Overview of the Family Services Role in Head Start Programs

About Head Start Programs and the Family Services Role

Since Head Start programs launched in 1965, serving children, parents, and families has been central to its mission. The core of this mission is rooted in equity across race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, education level, ability, age, citizenship, and geography. This mission serves as a model for the work you do as a family services professional. Learn more about Head Start history. In addition, programs value the essential role that parents and family members play as their child’s first and most important teacher. For children to succeed, parents and families must also succeed.

You may wonder how to support families as they work toward their goals for themselves and their children. This resource outlines ways to intentionally focus on parent, family, and community engagement (PFCE) and power sharing with parents.

You do many things in your role as a family services professional, including:

  • Build positive, goal-oriented relationships with families, from the moment they enroll
  • Form partnerships with families to support children’s learning and development
  • Build trust with parents, showing care for their well-being, safety, health, and economic stability
  • Collaborate with families in seeking equity, inclusiveness, and cultural and linguistic responsiveness
  • Help build parents’ confidence and skills to promote their child’s early learning and healthy development

You are part of the Head Start team that helps families and children make progress toward their dreams and aspirations.

Kay is a Head Start family services advocate and former parent. She says the “Head Start [program] is truly an amazing program that educates not only the child but the entire family.” Kay enrolled her son in a Head Start program. With the help of her family services worker, she completed her GED diploma. Kay started working for the Head Start program and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education administration. Read her story and similar stories of engagement and success.

Professional Development

Whether you are an experienced or new family services professional, take time to consider your professional development. Your program is required to establish and implement a systematic approach to staff training and professional development (PD), including training on best practices for family engagement and for reaching improved child and family outcomes. Your program must ensure that all staff complete a minimum of 15 hours of PD per year and, if possible, receive academic credit.

Consider creating a plan for your own professional growth that is unique to you and your goals, needs, and requirements. This plan can address knowledge development, on-the-job training for skill building, and guidance for connecting all parts of the plan. Use your professional development assessment, performance feedback, reflective practices, and supervisor’s input to create your individual plan. You can use this information to advance your career in PFCE and related fields. Identify and celebrate your successes, work on the challenges you may face, and generate new ideas about what you can do more efficiently and effectively.

All staff can benefit from job-shadowing and peer mentorship opportunities to learn about the day-to-day roles and responsibilities associated with specific Head Start staff positions. Current or former Head Start parents who are interested in working or currently working as family services staff may benefit from connecting with other family services staff, especially with those who also are former Head Start parents. These mentorship connections can help motivate other Head Start parents to consider employment opportunities within the program.

The following baseline staff qualifications and competency requirements for family services staff listed in the Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) are:

  • Child and family services management staff qualification requirements, 45 CFR §1302.91(d)(1)
  • Family services staff qualification requirements, 45 CFR §1302.91(e)(7)

Review the Education Requirements for Family Services Staff brief to gain a better understanding of these requirements.

There are many additional learning opportunities available for you to explore and use to develop your knowledge, skills, and practices. For example, the Office of Head Start (OHS) collaborates with the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (NCPFCE) to offer webinars, online resources, and videos via the Head Start ECLKC website and through the Head Start regional TTA network. Check out opportunities available locally and at the state level as well. If you are considering obtaining a family services credential, use the credentialing and degree programs databases to find relevant professional development and educational opportunities.

Also, consider virtual PD options that you can tailor to your individual needs and availability, including the following resources:

  • Individualized Professional Development (iPD) Portfolio. Use this online learning management system for ongoing professional development. It contains accessible, self-paced online learning modules based on staff roles and interests. Look for the Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Course Collection. We recommend starting with the course titled, “Introduction to the Family Services Role in Head Start and Early Head Start Programs.”
  • Reflective Strategies: Sustaining Effective Practice. Use reflection to develop your skills and strengthen your relationships with families and staff. When we look at what is working and what is not, we can make positive changes.

As you make progress on your individual PD plan, you can record and document your professional accomplishments and identify areas for growth. Develop a habit of documenting your professional development with the dates, learning objectives, and certificates. This will help you when you update your resume annually.

