Overview of the Family Services Role in Head Start Programs

Community Partnerships and Engagement

Effective parent and family engagement relies on community partnerships. Community partnerships help Head Start programs achieve their goals and help families achieve theirs. Program staff most often engage with community partners to support:Several people gathered for a meeting with some taking notes.

  • Individual families
  • All or many families in the Head Start program
  • All families in the community

Engaged community partnerships are supportive relationships between Head Start programs and other community agencies. Community assessment and aggregated family assessment data can help set your program’s priorities for community engagement. This data will help you determine which community partners can best meet the needs and strengths of the families in your program.

When community partnerships are engaged, each partner looks for ways to strengthen the partnership and seeks to understand each other’s goals, perspectives, strengths, and challenges. These relationships support parents’ roles as valued community members. And they can be critical to supporting parents in making progress toward their goals.

Individual Families in Head Start Programs

Through the family partnership process, you partner with each family to identify their goals. You may also work with families to connect them with services and resources that match their goals, strengths, interests, and needs. Individual families in Head Start programs benefit from community partnerships in the following ways:

  • Meet their basic needs and engage in wellness activities
  • Connect to important resources in their community
  • Build and enhance their contributions to the community
  • Engage in advocacy and leadership within their community

All Families in Head Start Programs

Programs partner with other community agencies and organizations to learn the best ways to provide families with services and resources. You can help identify the strengths and needs of all families across the program. This includes families experiencing homelessness or families who speak a language other than English at home. All families in Head Start programs benefit from community partnerships in the following ways:

  • Program staff experience less stress because of the support they receive from their community partners.
  • Resources are leveraged through community sharing, which supports equitable access to those resources for all families.
  • Initial engagement and enrollment practices can be aligned for smoother experiences for families in the program and community.
  • Programs may enroll more families dealing with adversities because of their relationships with key community partners.

All Families in the Community

Head Start programs may serve either a leadership or a partnering role to help coordinate the early childhood system of care for families in the community. However, if your program participates in these partnerships, you can be a key player in efforts to build a systems-wide approach to family service delivery and care of young children. You can build relationships with staff at other community agencies and work together to coordinate services and streamline administrative procedures. All families in the community benefit from community partners that:

  • Build trust with one another
  • Improve efficiencies and collaboration
  • Refer more families to Head Start and Early Head Start programs
  • Make communities more welcoming of all families

Advancing Community Partnerships

Programs choose and form partnerships based on data from their self-assessment and community assessment, program goals, and shared values. You may be part of a program team that reaches out to local agencies and organizations to build partnerships. Some programs have staff specifically focused only on this work.

Once they have selected and come to informal agreements with community partners, many programs will formalize the arrangement. If your program has a formal Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with a community partner, be sure to know what the MOU says. Learn and pay attention to your responsibilities or tasks.

Community partners can be effective in supporting families and program staff to reach certain goals, such as educational advancement, economic mobility, and other aspects of family well-being. The justice system can be an especially important partner for some programs to ensure that incarcerated parents are included in family engagement efforts. Community partnerships also may support outreach and recruitment efforts, especially with families who are new to the community.

Outreach strategies with community partners could include distributing printed materials about Head Start programs. Consider offering to give presentations to community partners and include current and former parents.

Community partnerships can also support trauma-informed care. Work with families to identify trauma-informed community resources. Look for organizations that build on family strengths and support healing and where families feel that they have been treated with respect. Work with community partners to strengthen the delivery of trauma-informed services.

Partnering Through Difficult Situations

When difficult situations arise, you want to be prepared to connect families with the community resources they need. Head Start programs have specific resources for building community partnerships that support families experiencing challenging situations.

Below are examples of situations when community partnerships are helpful.

Child Welfare Involvement

Community partnerships between Head Start programs and child welfare agencies can benefit programs, child welfare agencies, and most importantly children and families. Together, Head Start programs and child welfare agencies can help ensure safety, consistency, and well-being for young children and their families.

Preventing and Responding to Domestic Violence

Domestic violence impacts all communities. Program staff must be aware of best practices for receiving disclosures of domestic violence and providing appropriate responses and referrals. When equipped with appropriate strategies, staff are in a better position to maintain the trust and respect they have built with families. From the individual to the program level, it is important to create a collaborative approach through community partnerships that bring specialized support to families and program staff in response to domestic violence.

Responding to Homelessness

More than 1.3 million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers — one in 18 children under age 6 — experience homelessness every year.[3] Children and families who are experiencing homelessness are automatically eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Working with local shelter and housing service partners is an important strategy for identifying and serving families who are experiencing homelessness.

Partnering Through Transitions

Making the transition to a new care and learning setting impacts families. Transitions may involve moving to a different classroom in the Head Start or Early Head Start program, another early learning program, or kindergarten. For both children and parents, transitions can lead to excitement and joy but also uncertainty and concerns.

Partner with families to develop a transition plan that ensures a positive adjustment and continuity of services.

  • Consider how to share information with the new setting about the child’s strengths and challenges and how they learn best.
  • Encourage families to remain involved in their child’s learning when they move into kindergarten or another new setting. Also encourage parents to apply their leadership and advocacy skills.
  • Work with teaching staff and your program leadership to arrange family visits to their child’s new school and meet with the new teachers. If families are interested, accompany them during these visits. Ideally, these visits happen before the child transitions — for example, in the spring before kindergarten starts. Your encouragement and support can help families navigate transitions successfully. Learn more about supporting families with kindergarten transitions through the Partnering with Families for Head Start Programs and School resource and the Transition to Kindergarten: Partnering with Families and Schools online learning module and simulation.

Work with your community partners and the new school or child care provider to offer continuity for children and families. This continuity is particularly important for families who have been making progress towards greater economic mobility and stability during their time in a Head Start program. Many Head Start families continue to need support after their child transitions to a new setting.

Tips for Community Partnerships

To nurture strong, responsive, and sustained community partnerships, consider the following strategies in collaboration with your manager and colleagues:

  • Speak regularly with community partners to discuss effective service delivery.
  • Invite families to join meetings with community partners.
  • Use program and community data to inform community engagement efforts.
  • Gather feedback from partners about successes and challenges.
  • Ask for input from families about effective community partnerships.
  • Plan family-focused events with community partners.
  • Invite community partners to program events.

Reflection Questions

Reflect on each question. Write your responses using the downloadable worksheet.

  • What is it about creating community partnerships that interests and excites you?
  • What more would you like to learn about the process of creating community partnerships?
  • Who are some of the community partners that work with your program?
  • What other community partnerships can you identify to enhance equity and meet the specific needs of the families in your program?

Key Takeaways

  • Community partnerships are necessary to help Head Start programs and families each achieve their goals. Community partnerships benefit families and staff in Head Start programs and all families in the community. The community assessment and aggregated family assessment data can help determine community engagement priorities and which community partners will best meet the needs and strengths of families in your program.
  • When difficult situations arise, be prepared to connect families with the community resources they need. Head Start programs have specific resources for building comprehensive community partnerships to support families experiencing challenging situations, such as child welfare involvement, domestic violence, and homelessness.
  • Making the transition to a new care and learning setting impacts families. Partner with families, community partners, and school or early childhood settings to develop a transition plan that ensures a positive adjustment and continuity of services. Your support can ensure a smooth transition for both families and new providers.

Action Starters

On your reflection worksheet, identify two to three key takeaways that you want to implement in your daily work.