50 Years of Prioritizing Families in Head Start

Kiersten Beigel

By Kiersten Beigel

"Get involved. Know what your child is being taught. Be a part of your child's teaching."
— Head Start Parent

Family engagement has always been a cornerstone and a great source of pride for Head Start. Looking back, both consistent commitment and important policy efforts have kept family engagement in the forefront of the program. The love and hope that parents have for their young children has been a constant. Families have placed trust in staff, both for their children and themselves. This continual trust has led to inspiring growth, healing, and life success for so many. Parents and programs have remained faithful to the belief that the care and education of children is a partnership.

On the policy side, there have been key commitments to families from the beginning. In 1965, a panel of experts chaired by Dr. Robert Cooke paved the way for meaningful family involvement in their initial recommendations for the Head Start program [PDF, 42KB]. Their report stated, "Parents should be involved both for their own and their children's benefit. Many of them have deep feelings of love and aspiration for their children which can be capitalized upon in this program." The role of parents was prioritized through the first program policies—in the 1967 Manual of Policies and Instruction (70.2), and later the 1973 Head Start Program Performance Standards. The policies outlined parents's involvement as teachers, decision-makers and advocates, employees and volunteers, and as developers and designers of program activities.

In 1988, Head Start's Task Force on Social Services looked carefully at the social service needs of families. They also examined the community partnerships and staff skills needed to improve families' lives. The task force recommended, "The interface of Social Services staff with community-based service organizations must continue to be seen as a key element in the successful development of a comprehensive social services delivery system."

In 1993, the then Head Start Bureau put forth the Head Start Vision for Parent Involvement. It was this vision statement that led to the Head Start adage, "Parent Involvement is everybody's business." It outlined the need "to create and sustain a partnership and collaboration with all Head Start parents, with goals to:

  • Support parents as primary educators, nurturers, and advocates for the their children;
  • Provide every parent with opportunities for a significant experience in Head Start; and
  • Ensure that parents are involved in making policy and program decisions for their Head Start program."

In 2011, the Office of Head Start (OHS) set new family engagement priorities in motion. OHS funded the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) and publicized the PFCE Framework. It instituted a new road map for implementing evidenced-based and research-informed approaches to effective family engagement.

Over the years, there have been many more recommendations, policy efforts, and staff investments supporting the role of families. Work at the local, regional, and national level has strengthened this commitment. Together, these efforts have helped to ensure that families were, are, and will continue to be our priority partners in the care and education of our youngest children. Former OHS Director Yvette Sanchez Fuentes said it so well in one of her 2012 speeches:

"We are committed to forming partnerships with families in order to strengthen family well-being and support bonds between parents and their children. On a daily basis, Head Start parents come together to work to better their local program. They continue to guide staff and management on the direction the program needs to go to meet the needs of the local community. Whether it's serving on the policy committee, volunteering in the classroom, speaking with program management, or engaging in conversations with teachers about their children's progress, parents are solution-oriented. They have to be. When parents see a problem or think there's a better way of doing things, trust me, they speak up."

Here's to 50 more years of honoring the parent voice in Head Start and Early Head Start!

Kiersten Beigel is a Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start.


50 Years of Prioritizing Families in Head Start. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2015. English.

Last Reviewed: April 2015

Last Updated: April 16, 2015