Head Start programs support children's growth from birth to age 5 through services that support early learning and development, health, and family well-being. Head Start staff actively engage parents, recognizing family participation throughout the program as key to strong child outcomes.
Head Start services are available at no cost to children ages birth to 5 in eligible families. Head Start preschool services work with families with children ages 3 to 5. Early Head Start services work with families with children ages birth to 3, and many also serve expectant families. Many programs operate both Head Start preschool and Early Head Start services. Programs deliver child development services in center-based, home-based, or family child care settings. All Head Start programs continually work toward our mission for eligible children and families to receive high-quality services in safe and healthy settings that prepare children for school and life.
Services for Children and Families
Head Start programs are helping children get ready to succeed in school and in life through learning experiences tailored to their changing needs and abilities.
Early Learning and Development
Our programs are:
- Building strong relationships as the foundational driver for early learning
- Engaging families in their child’s learning and recognizing parents as a child’s first and most influential teacher
- Implementing effective practices to promote children’s growth in five key domains: approaches to learning, social and emotional development, language and literacy, cognition, and physical development
- Encouraging learning through play, creative expression, and guided activities with schedules and lesson plans that include the cultural and language heritage of each child and family in relevant ways
- Creating welcoming learning environments in indoor and outdoor settings that are well-organized and safe
- Conducting ongoing screenings and assessments to ensure each child is making progress, and collaborating with parents and community agencies when further assessment is needed
- Supporting the full inclusion of children with disabilities and building on their strengths
Health and Wellness
Our programs are:
- Engaging all children in both indoor and outdoor physical activity
- Serving breakfast, lunch, and snacks that are healthy and nutritious
- Ensuring children receive medical, dental, hearing, vision, and behavioral screening
- Making sure children brush their teeth after meals and promoting oral health and hygiene
- Helping families understand and support their child’s health and behavioral health needs
- Assisting with mental health services for children and families, as needed
- Building resilience to help children and families heal from traumatic experiences or events and overwhelming situations
Our programs are:
- Providing parenting support and strategies
- Supporting parental health and links to community services during pregnancy
- Connecting families to community and federal assistance
- Assisting families in identifying and reaching their goals and dreams, including those related to finances and economic mobility, housing, employment, and education
- Providing a career pathway in early care and education — about 25% of program staff are former Head Start parents!
Our programs are:
- Inviting parents to share information and insights about their child
- Celebrating the role of fathers and male caregivers through father engagement
- Engaging parents as their child’s lifelong advocate
- Welcoming parents to offer ways to improve children and families’ experiences in the program, including through leadership roles on the Policy Council
- Supporting child and family transitions when the child is ready for the next step, to Head Start, kindergarten, or another early childhood program
Meeting Community Needs
To reach the children and families who need Head Start services the most, programs are designed according to community need. Directly funded at the local level, Head Start programs tailor their programs as appropriate for families in the designated service area. These programs may be provided in different settings and hours according to the needs indicated by their community assessment.
Federal-to-Local Funding Model
The federal government funds Head Start programs through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Across the country, school districts, nonprofit and for-profit groups, faith-based institutions, tribal councils, and other organizations qualify to become a Head Start recipient and receive federal funding. The federal-to-local model allows local leaders to create a Head Start experience that is responsive to the unique and specific needs of their community. Many programs are combining funding from federal, state, and local sources to maximize service delivery and continuity. Head Start Collaboration Offices facilitate partnerships between Head Start agencies and other state entities that provide services to benefit low-income children and their families.
Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) programs serve children ages birth to 5 from families engaged in agricultural work, either seasonally or across geographic regions. American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Head Start programs serve children from federally recognized tribes and others in their communities.
Head Start programs either provide transportation services or assist families to arrange transportation of children to program activities.
Eligibility and Enrollment
Head Start services are for children from birth to compulsory school age, as well as pregnant people and expectant families. Eligible participants include children whose families meet the federal low-income guidelines — that is, whose incomes are at or below the federal poverty guidelines or who participate in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program public assistance services. Other eligible participants include children who are in the foster care system or experiencing homelessness. Programs may also accept a limited number of children who do not meet any of those eligibility criteria.
MSHS programs have specific eligibility requirements for the children of farmworkers. AIAN Head Start programs enroll tribal children from reservations or nearby areas. All programs enroll children with disabilities and welcome children who speak a language other than English at home.
As there are generally more eligible children than is supported by program funding, each program maintains a waiting list according to their selection criteria for when a spot becomes available.
Head Start services are delivered in a variety of settings, sometimes referred to as “options.” This consistent, supportive setting is designed to foster strong relationships between program staff, families, and children. The selection of settings offered by any Head Start program is determined by its assessment of community needs.
- Center-based services are located in child development centers. More than half of Head Start children are enrolled in center-based services, five days per week, for at least six hours per day.
- Home-based services are mostly delivered in a family’s own home, along with planned group socialization activities. More than a third of children enrolled in Early Head Start programs receive home-based services.
- Family child care services are located in a family-based child care setting.
- Locally-designed services are often delivered through some combination of the above settings, depending on the needs of the community.
Since 1965, Head Start programs have reached 40 million children and their families. Children who enrolled in Head Start programs are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, have improved social, emotional, and behavioral development, and are better prepared to be parents themselves than similar children who did not attend the program. Children enrolled in Early Head Start programs have significantly fewer child welfare encounters related to sexual or physical abuse between the ages of 5 and 9 than those who don’t attend.
Research consistently shows a broad pattern of impacts for children at the end of their Head Start enrollment. While these benefits may appear to diminish in the early grades, economic benefits emerge as children become adults. The Head Start program’s two-generation design — coupled with research-based, high-quality comprehensive services — has the power to change the trajectory for children’s outcomes.
Last Updated: March 23, 2023