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What is Early Head Start?

Early Head Start (EHS) is a federally funded community-based program for low-income families with infants and toddlers and pregnant women. Its mission is simple: to promote healthy prenatal outcomes for pregnant women, enhance the development of very young children, and promote healthy family functioning. EHS evolved out of Head Start's long history of providing services to infants and toddlers through Parent Child Centers, Comprehensive Child Development Centers (CCDPs) and Migrant Head Start programs. Recent advances in the field of infant development make this an especially exciting time to have Head Start formally expand its family to include the provision of Early Head Start services.

To help design the new initiative the Secretary of Health and Human Services formed an Advisory Committee on Services for Families with Infants and Toddlers in 1994. The committee set forth the vision and goals for Early Head Start that have been shaped by lessons learned from the Comprehensive Child Development Programs, Parent and Child Centers, Migrant Head Start Programs, locally designed Head Start programs, and other early child development and family support efforts serving families with very young children.


The community-based Early Head Start programs are based on a foundation of nine principles:

  1. High Quality: A commitment to high quality means that programs will develop policies and practices that are founded in the knowledge, skills, and professional ethics embraced by the fields of child development, family development, and community building. Of particular importance is an understanding of the unique nature of infant and toddler development. Program practices must spring from an awareness of both the opportunities for intervention and the fact that young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a negative caregiving environment. The commitment on the part of the Federal government to ensure program quality includes the training and technical assistance network, the program performance standards, and research and evaluation activities.

  2. Prevention and Promotion: The proactive promotion of healthy child development and family functioning begins before conception, and continues prenatally, upon birth, and through the early years. With an emphasis on promoting healthy development, the prevention and detection of developmental concerns should occur at the earliest possible time.

  3. Positive Relationships and Continuity: Strong positive relationships that continue over time are key elements in a high quality program. These relationships include the child, family, and staff, and recognize the parent-child bond as the child's most significant relationship. Infant and toddler caregiving practices must support child attachment by minimizing the number of different caregivers and supporting long-term caregiving relationships. The relationship between staff and family is based on respect for the child and family's home culture.

  4. Parent Involvement: The Early Head Start initiative supports the highest level of parent involvement and partnership. Programs will make a special effort to support the role of fathers in parenting activities. Programs will recognize the parents as the child's primary nurturers and advocates. Parents will also be active participants in policy and decision-making roles.

  5. Inclusion: Programs will welcome and fully include children with disabilities. The individual needs of each child will be evaluated and responded to in a way that builds upon individual strengths. Programs will also support the child and family's full participation in community activities.

  6. Culture: The home culture and language of each family will be supported as an important aspect of early identity formation. Programs will also explore the role of culture and language in child and family development, and community values and attitudes.

  7. Comprehensiveness, Flexibility, Responsiveness, and Intensity: Program services are grounded in the belief that all families can identify their own needs and strengths, set their own goals, and are capable of growth. Thus, programs must maintain the flexibility to respond with varying levels of intensity based on families' needs and resources.

  8. Transitions: Programs are responsible for facilitating a smooth transition from Early Head Start into Head Start or other high quality programs and support services. A smooth transition is important to ensure each child continues to receive enriching early child development services and each family continues to receive the support services necessary to healthy family development.

  9. Collaboration: Collaboration with local community agencies and service providers will maximize the resources available to families with young children in a cost-efficient and comprehensive manner. Early Head Start programs, with the recognition that no one program can meet all of a child and family's needs, will seek to build strong alliances within the communities in which they operate.


The framework of the Early Head Start program includes four cornerstones, plus three other areas of importance - Administration/Management, Continuous Improvement, and Children with Disabilities:

  1. Child Development: Programs must support the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language development of each child. Parenting education and the support of a positive parent-child relationship are critical to this cornerstone. The services that programs must provide directly or through referral include:

    • Early education services in a range of developmentally appropriate settings;
    • Home-visits, especially for families with newborns;
    • Parent education and parent-child activities;
    • Comprehensive health and mental health services; and
    • High quality child care services, provided directly or in collaboration with community child care providers.