Program leadership can use information that you and other staff gather to create and refine the TTA plan that guides PD systems for the whole program. Explore On-the-Job Roles and Responsibilities for an overview of typical program tasks assigned to family services staff.

Reflective Practice

Reflective practice is key to building positive, goal-oriented relationships with families. It involves taking the time to be curious and think creatively about your everyday interactions with families. Then you can review what is working and what is not. Reflective practice deepens your understanding of your experiences, actions, and opportunities as a family services professional.

Engaging in self-reflection as a part of reflective practice is essential to learning and professional growth. It gives you the chance to initiate and engage in the process of continuous improvement for yourself. Through self-reflection you can gain insight into why and how you make choices. Use the process to inform your practice and grow in your career (See Figure 1). At the end of each section, there are questions related to each section’s topic. These questions are designed to support your reflective practice.

The Reflective Practice Process follows the steps: What do I know? What do I want to know? What have I learned? What will I do with what I have learned? What happened when I applied what I learned?

The reflective practice process is a way for you to take information — maybe from a recent experience — and ask questions that can help you consider the next steps. These questions may include:

  • What do I know? What experiences have I had with this topic? What do these experiences mean, and how could they impact my work?
  • What do I want to know? What do I want to explore and learn about?
  • What have I learned? What new ideas, perspectives, or strategies have been confirmed or discovered?
  • What will I do with what I have learned? What idea, strategy, or activity will I try?
  • What happened when I used what I learned? What happened when I tried a new idea or strategy? What discoveries did I make? What changes would I make next time?

Strategies for effective self-reflection include:

  • Observe and document what happens with children, families, and staff during daily interactions. Record children’s progress, staff-parent contacts, and information shared with staff. This is an opportunity for you to understand what does and does not work. Reflect on your observations to help identify ways to improve. Record your reflections in a confidential notebook or electronic file. This can be a valuable learning activity.
  • Think about how your own experiences affect you and your work. Compare your reaction (how a professional situation makes you feel) to your professional action (how you choose to respond professionally in action and words). Caring for children and families is so important, and at times very emotional. Be aware of how your personal perspectives could influence your attitudes and interactions.
  • Think about the perspectives of others. Reflect on families’ perspectives that may differ from yours. This can help you understand their situation and identify strategies to engage them. Acknowledge that you don’t know what may be motivating someone to think or act in a certain way. Perspective taking helps to ensure that families feel seen, heard, and valued — a critical element of equity in family engagement.
  • Identify stressors. Recognize that you may feel stress from both your own experience in the community and your role as a professional working in that community. Being able to name the stressors and talk about them with other professionals can help. Consider reflecting by yourself in a journal if that feels more comfortable for you than sharing these thoughts with a colleague or supervisor.
  • Prioritize wellness. An important aspect of avoiding burnout is prioritizing your own wellness as a staff member. Focus on individualized strategies that help you balance your needs each day. Seeking wellness can have a positive effect on your skills, productivity, and positive engagement with families.

To regularly engage in reflective practice, you can:

  • Connect with peers and supervisors to discuss and reflect on your experiences.
  • Find a process and system that works for you.
  • Assign time to your calendar for reflective practice and make it a routine task.
  • Consider how reflective practice contributes to your wellness routines.

Reflection Questions

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

  • What makes you passionate about your work? What brings you joy? What do you want to bring to your work?
  • What would you consider to be your strengths?
  • In which of your job duties and activities would you like extra support?
  • How do you currently engage in self-reflection? What strategies do you use? What new strategies would you like to try?
  • How could considering the family’s point of view inform your work and advance equity?

Key Takeaways

  • Family services work is centered in positive, goal-oriented relationships with families. These relationships are collaborative. They are strengthened by trust and care for the well-being, safety, health, and economic stability of each family.
  • Professional development can help you:
    • Identify and celebrate your successes.
    • Manage challenges you may face.
    • Generate new ideas about what you can do more efficiently and effectively.
  • Reflective practice involves taking the time to be thoughtful and curious and to think creatively about your everyday interactions with families. Then review what is working and what is not.

Action Starters

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