Head Start Approach to School Readiness – Overview

The Head Start Approach to School Readiness means that children are ready for school, families are ready to support their children's learning, and schools are ready for children. Learn more about the approach:

  • Physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development are all essential ingredients of school readiness.
  • Head Start views school readiness as children possessing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for success in school and for later learning and life.
  • Programs must establish school readiness goals that are appropriate for the ages and development of enrolled children in the following domains:
    • Language and Literacy
    • Cognition
    • Approaches to Learning
    • Physical health and motor development
    • Social and Emotional Development
  • Implementing and measuring progress toward school readiness goals helps programs individualize for each child and ensure that children know and can do what is needed to be ready for kindergarten.
  • Head Start respects parents as their children's primary nurturers, teachers, and advocates, and programs are required to consult with parents in establishing school readiness goals
  • As children transition to kindergarten, Head Start programs and schools should work together to promote school readiness and engage families.

The three frameworks below and their accompanying graphics provide the foundation for comprehensive child development and family engagement services that lead to school readiness for young children and families.

Frameworks for Understanding School Readiness

School Readiness Goals

Regulation 45 CFR Chapter XIII Part 1307 requires all agencies to establish school readiness goals, defined as "the expectations of children's status and progress across domains of language and literacy development, cognition and general knowledge, approaches to learning, physical health and well-being and motor development, and social and emotional development that will improve readiness for kindergarten goals" (Part 1307.2).

Each agency must utilize the five domains, represented by the central domains of the Framework as the basis for school readiness goals. Agencies should articulate how the curriculum and child assessment(s) address or align with the established goals, and how parents are involved in this process. Head Start programs are expected to:

  1. Adopt and align established OHS goals from the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five (HSELOF, 2015).
  2. Create and implement a plan of action for achieving the goals.
  3. Assess child progress on an ongoing basis and aggregate and analyze data three times per year.
  4. Examine data for patterns of progress for groups of children in order to develop and implement a plan for program improvement (ACF-PI-HS-11-04).

In order to help address school readiness requirements, the Office of Head Start will continue to communicate and support local programs, and will guide the efforts of the Training and Technical Assistance (T/TA) Network. Communications will support programs' continued efforts to build their systems and to deliver quality services to children, families, and communities.

Core Strategies to Promote School Readiness

In order to help prepare children to be successful when they enter school, Head Start programs may implement core strategies such as the following:

  • Implementing an integrated curriculum that addresses the essential domains of school readiness in the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five (HSELOF, 2015).
  • Aggregating and analyzing child-level assessment data at least three times per year (except for programs operating less than 90 days, which must do so at least twice within the operating program period) and using that data in combination with other program data to determine grantees progress toward meeting its goals, to inform parents and the community of results, and to direct continuous improvement related to curriculum, instruction, professional development, program design and other program decisions (45 CFR Chapter XIII 1307.3 (2)(i), as amended).
  • Providing early learning coaching to staff across program options and settings.
  • Establishing individualized Wellness Plans that promote healthy development for every child.
  • Ensuring a parent partnership process that promotes an understanding of their child's progress, provides support, and encourages learning and leadership.
  • Providing ongoing communication with local schools, and other agencies receiving Early Head Start or Head Start children such as local preschool programs, to exchange information about children and programs and to align services for early learning, health, and family engagement.
  • Creating a learning community among staff to promote innovation, continuous improvement, and integrated services across education, family services, and health.

Frequently Asked School Readiness Questions

Search in Frequently Asked Questions:

FAQs Applicable to Agencies Serving Preschoolers and/or Infants and Toddlers

What is school readiness?

Head Start defines school readiness as children possessing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for success in school and for later learning and life. The Head Start Approach to School Readiness means that children are ready for school, families are ready to support their children’s learning, and schools are ready for children. Head Start is a leader in the early childhood field with a strong, clear, and comprehensive focus on all aspects of healthy development, including physical, cognitive, and social and emotional development, all of which are essential to children getting ready for school.

What are school readiness goals?

School readiness goals articulate the program’s expectations of children’s status and progress across the five essential domains of child development and early learning that will improve children’s readiness for kindergarten [§ 1307.2]. Goals are broad statements that articulate the highest developmental achievement children should attain as a result of Early Head Start and Head Start services. Agencies outline the steps of progression toward these goals through a developmental sequence of age- and stage-appropriate behaviors, skills, and knowledge that children birth-to-five need to acquire to accomplish each broad goal. See example school readiness goals for infants and toddlers [PDF, 552KB] and preschoolers [PDF, 151KB].

What are the five central domains of child development and early learning?

