Very Young Infants
The home-based program option is a viable option for families who are available for home visiting, and when this is the option that best meets the families' needs. By working with children and parents in their home for ninety minutes on a weekly basis, home visitors support parents as their child's primary teacher.
Home-based services are driven by Head Start's overall goal of promoting children's social competency. In light of this goal, child development and early education services are designed to address each child's ability to successfully tackle everyday experiences while simultaneously preparing him or her to succeed in the future. Home-based families receive the same comprehensive services as those participating in the center-based program option. These services include health, nutrition, dental, mental health, early childhood development, and family and community partnerships.
The Head Start home-based program option has always included the opportunity for children and their parents to engage in activities outside their home. These group experiences are referred to as "socializations." Socializations are offered twice a month and involve children and parents in activities that further the goals addressed during home visits. Parents' roles should be clearly defined through family partnership agreements; parents are key to planning and carrying out activities during socializations.
Early Head Start staff support parents' involvement with their infants and toddlers. In addition to home visitors, other staff responsible for socializations should have a background in the design and operation of high-quality group experiences for children under three. Other staff involved in socializations may include family service workers, health educators, and individuals from partnering community organizations, such as WIC (Women, Infants and Childrena federally funded nutrition program), local health clinics, the Le Leche League, or any other organization that is able to present parents with valuable information.
Very Young Infants
Socializations in Early Head Start look different from those that take place in preschool Head Start programs. While the overall goal of social competency is the same, infants and toddlers need very different experiences to successfully develop and move towards this goal. Very young infants need experiences that promote feelings of "trust." Having a safe, warm environment, such as the arms of their parent where they can be fed and attended to when needed, is an appropriate experience for a young infant during a socialization.
Programs serving young infants and their parents need to keep in mind the environment in which they offer socializations. Staff should consider that for parents to sit and hold their infants there needs to be equipment, such as adult-sized chairs that are comfortable. Also, if parents are breastfeeding, these chairs should be located in a quiet area where parents may have privacy if they choose. Since young infants spend considerable time sleeping, staff should consider where infants will be placed if parents choose to put their babies down. Surfaces must be clean, firm (as opposed to a pillow or folded blanket where a child might suffocate), and away from mobile toddlers. Infants must be visible and easily attended to at all times, so keeping parents in the room with their very young children is strongly advised.
Socialization experiences for mobile infants, approximately nine to eighteen months of age, should continue to support the parent-child relationship by offering activities that keep the parents close to and engaged with their child. Creating an environment for children that says, "Yes, move, touch, and explore!" will provide the opportunity for parents to observe their infants and their wide range of emerging abilities.
Serving a nutritious meal or snack is an example of an activity the EHS staff can use to work with parents to address children's individual goals. For example, a parent who is transitioning his or her infant from a bottle to a sipper cup may share experiences with staff and other parents. Discussions about routine activities such as feeding and sleeping are a critical aspect of the socialization experience for parents. Health and safety issues, such as not putting a child to bed with a bottle filled with milk or any liquid that may harm a child's teeth, can be easily addressed during socializations. These parent education experiences can be held during mealtime or other parent-child activities rather than separating parents from their children.
Socialization experiences for toddlers, nineteen to thirty-six months of age, may begin to look more like those offered to preschool-aged Head Start children and their parents. In light of the advancements in toddlers' development, they are able to spend more time focusing on a range of activities such as fingerplays, looking at books, and art. Toddlers, however, are not preschoolers. Toddlers spend the majority of their time playing alone or with adults, rather than with peers. They may also spend more time observing than actually engaging in group activities.
Planned activities for toddlers should support their need to do things by themselves. Toddlers' frustrations with not being able to complete tasks independent of adults often leads them to bite, hit, and say "No!" In light of their need to be independent yet closely supervised, socialization experiences should offer a range of developmentally appropriate activities in a safe environment. Adults must be available to assist children, but are not always central to their involvement with materials and equipment. Helping parents to "read" their child's cues so that they are better able to respond to their toddler's needs is a central focus of the socialization experience for parents. Looking for teachable moments in which a parent can successfully engage in a child's play and extend the learning that occurs during that time is key to advancing a child's social-emotional, cognitive, and language development.
Recognizing that socializations are a vital component of the home-based program option, Early Head Start programs must be careful in how they plan these experiences to meet the individual needs of families with children under age three. Programs should consider the following when designing socializations in Early Head Start:
- What is the purpose of these experiences? In light of your community and families, what are the goals driving socialization experiences? Does the term "socialization" accurately describe these experiences? (Many programs have named these group experiences "Parent-Child Time," or something that emphasizes the fact that parents participate in activities with their children.)
- How will EHS staff address the individual goals for families during socializations? Limiting the number attending a socialization to no more than twelve children will allow staff to be more effective in addressing the goals of each child and his or her parent.
- To meet families' needs, will socializations be organized by child age or home visitor caseload? Will socializations be offered at different times and provide opportunities for fathers and working parents to participate? How will siblings' needs be addressed (i.e., will they be directly involved in socialization activities, or will separate, developmentally appropriate activities be made available)?
- Depending on the goals of the socialization, which Early Head staff besides the home visitor should be involved in the design and implementation of the activities? What should their qualifications be (e.g., a health background, center-based early childhood program experience, or family counseling)? How can members of the community, such as Health Services Advisory Committee participants, be involved in socializations?
- At what point should parents be encouraged to attend "full group" socializations with their newborns, as opposed to other activities, such as smaller clusters of parents meeting in someone's home? Programs may want to consider inviting pregnant women and their families to socializations. Connecting with a family before the birth of their child can provide the pregnant woman with a support group and the opportunity to learn about parenting a young infant.
- How can the requirement of offering 24 socializations a year be met for all families? Is it possible to cluster activities whereby families would be offered a socialization every week for a period of time and then none for a month in the summer?
Developing consistent yet flexible approaches to supporting families enrolled in an Early Head Start home-based program is essential to the success of executing high-quality socialization experiences.
Judith Jerald is the National Early Head Start Coordinator at the Head Start Bureau, T: 202-205-8074; Sarah Semlak is a consultant for Zero to Three, T: 202-638-1144; and Willa Siegel is an Education Specialist at the Head Start Bureau, T: 202-205-4011, E: firstname.lastname@example.org.