Welcome to Early Head Start

Are you a newly funded program? Have you hired new staff or converted Head Start slots to Early Head Start? Use the resources below to find important information that can help you on your path to providing high-quality comprehensive services to children and families.

For more resources on Early Head Start, check out these other pages:

About Early Head Start

The reauthorization of the Head Start Act in 1994 made it possible to establish Early Head Start as a program to serve infants and toddlers under the age of 3, and pregnant women.

Early Head Start provides early, continuous, intensive, and comprehensive child development and family support services to low-income infants and toddlers and their families, and pregnant women and their families.

The Goals of Early Head Start

  • To provide safe and developmentally enriching caregiving which promotes the physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of infants and toddlers, and prepares them for future growth and development;
  • To support parents, both mothers and fathers, in their role as primary caregivers and teachers of their children, and families in meeting personal goals and achieving self sufficiency across a wide variety of domains;
  • To mobilize communities to provide the resources and environment necessary to ensure a comprehensive, integrated array of services and support for families;
  • To ensure the provision of high quality responsive services to family through the development of trained, and caring staff.

The Principles of Early Head Start
These principles are designed to nurture healthy attachments between parent and child (and child and caregiver), emphasize a strengths-based, relationship-centered approach to services, and encompass the full range of a family's needs from pregnancy through a child's third birthday.

They include:

  • An Emphasis on High Quality which recognizes the critical opportunity of EHS programs to positively impact children and families in the early years and beyond.
  • Prevention and Promotion Activitiesthat both promote healthy development and recognize and address atypical development at the earliest stage possible.
  • Positive Relationships and Continuitywhich honor the critical importance of early attachments on healthy development in early childhood and beyond. The parents are viewed as a child's first, and most important, relationship.
  • Parent Involvement activities that offer parents a meaningful and strategic role in the program's vision, services, and governance.
  • Inclusion strategies that respect the unique developmental trajectories of young children in the context of a typical setting, including children with disabilities.
  • Cultural competence which acknowledges the profound role that culture plays in early development. Programs also recognize the influence of cultural values and beliefs on both staff and families' approaches to child development. Programs work within the context of home languages for all children and families.
  • Comprehensiveness, Flexibility and Responsiveness of services which allow children and families to move across various program options over time, as their life situation demands.
  • Transition planning respects families' need for thought and attention paid to movements across program options and into—and out of—Early Head Start programs.
  • Collaboration is, simply put, central to an Early Head Start program's ability to meet the comprehensive needs of families. Strong partnerships allow programs to expand their services to families with infants and toddlers beyond the door of the program and into the larger community


  1. Child Development: Programs must support the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language development of each child. Parenting education and the support of a positive parent-child relationship are critical to this cornerstone.
  2. Family Development: Programs must seek to empower families by developing goals for themselves and their children. Staff and parents develop individualized family development plans that focus on the child's developmental needs and the family's social and economic needs. Families that are involved in other programs requiring a family service plan will receive a single coordinated plan so that they experience a seamless system of services.
  3. Community Building: Programs are expected to conduct an assessment of community resources so that they may build a comprehensive network of services and supports for pregnant women and families with young children. The goal of these collaborative relationships is to increase family access to community supports, make the most efficient use of limited resources, and effect system-wide changes to improve the service delivery system for all families in the community.
  4. Staff Development: The success of the Early Head Start program rests largely on the quality of the staff. Staff members must have the capacity to develop caring, supportive relationships with both children and families. On-going training, supervision, and mentoring will encompass an inter-disciplinary approach and emphasize relationship-building. Staff development will be grounded in established "best practices" in the areas of child development, family development, and community building.

Program Options
All Early Head Start programs serve families through a full day, full year program option that best meets the needs of their families. Program options provide options, determined through the data collected from their community needs assessment and conversations with families, provide them with the ability to comprehensively and flexibly meet the needs of families. As infants and toddlers grow and change, and as family needs evolve, diverse program options can support them over time. This ensures that families can grow within a consistent, supportive setting, buttressed by strong relationships and developmentally-appropriate care and services. Program options for EHS include the following:

  • Center-Based services provide early learning, care and enrichment experiences to children in an early care and education setting. Staff members also visit family homes at least twice per year.
  • Home-Based services are provided through weekly home visits to each enrolled child and family.  The home visitor provides child-focused visits that promote the parents' ability to support the child's development. Twice per month, the program offers opportunities for parents and children to come together as a group for learning, discussion, and social activity
  • Family Child Care services provide care and education to children in a private home or family-like setting.
  • Combination services combine both home- and center-based services.