  2. Family Development: Programs must seek to empower families by developing goals for themselves and their children. Staff and parents develop individualized family development plans that focus on the child's developmental needs and the family's social and economic needs. Families that are involved in other programs requiring a family service plan will receive a single coordinated plan so that they experience a seamless system of services. The services that programs must provide directly or through referral include:

    • Child development information;
    • Comprehensive health and mental health services, including smoking cessation and substance abuse treatment;
    • Adult education, literacy, and job skills training to facilitate family self-sufficiency;
    • Assistance in obtaining income support, safe housing, or emergency cash; and
    • Transportation to program services.

  3. Community Building: Programs are expected to conduct an assessment of community resources so that they may build a comprehensive network of services and supports for pregnant women and families with young children. The goal of these collaborative relationships is to increase family access to community supports, make the most efficient use of limited resources, and effect system-wide changes to improve the service delivery system for all families in the community.

  4. Staff Development: The success of the Early Head Start program rests largely on the quality of the staff. Staff members must have the capacity to develop caring, supportive relationships with both children and families. On-going training, supervision, and mentoring will encompass an inter-disciplinary approach and emphasize relationship-building. Staff development will be grounded in established "best practices" in the areas of child development, family development, and community building.

  5. Administration/Management: Early Head Start programs will utilize administration and management practices which uphold the nine principles and four cornerstones set forth in the Early Head Start initiative. An interdisciplinary approach will ensure that all staff are cross-trained in the areas of child development, family development, and community building. Staff supervision, with opportunities for feedback and reflection, will emphasize relationship-building as the foundation for interactions between children, families, and staff members.

  6. Continuous Improvement: Training, monitoring, research, and evaluation enable Early Head Start programs to better meet the needs of young children and families. On-going training and technical assistance is provided by the Infant/Family Network and the EHS NRC.

  7. Children with Disabilities: Early Head Start programs will have the responsibility to coordinate with programs providing services in accordance with Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Children with disabilities will be fully included in program activities.

Revised Head Start Performance Standards

The revised Head Start Program Performance Standards, published in November 1996, went into effect on January 1, 1998. The first set of Head Start Performance Standards, published more than 20 years ago, focused only on the provision of services to preschool children. The revised Standards cover the provision of services for pregnant women and children from birth to five years of age. While the Performance Standards define the scope of services that programs must offer to children and families served through Early Head Start and Head Start programs, the Performance Standards do not prescribe how these services must be carried out. Hence, programs are able to design services to meet the needs of those being served in their local communities.

The revised Standards have been reorganized into three areas, namely Early Childhood Development and Health Services, Family and Community Partnerships, and Program Design and Management. The section on Early Childhood Development focuses on the importance of providing comprehensive child development services designed to support the social, emotional, cognitive/linguistic, and physical development of children from birth to age five. The section focusing on Family and Community Partnerships addresses the importance of working in partnerships with families and local community agencies in order to provide comprehensive services to families.

The section of the Performance Standards that focuses on Program Design and Management differs from the previous sections in that it addresses the role of program governance and management systems in supporting the delivery of high-quality services. Program governance refers to the structure that dictates how parents are actively involved in the decision-making process of program operations. Parent involvement in this capacity has long been a hallmark of Head Start programs. Beyond effective parent participation, programs must also have in place the management/administrative systems to successfully provide high quality services to families. These systems include program planning, communications, record keeping, reporting, and self-assessment activities.

Eligibility Criteria

Early Head Start is a child development program for low-income families. Each Early Head Start program is responsible for determining itsí own eligibility criteria. Family income is one key factor in determining eligibility. The federal poverty guidelines are used to evaluate family income. Early Head Start programs may elect to target their services to a particular population to best meet the unique needs of families and children in their community. Please contact the EHS program in your area for specific information about how to enroll in your local Early Head Start.

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Early Head Start National Resource Center @ ZERO TO THREE
2000 M. Street, NW, Suite 200
Washington, DC 20036
202-638-1144 Fax 202-638-0851

This Web site was developed for the Office of Head Start by ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, under contract No. HHSP23320042900YC from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families; Administration for Children and Families; U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, to operate the Early Head Start National Resource Center.

Office of Head Start / Administration for Children and Families / U. S. Department of Health and Human Services