Primary Caregiving

Teacher with infant at the changing table.

Primary caregiving is a relationship-based practice that assigns each child (and family) to a teacher who serves as the primary source of information and care for the child.[3] In Early Head Start and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, each teacher has four children (or fewer, if state licensing is stricter). Such assignments, particularly in center-based programs, allow teachers to develop deep relationships with infants, toddlers, and their families and offer opportunities to provide tailored care and interactions during daily routines and experiences. This focused care by a familiar adult provides infants and toddlers with a sense of predictability and security that comes with knowing each child’s unique needs and preferences.

Primary caregiving does not mean that teachers care only for their small group of children to the exclusion of the other children in the group. Rather, it means that each teacher, to the extent possible and practical in a group care situation, cares for and responds to his or her children’s needs (especially caregiving routines).[4] However, teachers also work as a team and rely on each other as backup when they cannot work directly with their assigned children. Of equal importance, parents and other family members know who has primary responsibility for their child, which strengthens the parent-teacher relationship and communication between home and the program.[5] Primary caregiving also means that “decisions about grouping, staffing, transitions, and scheduling are made with sensitivity to each child’s needs for stable, growing relationships with adults and peers.”[6]

[3]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, National Center for Early Childhood Development, Teaching, and Learning, Head Start Tip Sheet: Continuity of Care (Washington, DC, n.d.).

[4]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Care, National Infant & Toddler Child Care Initiative, Relationships: The Heart of Development and Learning (Washington, DC, 2010), 32.


[6]Zero to Three, Caring for Infants & Toddlers in Groups, 44.