The five central domains are: (1) approaches to learning, (2) social and emotional development, (3) language and literacy, (4) cognition, and (5) perceptual, motor, and physical development. School readiness goals must, at a minimum, address these essential domains of development and early learning [§ 1307.3(b)(1)(ii)]. The five central domains apply to infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children and are highlighted in the Head Start Child Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five (HSELOF, 2015) [PDF,  1.4MB].

overview image of the HSELOF
Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework

When must programs have their school readiness goals established?

Part of the grantee planning process includes setting and reviewing school readiness goals. The Head Start Program Performance Standards require that programs develop long-term and short-term goals [§ 1304.51(i)(1)]. The Head Start Act as amended in 2007 better defined those requirements to ensure the inclusion of school readiness goals [641A(g)(2)]. Per § 1307.3(b)(1), all Head Start and Early Head Start agencies must have school readiness goals established as of December 9, 2011.

What levels of progress do programs track toward their established goals in the five essential domains?

Programs are to measure children's progress at two levels: 1) individual child; and 2) program-wide. The purpose for tracking child level progress is to inform individualized curricular plans and conversations between program staff and parents in an ongoing manner. The purpose of tracking children's progress at the program-wide level is to inform the program's self assessment and continuous improvement plans to ensure quality. The Head Start Learning from Assessment Toolkit includes questionnaires to assist management in reflecting on the ongoing child assessment systems for center-based [PDF, 59KB] and home-based [PDF, 55KB] program services.

Are programs to aggregate data for various program options, including home-based and family child care?

The purpose of analyzing the aggregated data is to learn if the program is supporting growth and developmental progress across each of the domains for all participating children in each program option and setting. The fourth School Readiness Action Step outlined in the attachment to ACF-PI-HS-11-04 [PDF, 30KB] recommends that programs examine the patterns of progress and outcomes (or achieved goals) for groups of children served by the program which may include: by age; by program setting; by program option; and other categories. Agencies may cut and analyze program-level data into groups that they find most valuable to inform their program assessment, quality, and improvement plans. It is likely that agencies operating various program options may find it useful to aggregate data by those groupings.

What data should be used?

Programs should begin with their existing collection of information as they determine the outcomes of services in achieving school readiness goals:

  • What information is currently gathered that marks child and family progress in the various settings and options? Include currently used tools, instruments, methods and processes.
  • What information does this data provide related to how services ensure support to the various groups of children and families in meeting the “developmental” marks across each domain?
  • What additional information is still needed to get a complete understanding about the impacts of programming and services? Family members offer an incredible amount of information that is useful to programs in providing individualized services as well as enhancing program options.
  • What is quality data for programs serving infants and toddlers? [PDF, 364KB]

Must agencies make changes after analyzing the data?

Agencies should use the information learned from the analysis and reporting of aggregated data to do the following:

  • Take stock of current status. Be thoughtful and thorough. Use existing evidence to inform management, staff and parents about program, family, and child outcomes; and
  • Think about possible changes to procedures, tools, and practice based on current evidence. Remember: major changes may not be needed or prudent to children and families or to the program as a whole. Document ideas, discuss with others, create hypothesis, determine next steps (including no action, small adaptations, or big changes), and continue to gather information and evidence over an extended period of time.

FAQs Applicable to Agencies Serving Infants and Toddlers

Are programs that provide birth-to-three services required to have school readiness goals for infants and toddlers?

Yes. Per § 1307.3(b)(1)(i) all Head Start and Early Head Start agencies must establish program goals for improving school readiness of children that appropriately reflect the ages of children participating in the program from birth to five. See example school readiness goals for infants and toddlers [PDF, 552KB].

Does the EHS Program Performance Measure Conceptual Framework relate to school readiness goals?

Yes. The EHS Program Performance Measure Conceptual Framework [PDF, 178KB] (also known as the EHS pyramid model) provides a guide for programs serving infants and toddlers to develop and implement strong support services. Such services are delivered to infants, toddlers and their families to support child development and early learning across the five essential domains framed within the program's school readiness goals [§1307.2]. The text within the Revised EHS Program Performance Measures Conceptual Framework (2012) was modified to represent current OHS language related to ongoing quality improvement, staff qualifications, and family engagement. Note: the concepts behind the Framework have not been changed.

Are programs serving children birth-to-five expected to align their infant and toddler school readiness goals with their preschool school readiness goals?

Yes. Per § 1307.3(b)(1)(ii), school readiness goals for infants and toddlers must align with the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework (HSELOF) around the five central domains, as well as State early learning guidelines and the requirements and expectations of the schools, as they apply to infants and toddlers. The five central domains are highlighted in the Head Start Child Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five (HSELOF, 2015) [PDF,  1.4MB], and apply to infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children. See example school readiness goals for infants and toddlers [PDF, 552KB] and preschoolers [PDF, 151KB].

Are Head Start programs that provide birth-to-five services expected to have the same school readiness goals for birth-to-three and preschool-aged children?

