Curriculum in Early Head Start

Solid program curricula are developed with the young child's well-being in mind. Early Head Start staff and parents will find strategies on working together to set goals for their individual infants and toddlers. The results depend on the flexibility of the individuals who actually implement the plan.

The following is an excerpt from...
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by Sarah Semlak

Defining curriculum for infants and toddlers is a challenge for professionals in the fields of child development and early childhood education. Curriculum for children under three is often described as "everything they do." And curriculum in Early Head Start is discussed in terms of a program's philosophy, or a common set of beliefs that is shared by parents and staff. (Refer to Section 1304.21 of the Program Performance Standards.) This philosophy for example, "...supporting infants' healthy development" is accompanied by general goals for children served by the Early Head Start program.

Children's goals, which relate to their development and overall well-being, are drafted by staff and parents working together. Whether the program offers home- or center-based services, or a combination of the two, children's goals should drive the development of planned experiences, the roles of staff members and parents, as well as the materials and equipment that will be provided to support goals. While Early Head Start programs may choose to purchase a curriculum, this set of materials should complement the program and parent's beliefs, and be individualized to meet the needs of children enrolled in the program. (Refer to Section 1304.21(c)(1)). In addition, if the curriculum does not encompass all aspects of health and address all relevant Program Performance Standards, then it must be expanded and adapted.

According to the Head Start Program Performance Standards, curriculum is a written plan. To design an appropriate plan and subsequent set of experiences for children under three, staff must have a solid understanding of child development and experience in applying this knowledge to programs serving infants and toddlers. Understanding and respecting individual differences among children is critical to the successful implementation of planned and unplanned experiences for infants and toddlers. Staff must have respectful relationships with children and their parents to gather key information about routines, such as feeding, and any cultural practices associated with these routines. An example of planning related to routines is making a sipper cup available during mealtime to assist a child in transitioning from a bottle. The younger the child, the more that planning will focus on infant needs and routines rather than activities.

While staff must have a written plan, individuals implementing planned experiences for children under three should be ready to adapt this plan and their expectations to better meet the needs of the child during the actual experience. For example, if a child is tired, he/she may not respond as if rested. In light of a child's lack of sleep, a caregiver may decide not to introduce the child to an activity, or to limit the amount of time they spend supporting the child's engagement in the activity. Helping parents to recognize opportunities to engage children in activities, which in turn will support their role as primary teacher and nurturer, is also essential to the implementation of a curriculum for children under three. (Refer to section 1304.21(a)(2).)

Developing a curriculum that continuously meets the needs of children from birth to three is an important task for any Early Head Start program. For more information on curriculum in Head Start and Early Head Start, please refer to the Head Start Bulletin on curriculum published in March 2000. Additional resources are listed on p. 40 of this Bulletin.

Sarah Semlak is a consultant for Zero to Three, T: 202-638-1144.

The following is a list of questions that an Early Head Start program may want to consider when designing or evaluating their curriculum:

1. What is the overall philosophy for the program? How does this philosophy relate to the services to children? (For example, the program's philosophy might include community collaboration, which may translate to the involvement of representatives from various agencies, such as early intervention, in the delivery of services to children.)

2. What are the major program goals that drive the Early Childhood and Education Services? (For example, to support parents in their role as "primary teacher;" to promote children's overall development, to provide children with safe environments.)

3. How are parents involved in the development of the program philosophy and goals for Early Childhood Services? How is information passed along as new families enter the program? (Is there a parent committee that specifically focuses on Early Childhood Services in the program? Are there materials that describe early childhood services and an orientation available to new parents?)

4. How are goals for children developed? (Is information from screening, assessment, and ongoing observations of children's development used to formulate goals? Are parents included in the selection of goals to be addressed?)

5. How do staff members gather feedback from parents on their impression of the experiences during home visits or through notes or conversations before, during, or after center-based experiences? How are changes made to the services based on the child's and parents' reactions?

The Head Start Program Performance Standards define curriculum as a written plan that includes:

  • Goals for children's development and learning;
  • Experiences through which they will achieve the goals;
  • Roles for staff and parents to help children to achieve these goals; and
  • Materials needed to support the implementation of a curriculum.

The plan must also be based on the Program Performance Standards and sound Child Development Principles.

"Curriculum in Early Head Start." Semlak, Sarah. Early Head Start. Head Start Bulletin #69. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2000. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2008

Last Updated: October 7, 2014