by Jennifer Boss
Early Head Start programs began serving families with infants and toddlers in 1995. Migrant Head Start, however, has been providing services to families with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers since its inception in 1968. Long before our introduction to the research on brain development and the emphasis on the importance of the first three years of life, Migrant Head Start programs across the country have been providing safe, nurturing, and culturally rich environments for some of the nation's most vulnerable infants and toddlers.
Migrant farm workers are hard-working people who travel frequently. They often live in poor housing situations and are one of the lowest paid populations in our country. The challenges that these families face include incomes that fall well below the national poverty level; low education levels and limited knowledge of English; high mobility; and severe problems in obtaining adequate housing for themselves and their children. These challenges serve to reinforce the vulnerability of migrant families and their children. It is precisely because of this vulnerability that the services provided by Migrant Head Start are so vital.
Without quality child care, many parents have no choice but to bring their children to work with them, unintentionally exposing their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to a variety of environmental dangers. Migrant Head Start programs give these parents, who spend long, hard hours laboring in the fields, peace of mind that while they work to support their families, their young children are safe, nourished, and well cared for.
Since its inception 32 years ago, Migrant Head Start has been successful in meeting the needs of migrant families and children. Migrant Head Start programs attempt to respond to the migration patterns of the families by operating during the peak season of the local crop harvest. This system of service simultaneously creates multiple challenges, such as staffing, extended program hours, facility location and program management. Additionally, Migrant Head Start programs may be in operation anywhere from three to ten months at a time.
Despite these challenges, Migrant Head Start programs manage to provide comprehensive, culturally appropriate services for children and families. Many programs have successfully created culturally and linguistically appropriate environments staffed by Spanish-speaking, bilingual, and bicultural persons. This is important, because in programs where infants and toddlers are enrolled, employing caregivers who are able to speak to the child in the family's native language is critical to the social, emotional, cognitive, and linguistic development of the child.
Migrant Head Start programs have also proven effective in helping families to obtain the proper immunizations for their children. The vast majority of children enrolled in Migrant Head Start programs have received all of the necessary immunizations needed by the age of five. In addition, Migrant Head Start provides opportunities for migrant parents to be included in programs where they are respected and welcomed. The inclusion of parents in program development and implementation is vital to the success of all Migrant Head Start programs.
Migrant Head Start families have key strengths to build upon and reinforce. For instance, the majority of migrant farm worker families are two-parent families. They also move in relatively stable travel patterns (e.g., migrating each spring from Texas to Washington State, and returning to Texas when their work is completed). Family stability is especially important for the healthy development of migrant infants and toddlers who are often enrolled in a "short-term" Migrant Head Start program as their parents travel to follow the crops.
Migrant families in Head Start have achieved notable successes over the past 32 years. With the revised Head Start Program Performance Standards and the increased emphasis and available information on quality services for infants and toddlers, Migrant Head Start can look forward to improving upon the already rich and comprehensive services they have been providing, to the benefit of migrant families and their children.
Jennifer Boss is a Senior Early Childhood Associate for the Early Head Start National Resource Center, T: 202-205-8905, E: firstname.lastname@example.org.