Not necessarily. School readiness goals refer to the program's expectations of children's status and progress across the five essential domains [§ 1307.2]. As programs consider the appropriateness of their state's early learning guidelines and local education agency (LEA) expectations for children birth-to-five, some programs may choose to separate their birth-to-three school readiness goals from their preschool goals. Others may opt to have broad birth-to-five school readiness goals for each of the five essential domains. Either way, programs need to ensure that their school readiness goals for each domain (including indicators, milestones, or objectives) appropriately reflect infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children participating in the program [§ 1307.3(b)(1)(i)]. See example school readiness goals for infants and toddlers [PDF, 552KB] and preschoolers [PDF, 151KB].

What should agencies consider as they align infant and toddler goals with preschool goals?

Agencies should consider that children's development and early learning progresses through a developmental sequence, or continuum, from birth to age five. Agencies must ensure that each goal, along with its objectives, appropriately and accurately reflect the various ages and stages of the children [§ 1307.3(b)(1)(i)]. Although some school readiness goals may broadly apply to birth to five, the indicators which mark children's status and progress for the goal – as well as the strategies used to foster learning and development - are different and need to reflect the varying developmental needs and skill progression from infancy and toddlerhood through preschool. See example school readiness goals for infants and toddlers [PDF, 552KB] and preschoolers [PDF, 151KB].

Are programs serving infants and toddlers expected to align their school readiness goals with parent and community expectations, early learning guidelines (ELG), and local education agency (LEA) expectations?

Yes, all agencies are expected to have school readiness goals that align with state early learning guidelines and the requirements and expectations of the schools to the extent that they apply birth-to-five [§ 1307.3(b)(1)(ii)], and the goals need to be established in consultation with the parents of children participating in the program [§ 1307.3(b)(1)(iii)].

Should programs serving infants and toddlers use the same “Four Strategic Steps” as Head Start programs to assess their program's progress and achievement of school readiness goals?

Yes, Early Head Start and birth-to-five programs are to follow the “Four Strategic Steps” and ensure that the procedures used are appropriate for each age: infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children. For programs with birth-to-three services, action steps must be founded in research and best practices for infants and toddlers.

The four action steps outlined in the attachment to the Program Information on School Readiness [ACF-PI-HS-11-04 [PDF, 30KB] are:

  1. Establish school readiness goals across domains that adopt and align to the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five (HSELOF, 2015), state early learning guidelines, and LEA expectations;
  2. Create and implement an action plan for achieving school readiness goals;
  3. Assess child progress on an ongoing basis and aggregate and analyze data multiple times throughout the year; and
  4. Examine data for patterns of progress for groups of children in order to revise, or develop and implement plans for program improvement.

Are EHS programs expected to aggregate and analyze child assessment data for the various ages of infants and toddlers?

Yes. Be aware that program-level data for infants and toddlers may have small sample sizes due to a wider range of ages; rapid growth rate; different and fewer assessment tools; and services provided in smaller group size, mixed age-groups and more program options and settings. For example, an agency could have two 4-month-old babies within their one family child care setting.

Agencies may already have ongoing systems to present, aggregate, and analyze data that inform curriculum and program plans such as reflecting on hand-written and/or computerized reports during regularly scheduled staff meetings.

See What is quality data for programs serving infants and toddlers? [PDF, 364KB]

Are EHS programs expected to aggregate and analyze child assessment data at least three times per year?

Yes, unless the Early Head Start program is a Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) program operating a shorter program period. Programs operating less than 90 days are required to aggregate and analyze child-level data at last twice within their operating program period [§ 1307.3(b)(2)(i)].

How do home-based programs support infants and toddlers in achieving school readiness goals?

Home-based programs and staff should design and implement home visits and socializations to engage families in the process of supporting their child's development and early learning across the five essential domains while addressing family goals and needs. The Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project informs the field that home-based services [PDF, 329KB] consisting of home visits that focus on child development are associated with greater child cognitive and language development and increased parenting ability to provide language and literacy stimulation in the home.

Do programs need school readiness goals for their services to pregnant women?

No. School readiness goals are set around the program's “expectations of children's status and progress across domains” [§ 1307.2] for “children, birth to five, participating in the program” [§ 1307.3(b)(1)(i) & (ii)]. Programs serving pregnant women are required to deliver high-quality services to meet the educational, health, nutritional, and social needs of the expectant families they serve [§ 1304.40], and likely have program goals and plans they are working toward. Prenatal services can support family well-being and increase the likelihood of healthy fetal growth and brain development, positive birth outcomes and secure attachment relationships between the expectant family members and the developing fetus.

Head Start Approach to School Readiness – Overview. Head Start Approach to School Readiness. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2011. English.

Last Reviewed: September 2016

Last Updated: September 2, 2016