8.3 Early Childhood Development


What Is It?

The purpose of Early Head Start and Head Start is to “provide family-centered services for low-income families with very young children designed to promote the development of the children, and to enable their parents to fulfill their roles as parents and to move toward self-sufficiency”. [Sec. 645A. [42 U.S.C. 9840A] (a)]

The purpose of Head Start is to “promote the school readiness of low-income children by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development

  • in a learning environment that supports children’s growth in language, literacy, mathematics, science, social and emotional functioning, creative arts, physical skills, and approaches to learning; and

  • through the provision to low-income children and their families of health, educational, nutritional, social, and other services that are determined, based on family needs assessments, to be necessary” (Sec. 636. [42 U.S.C. 9831]). 

Child development is a complex set of processes that include physical, social, psychological, and cognitive growth and learning in the domains of physical development and health, approaches to learning, social and emotional development, cognition and general knowledge, and language and literacy.

The foundations for all of the domains are constructed prenatally and in the first five years of life. These early accomplishments are vital for success in school and in life.

Your knowledge of child development will help you to observe the learning in a child’s actions and interests. You can help parents appreciate the lifelong impact of the moments they are seeing in the first five years.

How To

You support parents’ understanding of early childhood development by:

  • catching the moments when a young infant is quiet and alert or when an older child is actively engaged in an experience and pointing out how well the child is able to pay attention and how basic a skill that is for school success. Describe what you see the parents do that supports the child engaging and maintaining interest—or coach them in what they could do.

  • pointing out when you see a child is using memory, when it is clear they remember how to do something from an earlier visit, where something is kept in the home, or how a skill learned earlier is applied to a new experience. Describe how memory allows us to build our knowledge so we aren’t repeatedly discovering the same thing and how schools are organized on the assumption that children will remember earlier lessons and apply them to new material.

  • describing how each new motor skill is actually learned and practiced; for example, walking requires a completely different set of skills than crawling. Each new posture, use of the arms and hands, and method of locomotion gives the child a whole new way of understanding the world. By the time the child enters kindergarten, he/she will have enough control of his/her body to participate in games; use pencils, markers, paint brushes, and manipulative toys; and sit and listen for reasonable periods of time.

  • commenting on the steady progression of language development from responding to the earliest cries to encouraging the child to “Tell me more about that dog.” Model and acknowledge the parents’ use of descriptive and elaborative language. Encourage reading from the newborn period and model the skills to make reading a dialogue. Parents in Early Head Start and Head Start can provide the rich language and literacy experiences that are necessary for school success throughout the day in their home.

  • helping the parents to recognize the abundance of opportunities for learning about the world. Explain what the child is using from the materials in the home. Admire the parents’ contributions when they help the child engage in using a toy, looking at a book, or participating in a household routine. Describe the learning you see taking place and how important it is for the child to be exposed to so many interesting experiences because they build a huge storehouse of knowledge about how people and things work in the world, knowledge the child brings to the kindergarten experience.

  • always expressing your respect for the importance of the parent–child relationship. Whenever possible, point out that this relationship helps the child focus his/her attention, feel safe to explore, learn how to be with other people, feel encouraged to try new motor skills, find value in language and literacy, and learn about the people and the things in the world. With this parent–child relationship firmly established by preschool, parents can encourage their children to be increasingly independent as they move toward school entry.

Learn More

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is a term often used when talking about young children, but what does it really mean? This edition of News You Can Use explores the meaning behind DAP and working with infants and toddlers. Head Start, Early Head Start, and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs will find the real-life scenarios informative, and will enjoy a closer look at the foundational role relationships play in DAP.


We now know that when brain architecture has a strong foundation in the early years, infants and toddlers are more likely to be robust learners throughout their lives. In this "News You Can Use," we explore how the connections within the brain are created and made strong, the negative impact of chronic stress at an early age, and how caring adults can help even in difficult situations. This information may be useful to parents, families, teachers, home visitors, policy makers, and anyone who works with or for infants and toddlers.


This Early Head Start Tip Sheet identifies play materials in the home that create unique learning opportunities for children. Grantees and program staff may find this information useful. This resource also addresses the Program Performance Standards relating to children's development and play.


This Tip Sheet focuses on the value of outdoor play for infants and toddlers. Early Head Start staff and home visitors can learn about planning and observation to extend curriculum to outdoor environments in their programs.


Not only is music enjoyable for infants and toddlers, but it can also provide a connection to home, opportunities to learn, and a way to connect with caring adults. This "News You Can Use" offers information that may be useful to teachers, home visitors, and parents about how music supports development across domains.


Children enjoy hearing, making, and moving to music. Music also supports children's development and connects them to their families and communities. This "News You Can Use" offers tips and strategies for staff and families on how to use music with infants and toddlers during every day routines and experiences.


This News You Can Use is full of ideas about how to create outdoor spaces that are engaging for infants, toddlers, and their families. Early Head Start teachers and home visitors may use this resource to set up spaces for families using community resources such as parks, gardens, and nearby schools.


Infants and toddlers develop and refine math concepts and skills through everyday routines, experiences, and most important, caring interactions with trusted adults. Teachers, home visitors, family child care providers, and families all have an important role to play. In this News You Can Use, we discuss ways adults can be more intentional in how they support young children’s math learning—and school readiness.


Going outside is one of the best ways to connect children with nature. However, sometimes bringing nature inside offers exciting experiences for infants and toddlers. Use this News You Can Use to spark creative ideas in for natural items that can be used inside with young children.


This News You Can Use is full of ideas about how to create outdoor spaces that are engaging for infants, toddlers, and their families. Early Head Start teachers and home visitors may use this resource to set up spaces for families using community resources such as parks, gardens, and nearby schools.


The News You Can Use e-newsletter supports teachers, home visitors, and parents in providing quality care for infants and toddlers. This issue of the e-newsletter offers ideas for supporting the many kinds of transitions children and adults experience in Early Head Start.