EARLY HEAD START
WHAT IS EARLY HEAD START AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Early Head Start (EHS) is a federally funded program serving pregnant women and infants, toddlers, and their caregivers in families with low incomes.1 Families are eligible to participate in EHS if their incomes are at or below 100% of the federal poverty level (FPL) and local grantees may serve additional families depending on community need.
Although EHS is primarily a federal-to-local program, states play a crucial role in EHS policymaking. Specifically, states can allocate funds to support local EHS programs, leverage federal funding as EHS state grantees, or administer state-specific programs that are similar to EHS.
EHS promotes healthy social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development in young children, assists parents in developing positive parenting skills and moving toward self-sufficiency goals, and brings together community partners and resources to provide families with comprehensive services and support.2
Early Head Start Is Delivered in Various Formats to Promote Child and Family Wellbeing
Early Head Start can be home-based, center-based, focused on family child care, or an alternative locally-designed approach. Each format approaches the goal of child wellbeing and healthy development differently. By providing comprehensive services to the family, including mental and physical health services to children and a variety of supports to parents, EHS aims to bolster the child’s social support through family members.3
Home-Based Early Head Start Supports Parents, Promoting Child Development Indirectly
EHS home-based services include weekly home visits and group activities for families to promote parents’ skills and knowledge, thereby supporting healthy child development.1 By improving parents’ knowledge of child development, warm and responsive caregiving skills, social support, and coping and problem-solving skills, as well as connecting families to community and health resources during the prenatal and early childhood period, home-based EHS can promote positive short-term child wellbeing outcomes4 and long-term developmental trajectories in children,5 and buffer the long-term negative effects of childhood stress and adversity.6
Center-Based Early Head Start Impacts Children Directly Through High-Quality Classroom Environments and Teacher-Child Interactions
EHS center-based services take place in classroom settings within a child care center or school and generally include at least 1,380 hours of care, education, and child development services annually.1 Early care and education (ECE) environments have the potential to impact children by providing high-quality classroom environments that can lead to improved child outcomes (e.g., school readiness).7 Early Head Start ECE environments include direct support to children through their classroom context (e.g., evidence-based curricula, physical environment) and indirect supports through quality teacher-child interactions (fostered by small group sizes, low child-to-adult ratios, and high teacher qualifications).8,9,10
Search the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Clearinghouse for an ongoing inventory of rigorous evidence reviews, including more information on Early Head Start.
WHAT IMPACT DOES EARLY HEAD START HAVE?
Early Head Start enhances children’s wellbeing by providing safe settings in which nurturing and responsive relationships with parents and teachers may grow. Early Head Start also improves parent health and emotional wellbeing, promotes access to good quality child care, and improves indicators of healthy child development (e.g., reducing behavior problems, improving language and vocabulary skills).
More Research Is Needed to Determine the Potential for Early Head Start to Reduce Disparities
Although no strong causal evidence evaluates the effectiveness of EHS at reducing disparities in outcomes between groups by race and ethnicity, research demonstrates that Black families benefit the most from EHS, in absolute terms, relative to their nonparticipant counterparts, particularly in terms of the impact of EHS on child-parent relationships and optimal child health and development.11 More research is needed to examine, among children participating in EHS, whether children of color and White children differ in their developmental trajectories, and whether participation in EHS helps to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in outcomes.
For more information on what we know and what we still need to learn about Early Head Start, see the evidence review on Early Head Start.
WHAT ARE THE KEY POLICY LEVERS TO SUPPORT EARLY HEAD START?
In contrast to the evidence for the four state-level policies that are included in this Roadmap, the current evidence base does not identify a specific policy lever that states should adopt and fully implement to effectively provide EHS to all of the children who are eligible.
The key policy lever to more effectively implement EHS is to:
- Provide state support for EHS programs by becoming an Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership (EHS-CCP) grantee, directing state funds to local EHS programs, and/or creating a state-specific program similar to EHS.
Key Policy Lever: States Can Provide Funding Support for EHS
States can adopt any combination of three approaches to supporting EHS. States can choose to leverage federal dollars with state matching funds as an EHS-CCP grantee, thereby layering funding with state child care subsidy programs. States can also use dollars to provide additional funding to local EHS programs. Finally, states can choose to create, fund, and implement a state-specific program with similar standards as EHS.
Becoming EHS-CCP Grantees
States can leverage federal funding by acting as Early Head Start–Child Care Partnership grantees (EHS–CCP) and contributing a state match to participate in the program. The EHS-CCP program brings together EHS programs and child care providers participating in the Child Care and Development Fund (child care subsidy program) by layering program funding. Participating child care providers must meet the Head Start Program Performance Standards, which should ensure high-quality care and education and access to comprehensive services for participating children.12
Only six states are EHS–CCP grantees and these states vary in their use of funds, including to increase per child payments to child care partners, run regional hub models to provide services and supports to child care partners, and improve the quality of care children receive. Although Connecticut and Colorado are not federal EHS-CCP grantees, the states allocate funds to support local EHS-CCP grantees.
Allocating Funding to Directly Support Local EHS Programs
Only 15 states invest state funds directly in local EHS programs. These states facilitate the additional infusion of EHS funding through state statute and through line-item or department-specific budget allocations. In some states, funding is allocated to both EHS and Head Start programs in a single statute or budgetary line item, which makes delineating the exact impact on EHS programs challenging.
