child development when children were two and three years of age. These findings underscore the potential for programs serving infants and toddlers to improve critical long-term outcomes for children by connecting with and supporting parents and families—even if preventing child maltreatment is not an explicit goal.