Early Head Start Benefits Children and Families

A national evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and Columbia University's Center for Children and Families, in collaboration with the Early Head Start Research Consortium, found:

  • That 3-year-old Early Head Start Children performed significantly better on a range of measures of cognitive, language, and social-emotional development than a randomly assigned control group.
  • The parents of the 3-year-olds scored significantly higher than control group parents on many aspects of home environment and parenting behavior.
  • There were impacts for parents on progress towards self-sufficiency, and for fathers specifically.

The Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project (EHSREP) involved 3,001 children and families in 17 sites; half received EHS services and half were randomly assigned to a control group that did not receive EHS services. Parents and children were assessed when the children were 14, 24, and 36 months old. Families were also interviewed about their use of a wide range of services at 6, 15, and 26 months after enrollment, and when they exited the program.

Overall Impacts at Age 3:

  • EHS program children scored 91.4 on the Bayley Mental Development Index, compared with 89.9 for control group children, and they scored 83.3 on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, compared to 81.1 for the control group. Early Head Start children were significantly less likely than control group children to score in the at-risk range of developmental functioning as tested in both the Bayley and Peabody measures.
  • EHS children engaged their parents more, were less negative toward their parents, and more attentive to objects during play.
  • EHS parents rated their children as lower in aggressive behavior than control parents did.
  • EHS parents were more emotionally supportive and less detached than control group.
  • EHS parents were more likely to report reading to their child every day: 56.8 percent of EHS parents compared to 52.0 percent of control group.
  • EHS parents were less likely to report having spanked their children in the past week (46.7 percent program parents vs. 53.8 percent control group parents. EHS parents reported a greater repertoire of discipline strategies, including more mild and fewer punitive strategies.
  • EHS fathers were less likely to reports spanking their children during the previous week; 25.4 percent of program fathers, compared to 35.6 percent of control fathers.
  • EHS program children were observed to be more able to engage their fathers and to be more attentive during play.

For more information, visit: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/early-head-start-benefits-children-and-families-research-to-practice-brief

How the Performance Standards Support New Early Head Start Programs

Lessons Learned from the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project

The Head Start Program Performance Standards (the Performance Standards) were established to implement all requirements of program administration and grants management contained in the Head Start Act. All programs must focus on fully implementing the comprehensive Performance Standards focusing on both child and family functioning, as quickly as possible in order to achieve broad and strong pattern of impacts for children and families.

In looking at implementation of the Performance Standards, the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project (EHSREP) found that the pattern of impacts across Child Development and Health, Family Development, and Community Building, and Management Systems and Procedures was stronger for those programs that fully implemented them early.

The study found:

  • All programs had positive impacts; however, those providing diverse program options had the broadest and strongest pattern of impacts. Those programs that fully implemented the Performance Standards had the broadest pattern of impacts for children and families.
  • Those programs with the home-based option tended to have impact on parenting and parent self-sufficiency outcomes.
  • Center-based programs, and home-based programs that fully implemented the Performance Standards with a strong focus on child development, had impacts on child outcomes at age 3.

Strategies for successful implementation included:

  • Increasing emphasis on child development through curriculum selection
  • Expanding child development services through partnership with quality child care
  • Working with community child care to improve quality in both Early Head Start programs and child care
  • Establishing and maintaining community partnerships to support families' ability to access services
  • Developing management information systems to facilitate information on families' access to services, especially health services

The EHSREP found that overall, children and families benefitted from Early Head Start.

Methods: The EHSREP included three rounds of week-long site visits to each of the 17 programs in the study during the period of 1996 to 1999. In order to achieve full implementation, a program scored at least four on a five-point scale for all domains assessed: Child Development and Health, Family Development, and Community Building, and Management Systems and Procedures.

