Head Start and the Evolving Concept of Family Involvement

Sarah Merrill

Did you know that Head Start was the first child development program to include intentional involvement of parents and family engagement in all aspects of services? The program was designed to promote the growth and development of parents and their children. The Planning Committee for Head Start felt that children would benefit from their parents' direct involvement in the program. They agreed that the best way for parents to learn about child development was by participating with their children in the daily activities of the program.

Do You Know?

Quiz: When was parent involvement in Head Start governance first written into law?

  1. 1964
  2. 1970
  3. 1967
  4. 1969

Select to see quiz answer

In 1967, parent involvement as part of the governance of the Head Start program was written into law (P.L. 90-222, Sec 222[a][1][b]. These four basic factors of parent involvement, written into law in 1967, should sound familiar:

  1. Active in the decision-making process about the nature and operation of the program
  2. Participate in the classroom as paid employees, volunteers, and observers
  3. Receive home visits from Head Start staff
  4. Have opportunities to attend parent education activities

At the creation of Head Start, the concept of parent involvement was controversial. The recommendation for parents to be a part of program governance was radical. Previously, all other programs placed parents in separate groups from their children, or simply ignored them.

Although parent involvement was written into law in 1967, their role in governance was spelled out for the first time in 1970 through Part B in the Head Start Policy Manual. This policy was also known as 70.2. Policy 70.2 defined the responsibilities of Policy Councils at the program, delegate, and agency levels. At that time, many Head Start grantees—especially those in public school settings—called Washington, DC and threatened to leave Head Start because 70.2 gave so much authority to parents.

We’ve come a long way since then. In 1996, Head Start Program Performance Standards reminded us that parent involvement means partnering with them. The Head Start Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) Framework, released in 2011, reinforced the idea that it also means engaging them in how the program works. These are important tasks, but they can be hard to accomplish. At times, it may still feel controversial. Take heart. Actively partnering with families in the daily operations of your program empowers them to be actively engaged in the development and learning of their children!

Project Head Start flyer

Ensuring family members are deeply involved in the decision-making processes isn't easy. How did the first Head Start programs figure out what to do? The Parent Involvement 1O-A Workbook of Training Tips Head for Head Start Staff was published in early 1969 to:

  • Clarify the parent involvement process
  • Explain the governance advisory committees and council
  • Outline duties for each of the advisory committees
  • Propose staff roles to actively support parent involvement
  • Offer ways parents could be involved in the program, such as volunteers or paid workers
  • List the chances to support parents and their children
  • Suggest topics for parent meetings

Parents and family members have been and continue to be wonderful contributors to the Head Start program. Since the beginning, they have provided a great deal of support for Head Start programs and the children they serve.

Want to see footage from the 1960s? The LBJ Library YouTube channel has a collection of videos worth watching.

Hear more modern parents talk about how Head Start has changed them. Watch and listen to these parents and families share their positive experiences with Head Start programs.

Visit the 50th anniversary page for more videos, pictures, and stories.

Sarah Merrill is a Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start.

Head Start Defines Parent and Family Involvement. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2015. English.

Last Reviewed: March 2015

Last Updated: March 31, 2015