The Head Start Mental Health Research Consortium

Research is being conducted to develop new approaches for preventing, identifying, and treating mental health issues in children. Head Start programs, their partners, and Federal staff can create a research group, such as the Head Start Mental Health Research Consortium, to identify services, determine the different types of mental health problems that exist, and assess the impact of home-based and classroom-based skills training interventions on children’s social and emotional development.

The following is an excerpt from ...
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by Rhonda C. Boyd and Michael Lopez

Rates of Problems
Future Directions

In 1997, five research grants were funded through a collaboration between the Administration on Children, Youth and Families and the National Institute of Mental Health, as the core component of a research initiative designed to develop and study new approaches for preventing, identifying, and treating the mental health concerns of young children served by Head Start. These researchers, Federal staff and Head Start partners, as well as other researchers conducting similar research, comprise the Head Start Mental Health Research Consortium (HSMHRC). The goals of the HSMHRC are to—

  • identify the current range of mental health related services;
  • determine the types, rates, and severity of mental health problems; and
  • assess the impact of home-based and classroom-based skills training interventions on children’s mental health problems or overall social and emotional functioning.

The five projects are—

  1. Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Early Screening Project. Institute On Violence and Destructive Behavior, College of Education, University of Oregon. (Principal Investigator: Hill Walker)

  2. UNC-Head Start Partnership on Mental Health Interventions. Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Principal Investigator: Donna Bryant)

  3. Systematic Early Detection and Self- Determination Approach for Mental Health Intervention in Head Start. Special Education/At-Risk Program. College of Education, University of New Mexico with partners at the University of California, Los Angeles. (Principal Investigator: Loretta Serna)

  4. Early Identification and Prevention of Conduct Disorder in Head Start Children. Peabody College, Vanderbilt University with partners at Pennsylvania State University (Principal Investigator: Ann Kaiser).

  5. The Emotional Health of Low-Income Children Over Time: Influences of Neighborhood, Family, Head Start, and Early School Experiences. Teachers College, Columbia University with partners at Harvard University. (Principal Investigator: Jeanne Brooks-Gunn)

These projects are in the fourth year of their 5-year research grants. A few preliminary findings are presented below. (The variability in percentages reported for each of these areas is the result of different settings, samples of children, and assessment measures across the different sites that comprise the HSMHC.)

Rates of problems

  • Approximately 10% to 34% of children are described by their parents and teachers as experiencing problems with anxiety, depression, fears, sleep, and withdrawal.
  • Approximately 8% to 52% of children are described by their parents and teachers as exhibiting aggressive and destructive behavior.
  • Approximately 10% of Head Start children are reported by their teachers as being aggressive every day. This percentage is similar to what is seen for preschoolers in other child care settings.
  • Almost 50% of parents report that their children have less than average social skills.
  • Head Start children exhibiting problems with anxiety, depression, fears, and withdrawal symptoms are also more likely to be reported as having low social skills.
  • As Head Start children become older, they are more likely to be able to control their impulses, but the ability to control their impulses is harder when the children are in groups with peers.
  • A classroom-based, culturally adapted prevention program focusing on skill building for all children in selected Head Start classrooms showed some benefit for attentional skills, social interaction, and adaptive behavior of children.

Future Directions

An important element of this collaborative mental health research consortium is that for several crucial child, parent, and classroom characteristics or domains, similar information was collected across two or more projects. This approach will allow important cross-site comparisons. The HSMHRC is in the process of gathering the cross-site information to report major findings on the mental health of more than 2,400 Head Start children across different geographic regions, populations, and program approaches.

The major aims of the cross-site effort are to investigate risk and protective factors related to mental health problems; exposure to violence; classroom quality and teacher characteristics; parental depression; mental health needs of Head Start children; and accurately screening mental health problems.

These cross-site aims are consistent with the initial goals of the HSMHRC, but also address some of the pertinent issues facing a broader range of Head Start children, families, and staff across the country. 

Rhonda C. Boyd was a Society for Research in Child Development Fellow, CORE. T: 215-590-3945; E: Michael Lopez is Lead Senior Social Science Research Analyst, CORE. T: 202-205-8212; E:

"The Head Start Mental Health Research Consortium."  Boyd, Rhonda C. and Lopez, Michael. Child Mental Health. Head Start Bulletin #73. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2002. English.

Last Reviewed: September 2009

Last Updated: October 2, 2014