For more information, visit: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/how-the-performance-standards-support-new-early-head-start-programs

Commonly Asked Questions about Early Head Start

Pregnant women and babies up to age three receive support from Early Head Start (EHS). Staff learn about administrative and program requirements for delivering intensive and individualized services throughout the first three years of a child's life.

The following is an update to the excerpt from...
Head Start Bulletin logo
by Laura A. Schad

How many years should children remain in EHS?

EHS serves pregnant women and children from birth to age 3. Although a child can be enrolled anytime from birth to age 3, the intent of EHS is to intervene early and provide intensive, individualized services throughout the first three years of a child's life. Programs serving pregnant women are expected to enroll the newborn into child development services.

If there are two or more children from the same family enrolled in an EHS home-based program, how long is the weekly home visit?

The Head Start Program Performance Standards require individualized services for each child enrolled in the program. In the home-based option, services are provided through weekly home visits that are a minimum of one-and-a-half hours (90 minutes) long. When families have more than one child enrolled in EHS services, it can be challenging to meet the individual needs of each child in a 90-minute visit. Therefore, staff offer the family a weekly 90-minute home visit for each child so that home visits can be planned to build on each child's unique skills and needs. Home visitors explore each family's interest in and availability for longer or multiple home visits over a week. Home visitors and families plan together how home visits will be delivered to ensure that individualized services are provided to each enrolled child within a family's schedule.

Can program staff, in addition to home visitors, organize and conduct group socializations?

Yes, other program staff and community partners are often valuable resources for implementing developmentally appropriate socializations for infants and toddlers. However, the home-based visitor who works weekly in the family's home should be involved in the planning and implementation of socializations for their assigned children and their parents. Socializations should reflect the goals and experiences that are connected to and build upon home visits.

Are EHS programs required to provide formula for children in center-based programs?

Yes. Depending on the length of time the child is in the center, EHS must meet between 1/3 to 2/3 of a child's daily nutritional needs. The cost of formula is reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Formula should be available during socializations if needed.

What is start-up?

The process of planning for and implementing program services early in the grant project is often called the "start-up" process.

Can newly funded EHS grantees hire a consultant to support their beginning phases of providing services?

Grantees may opt to hire a consultant to help their leadership team through this process. This may be particularly useful for agencies that have never provided Head Start or Early Head Start services. Hiring such a consultant is an allowable use of Head Start funds.

Is it possible to hire and train EHS staff during the start-up period?

All newly funded grantees need to do extensive organizational and programmatic planning to appropriately implement their proposed services by the award start date. Part of the planning includes how the grantee will hire, orient, and train staff so that staff can fulfill the responsibilities of their particular position in the EHS program.

Some newly funded grantees applied for and were awarded start-up funding for pre-award activity. Approval of start-up/pre-award costs is not guaranteed; they are negotiated at the time of award and are based on reasonableness, necessity, and the availability of funds. Examples of start-up activities are facility renovations, purchase of classroom supplies, building purchase, licensing, background checks, training staff, etc.

In a home-based option, is it acceptable for early intervention staff from a Part C agency to conduct EHS home visits when the EHS home visitor is not present?

The response to this question depends on the needs of a family and the type of partnership agreement that the EHS program has with their Part C provider. According to the Head Start Program Performance Standards, home visits must be conducted on a weekly basis throughout the year. In addition, the EHS program must be certain that all relevant regulations – including child development, parent involvement, health services, and social services – are implemented. A Part C provider may conduct EHS home visits in partnership with the EHS program or as part of a contract with the EHS program. In either situation, the EHS program is responsible for coordinating services that a child or their family may require as mandated by the Performance Standards, and for ensuring that the services are provided. The contract or agreement must outline and clearly describe the responsibilities of the partners. EHS programs may have similar home-visiting partnership agreements with other qualified community partners, such as home visiting nurses.

If a grantee or delegate agency has both Early Head Start and Head Start programs, should they have one or two policy councils/committees?

