Higher Education Grantees; Strategies to Support Head Start Staff

Head Start staff members are often balancing family, career, and educational pursuits that leave them dealing with many unique challenges while simultaneously pursuing postsecondary early childhood education degrees. The Head Start Community can benefit from this Office of Head Start (OHS) study of the Higher Education Grantee Partnerships (HEG) that highlight the strategies these partnerships use to help staff meet their professional growth needs while coping with many competing interests and responsibilities. Some of the strategies and supports identified in the findings are: tuition assistance; child care; cohort groups to encourage peer networks; academic advising, and flextime to allow staff to attend courses.

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A recent OHS study described how Higher Education Grantee Partnerships (HEG) support Head Start teachers as they pursue postsecondary early childhood education degrees. Through interviews with HEG and Head Start staff, researchers learned the strategies used to address the special challenges of Head Start staff members and how best to meet their learning needs.

To learn this information, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and Xtria, LLC, conducted an in-depth study of 15 of the 54 grantees (five from each of the three HEG consortia). Selection of the 15 grantees was based on key variables and random selection within each consortium of one experienced grantee, one first-time grantee, one grantee offering distance learning, one grantee with small enrollment, and one grantee with large enrollment.

The study found that Head Start staff members face unique challenges while pursuing their degrees. Many are balancing the demands of career, family, and education and require more time to complete their degrees. They feel overwhelmed and seek additional supports to help them succeed. The report indicates that the HEGs in the sample and partnering Head Start managers have learned to offer the type of support that can overcome these challenges.

Support by HEGs and HS Grantees

The HEGs in the study offered the following types of assistance for staff:

  • Tuition assistance
  • Academic advising, which includes guidance with education plans, help with registration, access to financial aid, and help with course selection and course scheduling
  • Workshops to help staff improve their math, writing and computer skills Assistance transferring credits
  • Child care
  • Cohort groups to encourage peer networks
  • Translators/interpreters to provide written translation and simultaneous interpretation and to help with writing tasks
  • Textbook

Supports offered by Head Start grantees in partnership with the HEGs were intended to complement those offered by the HEGs. Head Start grantees provided:

  • Flextime for participating staff to allow them to attend courses, complete coursework, or study for exams—
  • Flextime usually was arranged by hiring a substitute.
  • Motivational support—mentoring and acknowledging staff successes.
  • Cohorts of staff members as a peer support network—most cohorts began their coursework together.
  • Financial and professional development opportunities upon degree completion, such as an increase in salary and/or a promotion.

Distance Learning Options

Some HEGs that offer distance learning provide online courses with assistance for distance learning students. One HEG strategy for success is to provide special computer workshops and computer support on campus and at the Head Start center. The staff enrolled in online distance learning courses also occasionally met in a local classroom and had small discussion groups to increase interaction and enhance learning.

Modifying Coursework

Another HEG support strategy was to modify the content of standard early childhood education classes by placing a focus on Head Start issues. For example, one instructor discussed Head Start practices and approaches to educating young children during her lectures, and required readings related to Head Start families and issues. Other instructors pointed out course content that was particularly relevant to the Head Start Program Performance Standards and encouraged staff to draw from their Head Start experiences when participating in class discussions, projects, and other assignments.

Most Head Start staff felt the courses were relevant to their work with children, and they were able to give examples of how the coursework helped them in their jobs. Head Start staff typically found the general education requirement courses such as math, English, biology and history difficult and less relevant to their Head Start work. To overcome that problem, HEGs helped Head Start staff select from a menu of courses the ones that could be most useful to their work. For example, some selected a nutrition course to fulfill a biology requirement and others chose a children’s literature course to fulfill an English requirement.

Generally, Head Start staff members were satisfied with their experiences with the Higher Education Grantees. By advancing their education, they gained self confidence and experienced a sense of accomplishment. Staff felt it was worth the effort. They reported that their enhanced skills helped them provide better quality care to Head Start children and families and enabled them to act as role models for their own children and for others in their communities.


Pai-Samant, S. N. Meise, S. Caverly, K. Boller, K. Marton & L. Rosenberg. Implementation of the Head Start Higher Education Grantee Partnerships for Improving Head Start Teacher Education. 2006. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Higher Education Grantees; Strategies to Support Head Start Staff." Professional Development. Head Start Bulletin #79. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2007. English.

Last Reviewed: May 2012

Last Updated: March 23, 2016