By Sharon Yandian
Comprehensive services have been the hallmark of Head Start from its very beginning in the summer of 1965. Educational services, dental and health screening, and healthy meals are provided for all children, including those with disabilities. Social services are brokered for all families with the assistance of strong community partnerships. The training and technical assistance (T/TA) system has taken many forms over the past 50 years, but its primary purpose has always been to strengthen the service delivery and management and fiscal systems within grantees.
We're at another juncture with a new cross-sector T/TA system that combines the efforts of the Office of Head Start (OHS) and the Office of Child Care (OCC). It will continue to support and strengthen the array of program services in Head Start, as well as include resources for child care settings. It will also provide T/TA on new requirements and regulations, as needed. For Head Start programs, the infrastructure resembles the previous T/TA system with three components of ongoing support:
- National Centers: Communicate best practices in program services and systems and provide content-rich, evidence-based resources and trainings
- Regional TA Network: Each Regional Office deploys early childhood specialists assigned to a set of grantees, as well as health, systems, and grantee specialists, as needed. The National Centers interface with the specialists, provide direct training and materials to them, and learn from them about the needs in the field.
- Grantees: Receive at least 50 percent of all Head Start T/TA monies to support their professional development plans
The best description of the emphasis within the new T/TA system is "process consultation." The emphasis is more on the TA side, where there is support for the process of program improvement, and less on the T, or training, side. Grantees continue to define their vision, assess community needs, and collect data on how they are doing. The T/TA system helps grantees focus on their strengths and identify possible barriers to providing a high-quality program. With T/TA support, grantees define the process of change and come up with their own solutions to some of the challenges. Much of this on-the-ground support falls to the regional specialists in their work with programs.
How does this new T/TA approach impact comprehensive service delivery at the local level? An example comes to mind in the area of family engagement. Programs have become familiar with the Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) Framework and are implementing various aspects. They've begun to identify family engagement strategies and set up systems to track and measure their progress toward family outcomes. The next step for one program was to decide how use of the PFCE Framework could best support newly enrolled refugee families and teen fathers. The process consultation approach identified how the program was going to address these gaps in its family engagement services. This process involved assessing whether new personnel were needed and how the grantee's T/TA dollars could be used to cover professional development needs.
Educational services have also benefited from the use of T/TA resources and process consultation. In one grantee, low Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS®) scores in two of the three domains were associated with high teacher turnover and an inadequate coaching system. As a result, learning opportunities for the children were not being well-implemented. The regional T/TA early childhood specialist and the grantee education manager made classroom observations together, analyzed them, and discussed how to improve the way feedback was given to teachers. Grantee staff and the T/TA provider probed deep into the process of how to change teacher practices. Eventually, the program stabilized turnover and strengthened its coaching methods. Importantly, teachers felt supported by the process. The end result was improved educational services for children, and in turn, improved child outcomes.
Programs also must be responsive to the changing landscape of their communities. In order to serve a large number of families who represented a distinct cultural and linguistic group, one grantee had to take a hard look at all of its comprehensive service areas. Working closely with its T/TA provider to identify the program's strengths and needs, the program established priorities to address. One was nutritional services. Many children were not eating much of the lunch provided because they were not used to the taste of the food. As a result, they were hungry and tired and not ready to learn in the afternoon. They went home hungry, and many families served them their familiar food as soon as they got back home. The grantee leadership called on the regional T/TA specialist, who helped them decide on several action steps: Learning to prepare and serve more culturally appropriate foods at lunch and explaining to families why this meal was an important part of the child's program day.
In order to communicate with families, the program had to reach out to community members who could speak the families' home language. Local college students proved to be an asset. The grantee also identified priorities in educational services and screening procedures that led to changes in staffing and recruitment. The regional T/TA specialist helped the program put together a professional development plan. The plan included accessing resources from the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (ECLKC), such as the Program Preparedness Checklist, which was designed to help programs examine their systems and services for children and families who speak languages other than English. Through an intensive, lengthy process consultation, this grantee learned that any one comprehensive service does not stand alone. They are inter-related, and when they are viewed holistically, the health and development of children and their families are promoted.
Head Start programs do amazing work each day in preparing children to enter school ready to succeed, as well as readying parents for their continual role as the primary educator and champion of their children. The T/TA system serves to strengthen the quality of grantee services and systems with the same goal of improving child and family outcomes.
Sharon Yandian is the Director of the OHS State and National T/TA Division.