There should be only one policy council (for grantees) or one policy committee (for delegates) per agency. The representation of parents serving on the policy council or committee should be proportionate to the funded enrollment of each program.

Are EHS programs required to make 90-minute home visits to pregnant women enrolled in their program?

Pregnant women are not enrolled in a program option such as home or center-based. These are program service options for delivery of services to children. EHS grantees and delegate agencies serving pregnant women are required to deliver some services, such as prenatal education, while assisting in accessing others, such as health care. Plans for services to pregnant women are designed to meet the individual needs of each woman and her family. Through the family partnership process, EHS programs work with the pregnant woman to identify goals and make plans for meeting these goals. Although home visits may be an integral part of the plan for service delivery, they are not specifically required.

Can socialization experiences for infants and toddlers be held outside of the program's licensed setting, such as at a beach or park?

Yes, as long as the environment is safe and appropriate in terms of meeting the developmental needs of the children. It is important that socialization experiences be planned on the basis of the goals and subsequent needs of the individual children enrolled in the EHS program. Socializations should be offered in environments where children can be kept healthy and safe.

Are double sessions appropriate for EHS programs serving infants and toddlers?

No, double sessions are not appropriate for EHS.

If state regulations allow 12 children under the age of three in a group with three teachers, can that supersede the Head Start standard of a maximum group size of eight?

No, maximum group size for EHS children cannot exceed eight children with two teachers. This regulation also applies to EHS children in community-based child care programs.

If parents of an EHS child have another baby, must the program enroll that child as well?

Not necessarily. EHS programs are required to develop recruitment, enrollment, and selection procedures. These procedures will guide the enrollment of children in the EHS program. Family income must be verified when any child is enrolled.

Can you count a high-risk pregnancy or a pregnant woman with a disability as a part of the 10 percent enrollment requirement for children with disabilities?

No. For a child to count toward the 10 percent enrollment requirement for children with disabilities, he or she must have an active Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) developed by the local Part C agency.

When is the first-year program review conducted?

A review of each newly designated grantee will occur immediately after the completion of the first year of operation.

What is the definition of a newly designated grantee?

A newly designated grantee is an agency that has never received a Head Start grant award prior to their newly funded award. Newly funded agencies that previously operated as delegate agencies for another Head Start/Early Head Start program would be considered a newly designated grantee.

Can EHS children transition into preschool Head Start if they are not 3 years old by the time of the state's compulsory school age requirement?

Since Sec. 645(c) of the Head Start Act does not preclude enrolling children in preschool Head Start who do not meet the compulsory school age requirement for their state, and Sec. 645(b)(7) supports continued preschool Head Start services for Early Head Start children, the guiding principle is that Head Start preschool grantees may serve children "as of their third birthday" under the following circumstances:

1) when the recommendation from Head Start and Early Head Start program is based on solid transition planning that takes into consideration the child's needs;

2) when the placement is developmentally appropriate for the child;

3) when the child meets the program's eligibility, enrollment and selection
criteria; and

4) when the preschool Head Start grantee/delegate agency has an approved process for selection and enrollment that supports enrolling children as of their third birthday, when appropriate.

Select the links below for more information:

  • Head Start and Early Head Start School Readiness Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
  • Policy Clarifications
  • Early Head Start Tip Sheets

"Commonly Asked Questions about Early Head Start." Schad, Laura A. Early Head Start. Head Start Bulletin No. 69. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2000. Updated by OHS, Nov. 2013. English.

How Do I Enroll My Child in Early Head Start?

Eligibility for Head Start and Early Head Start is based on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Poverty Guidelines. To learn more about these guidelines, please visit the HHS website.

To apply or to determine eligibility, you will need to contact an Early Head Start directly. You may locate programs in your area by using the Head Start Locator below, or by calling 1-866-763-6481 (toll-free). Contact your local program for more information. They will provide the required forms and answer questions about the program.

Head Start Center Locator

The Head Start locator is a searchable directory that provides locations, addresses, and driving directions for Head Start programs, centers, and grantees. To find a Head Start or Early Head Start program near you, begin your search by entering the city and state information.

Last Reviewed: June 2015

Last Updated: February 9, 2016