Interactive Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five

A guide to what children should know and do in five central developmental domains


The Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five describes the skills, behaviors, and knowledge that programs must foster in all children.

The Framework is grounded in a comprehensive body of research about what young children should know and be able to do to succeed in school. It describes how children progress across key areas of learning and development and specifies learning outcomes in these areas. This information will help adults better understand what they should be doing to provide effective learning experiences that support important early learning outcomes.

Programs should use the Framework to guide their choices in curriculum and learning materials, to plan daily activities, and to inform intentional teaching practices. Aligning instruction and opportunities for play, exploration, discovery, and problem-solving with the early learning outcomes described in the Framework will promote successful learning in all children. Programs should also use the Framework with families to help them engage in their children’s learning. This Framework replaces the 2010 Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework.

The first five years of life is a time of wondrous development and learning. Children grow from infants communicating through babbling and crawling on all fours—to toddlers speaking short sentences and beginning to run—to preschoolers telling detailed stories and kicking a ball to a friend. All young children learn in the context of caring, responsive, and stimulating relationships as they explore the world around them.

Yet, the quality of their early experiences can vary dramatically, and this can influence their learning and development. For example, by three years of age, some children have large vocabularies and others have much smaller ones. These differences usually reflect the everyday language experiences that children have with adults as well as other experiential and developmental factors. Such differences can have a lasting impact on later school success. Head Start and other early childhood programs must create stimulating learning environments and implement intentional teaching strategies that ensure all children are ready to succeed in school.

Family engagement and comprehensive services also play critical roles in children’s development and school readiness. They remain essential services in Head Start. The Framework does not address these service areas because they are detailed in the Head Start Program Performance Standards. The Framework describes the skills, behaviors, and knowledge that programs need to foster in all children.

Guiding Principles for School Readiness

The guiding principles of the Framework have been fundamental to the Head Start program from its inception. They underlie the program policies and practices that prepare young children for success in school and beyond.

  • Each child is unique and can succeed. Children are individuals with different rates and paths of development. Each child is uniquely influenced by their prenatal envi­ronment, temperament, physiology, and life experiences. With the appropriate support, all children can be successful learners and achieve the skills, behaviors, and knowledge described in the Framework.
  • Learning occurs within the context of relationships. Caring families, teachers, and other adults matter in a young child's life. Responsive and supportive interactions with adults are essential to children's learning.
  • Families are children's first and most important caregivers, teachers, and advocates. Families must be respected and supported as the primary influence in their child's early learning and education. Their knowledge, skills, and cultural backgrounds contribute to children's school readiness.
  • Children learn best when they are emotionally and physically safe and secure. Nurturing, responsive, and consis­tent care helps create safe environments where children feel secure and valued. In these settings, children are able to engage fully in learning experiences.
  • Areas of development are integrated, and children learn many concepts and skills at the same time. Any single skill, behavior, or ability may involve multiple areas of development. For example, as infants gain fine motor skills, they can manipulate objects in new ways and deepen their understanding of cause and effect. As preschoolers gain new verbal skills, they can better manage their emotions and form more complex friendships.
  • Teaching must be intentional and focused on how children learn and grow. Children are active, engaged, and eager learners. Good teaching practices build on these intrinsic strengths by providing develop­mentally appropriate instruction and oppor­tunities for exploration and meaningful play.
  • Every child has diverse strengths rooted in their family's culture, background, language, and beliefs. Responsive and respectful learning environments welcome children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Effective teaching practices and learning experiences build on the unique backgrounds and prior experiences of each child.

The Organization of the Framework

The Framework is organized into the following elements: Domains, Sub-Domains, Goals, Developmental Progressions, and Indicators.

  • RESEARCH-BASED–Informed by research as being reasonably achievable, age appropriate, and aligned with kindergarten expectations.
  • COMPREHENSIVE–Cover the central domains of early learning and skills children need to succeed in school and provide sufficient breadth and depth in each area.
  • INCLUSIVE–Relevant for children from diverse linguistic, economic, and cultural backgrounds and for children with disabilities.
  • MANAGEABLE–Include a reasonable number of domains, sub-domains, goals, and indicators that programs can effectively implement.
  • MEASURABLE–Reflect observable skills, behaviors, and concepts.


The Domains are broad areas of early learning and development from birth to 5 years that are essential for school and long-term success. The central domains are:

  • Approaches to Learning
  • Social and Emotional Development
  • Language and Literacy
  • Cognition
  • Perceptual, Motor, and Physical Development

Each domain is related to and influences the others. For example, as preschoolers’ working memory develops (a component of Approaches to Learning), their ability to follow multiple-step instructions improves, and their ability to learn complex math concepts increases.

Because areas of early learning become more differentiated as children get older, some domains for preschoolers are captured differently than they are for infants and toddlers. Specifically, the single domain of Language and Communication for infants and toddlers becomes two domains–Language and Communication and Literacy–for preschoolers. This distinction best reflects the breadth and depth of development for 3- to 5-year-olds. Likewise, the single domain of Cognition for infants and toddlers is presented as two different domains for preschoolers: Mathematics Development and Scientific Reasoning. The domain structure captures important developmental differences across the ages and guides effective teaching practices that support strong child outcomes.


The Sub-Domains are categories or components of development within a domain. For example, for the Social and Emotional Development domain, sub-domains include relationships with adults, relationships with other children, emotional functioning, and sense of identity and belonging.


The Goals are broad statements of expectations for children’s learning and development. The goals describe broad skills, behaviors, and concepts within a sub-domain that are important for success in school. These are sometimes referred to as standards in state early learning guidelines.

Developmental Progressions

The Developmental Progressions describe the skills, behaviors, and concepts that children will demonstrate as they progress towards a given goal within an age period. The term “emerging” is used for the youngest infant age group when specific skills, behaviors, or concepts have not yet emerged or are not yet observable.


Indicators are identified for each goal for children 36 months and 60 months of age. They describe specific, observable skills, behaviors, and concepts that children should know and be able to do at the end of Early Head Start (by 36 months) or at the end of Head Start (by 60 months). Given children’s individual differences, some children may demonstrate these indicators before the designated age period and some may demonstrate them later. The indicators listed for each age are not exhaustive—other indicators related to the goal may be observed.

The Framework is not to be used as a curriculum, assessment, or checklist. It is never to be used to conclude a child has failed in any way or that a child is not ready to transition into Head Start or kindergarten.

How to Use the Interactive Framework

Please select a Central Domain from the top row of the grid below to get started. The domains are broad areas of early learning and development for children birth to 5 years. They are essential for school and long-term success.

Select a central domain from the second row to review the Infant/Toddler Subdomains within that domain. Choose from the third row to review the Preschool Subdomains. The subdomains are categories or components of development within a specific domain.

Each infant/toddler and preschooler central domain is broken down into subdomains. Choose a subdomain to view the Goals, Developmental Progression, and Indicators. The goals are broad statements of expectations for children's learning and development. Select a goal to view the development progression that describes the skills, behaviors, and concepts that children will demonstrate as they progress toward that goal. The goals also include indicators, which describe specific, observable skills, behaviors, and concepts that children should know and be able to do by the end of Early Head Start (36 months) or Head Start (60 months).

Select any item to see the associated subdomains, goals, developmental progressions, and indicators. Find related resources for frontline staff, professional development, and for families.