by Judith Jerald and Sarah M. Semlak
Early Head Start was created in 1994 to serve low-income pregnant women, infants, toddlers, and their families. As with Head Start, Early Head Start offers children and families comprehensive child development services through center, home-based, and combination program options. The majority of the Early Head Start programs funded in 1995 were home-based and were designed to support the development of the parent-infant relationship. Through weekly ninety-minute visits to families' homes, home visitors are able to help parents to understand their role in fostering their child's overall healthy development.
Closely following the establishment of Early Head Start came the reform of the welfare system in this country. Under new welfare legislation, many Early Head Start parents must be employed or involved in schooling or job training when the EHS child is still an infant. To better meet needs identified in the community assessment and family partnership agreements, many Early Head Start grantees and delegate agencies are finding it necessary to reassess the adequacy of the home-based option. In some cases, the result of this assessment may lead to a change from home-based to center-based services for children.
In other cases, as when programs use community center-based or family childcare, they may decide to enhance services by providing home visiting while also contracting with local child care centers and family day care providers. In this situation, the program is responsible for ensuring that the quality of care that Early Head Start children receive in the community centers and family day care homes meets the Head Start Performance Standards. As with other Head Start community collaborations, the grantee tracks and supports the services received by the children outside of their homes.
In light of families' goals that relate to self-sufficiency and ultimately result in the need for child care, some programs are finding it necessary to offer more than one program option for service delivery. For example, an Early Head Start program may offer a home-based option for some families for a period of time, center-based services if they are needed, and a combination model when and if that program option is appropriate.
In addition, due to changes in their work and schooling, families may participate in different program options at different times while enrolled in Early Head Start. For example, parents of newborns and young infants who have not returned to work may opt for home-based services. Once a child is older and the parent returns to work or enters job training, the need for part-day care outside the home is often required. Ultimately, a parent may obtain a full-time job. At that point, a child will need to be in a center-based setting, whether it is directly operated by the Early Head Start program or in partnership with a local child care agency.
Early Head Start services can and should be tailored to meet the ever-changing needs of pregnant women, infants, toddlers, and their families. Often one program option does not meet the developmental needs of a child over a three-year period. In addition, one program option may not support families' goals, which are often changing.
To meet the needs of families enrolled in Early Head Start for three or more years, programs must consider the benefits and limitations of each program option at the particular period in the child and family's life. Flexibility is essential to the design and delivery of high-quality services to infants, toddlers, and families in Early Head Start.
Judith Jerald is the National Early Head Start Coordinator at the Head Start Bureau, T: 202-205-8074, E: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Semlak is a consultant for Zero to Three, T: 202-638-1144.