Whereas some states dedicate funds to serve a larger number of eligible children, other states set aside funds to increase pay for EHS staff, to extend the hours that EHS is available throughout the day, to improve program quality, or to aid local programs so they can meet the non-federal share matching requirement of 20%. These state funds can fill critical service gaps and strengthen overall program quality, and state investments in EHS are a critical way to improve outcomes for eligible children and families.
Additionally, states may choose to leverage other federal funding sources to support the expansion of EHS slots within their states (e.g., through the use of the Child Care Development Fund, Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program funds, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five funds).
Creating and Supporting a State-Specific Program Similar to EHS
State support of EHS also includes creating, funding, and implementing a state-specific program with a similar structure and quality standards as EHS. Currently, we are aware of five states that have state-specific programs, including Arkansas (Arkansas Better Chance Program), Illinois (Illinois Prevention Initiative), Nebraska (Sixpence Early Learning Fund), Oregon (Oregon Prenatal to Kindergarten Program), and Washington (Early ECEAP). These state-specific programs are typically designed with similar eligibility criteria, quality performance standards, and program structures as EHS.
For more information on the state policy levers to expand access to Early Head Start see our State Policy Lever Checklists.
HOW DOES ACCESS TO EARLY HEAD START VARY ACROSS STATES?
States vary considerably in the percentage of income-eligible children under age 3 who are served by EHS. Although access is typically driven by local grantees within a state, by providing supplemental funding to EHS, states can improve the share of eligible children with access to EHS.
Because of state policy choices, the share of income-eligible children with access to EHS programs across states ranges from only 4.5% of income-eligible children in Nevada to 59.1% in the District of Columbia, the highest in the nation. In two states, approximately half of income-eligible children have access to EHS (the District of Columbia and Vermont), and in four states, between 19% and 25% of income-eligible children are served (Alaska, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Wyoming).
But 25 states provide access to fewer than 10% of income-eligible children, and in two states (Nevada and Tennessee), approximately 5% or fewer of children who are eligible for the program have access to it. These numbers do not include the percentage of children who are served by state specific programs in Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington, and therefore the percent of eligible children in those states who receive EHS or similar services is higher than what is presented in the figure.
WHAT PROGRESS HAVE STATES MADE IN THE LAST YEAR TO MORE EFFECTIVELY IMPLEMENT EARLY HEAD START?
Over the last year, several states have taken action to invest in, and expand access to, EHS programs. In Minnesota, legislators allocated an additional $10 million from the general fund for Head Start and EHS programs – a total of $35.1 million for fiscal year 2024. Colorado leveraged federal relief funds and allocated approximately $6 million to existing EHS-CCP sites. Maine appropriated $3.6 million to increase income eligibility for Head Start and EHS programs to 185% of the FPL. In an innovative approach, Washington allocated $3.75 million for Tribal Early Learning Grants that can be leveraged by Tribal Nations for EHS and the state-specific program, Early Childhood Education Assistance Program.
Other states continued to support longer-term EHS programs and models this year. For example, state-specific programs in Nebraska and Oregon are well established and continue to be supported. In Arkansas, the legislature appropriated $114 million to support the Arkansas Better Chance Program. Similarly, Illinois allocated $20 million in additional funds to increase the number of children served through the Illinois Prevention Initiative.
Notes and Sources
- Head Start Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2020, March 30). Early Head Start programs. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/programs/article/early-head-start-programs
- Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center, Office of Head Start. (n.d.). About the Early Head Start program. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/ programs/article/about-early-head-start-program3
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press; Brofenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (2006). The bioecological model of human development. In R. M. Lerner (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology. Volume 1, Theoretical Models of Human Development (6th ed., pp. 793–828). John Wiley & Sons. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/utxa/detail.action?docID=258892
- Raikes, H. H., Roggman, L. A., Peterson, C. A., Brooks-Gunn, J., Chazan-Cohen, R., Zhang, X., & Schiffman, R. F. (2014). Theories of change and outcomes in home-based Early Head Start programs. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(4), 574–585. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2014.05.003
- Sweet, M.A. & Appelbaum, M. I. (2004). Is home-visiting an effective strategy? A meta-analytic review of home visiting programs for families with young children. Child Development, 75(5), 1435-1456. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00750.x
- National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience [Working paper no.13]. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/ resources/supportive-relationships-and-active-skill-building-strengthen-the-foundations-of-resilience/
- Burchinal, M., Magnuson, K., Powell, D., & Soliday Hong, S. L. (2015). Early child care and education. In (7th ed.). R. M. Lerner, M. H. Bornstein, & T. Leventhal (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science: Vol. 4, (pp. 223–267). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Public Health Association (APHA), National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education (NRC). (2019). Caring for our children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs. 4th ed. Itasca, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics. https://nrckids.org/CFOC
- Institute of Medicine. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9824
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (ECCRN) (2002). Child-care structure à Process à Outcome: Direct and indirect effects of child-care quality on young children’s development. Psychological Science 12(3), 199-206. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00438
- Raikes, H. H., Vogel, C., & Love, J. M. (2013). IV. Family subgroups and impacts at ages 2, 3, and 5: Variability by race/ethnicity and demographic risk. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 78(1), 64–92. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5834.2012.00703.x [Early Head Start Evidence Review Study S]
- Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. (2020, November 4). Early Head Start—Child Care Partnerships. Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ecd/early-learning/ehs-cc-partnerships