School Readiness

Head Start Approach to School Readiness: FAQs

Q: What is school readiness for young children?

A: The Office of Head Start uses the term "school readiness" to refer to the skills, behaviors, and concepts that children need to be successful in school. Milestones for readiness are described in the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF). In the ELOF, these milestones are referred to as readiness indicators for children, birth to 5 years, and they are research-based.

Q: How does a Head Start program promote school readiness?

A: Each Head Start program follows the Head Start Approach to School Readiness, which means that it provides comprehensive services and supports not only for children, but also for families and communities. All program options use the Head Start Approach — center-based, family child care, home-based, and locally designed programs alike.

The Head Start Approach promotes school readiness for all young children by supporting all aspects of healthy development, including physical, cognitive, and social and emotional development. Both the teaching practices and home-visiting strategies of Head Start programs foster children's school readiness. A Head Start program supports families as their child's first, and most important, teacher and advocate, so that they, too, foster the child's school readiness. And, each Head Start program works closely with schools to make sure that everyone — Head Start staff, family members, teachers, specialists, and principal — shares an understanding of the child's readiness for school and works together to provide a positive transition for the child entering kindergarten.

Q: What are the school readiness goals for a Head Start program?

A: School readiness goals are broad statements of a Head Start program's expectations for children's learning and development. The program goals describe skills and knowledge in essential areas of early learning and development that are appropriate for children, birth to 5 years. These program goals include children with disabilities and children who are dual language learners.

Every Head Start program establishes school readiness goals with input from parents of children in the program and in collaboration with the governing body and Policy Council. A program's school readiness goals must align with the ELOF; state and tribal early learning standards, as appropriate; and requirements and expectations of the schools that children will attend after the Head Start program.  

School readiness involves more than educational services. Programwide goals for health, nutritional, family, and community engagement services also promote the school readiness of enrolled children.

Q: What are the areas of child development and early learning that are addressed in school readiness goals?

A: School readiness goals must, at a minimum, address essential domains of development and early learning for children, birth to 5. As described in the ELOF, the five central domains are: (1) Approaches to Learning, (2) Social and Emotional Development, (3) Language and Literacy, (4) Cognition, and (5) Perceptual, Motor, and Physical Development. The school readiness goals in each domain have been identified by research as reasonably achievable, age appropriate, and aligned with kindergarten expectations.

Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framworks: Ages Birth to Five.

Q: How does a Head Start program track the progress of an individual child toward school readiness goals?

A: A Head Start program must conduct standardized and structured assessments for each child to provide ongoing information about the child's developmental level and progress in the outcomes aligned to the school readiness goals. These assessments are conducted frequently, and they are age, developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate. They are also appropriate for children with disabilities.

In addition to formal assessments, informal observations of the child engaged in learning experiences help determine a child's strengths and needs. These observations may be made by teachers, home visitors, other staff, and the family.

The purpose of tracking a child's progress is to inform curricular plans for that child, guide instructional strategies, and engage parents in the child's learning. In some cases, the assessment data may support a referral for a formal evaluation, to determine if the child is eligible for services for special needs.

Q: How does a Head Start program track the progress toward school readiness goals at the program level?

A: To show programwide results, a program pulls together (aggregates) and analyzes child-level assessment data for all participating children, birth to 5, at least three times a program year. A program that operates fewer than 90 days, such as a Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program, aggregates and analyzes program data twice a program period. Each program uses the child data in combination with other program data to examine progress toward its school readiness goals. Data may be sorted by subgroups, such as children of different ages, children who have disabilities, or children who are dual language learners. If a program offers different options, including center-based, family child care, or home-based, data can be aggregated to compare children's progress and learning outcomes in the different settings.

Collecting programwide level data for infants and toddlers can be challenging for various reasons. For example, the sample size of infants and toddlers in a program may be quite small; infants and toddlers undergo rapid growth rates, which can make data quickly obsolete; and fewer assessment tools exist for these younger children. In addition, it may be difficult to separate out data for infants and toddlers who receive care in mixed age-group settings.

Q: How does a program change its school readiness goals?

A: To determine how effectively services are achieving school readiness goals, a program reviews aggregated information from child assessments, family engagement assessments, teaching and home visiting practices, professional development activities, and other sources. A program analyzes all the data to inform its program assessment, ensure quality, and plan continuous improvement, which may include changes to its school readiness goals.

Q: How does a home-based program promote children's progress toward school readiness goals?

A: As with all program options, a home-based program uses ongoing assessments and follow-up with families to plan learning experiences for individual children and to inform strategies to promote a child's progress toward school readiness goals. A home-based program must plan activities that promote parent-child relationships and help parents provide high-quality early learning experiences that support their child's later success in school.  As with center-based programs, a home-based program aggregates and analyzes child assessment data to provide program-level data about its school readiness goals.

Q: How does a program develop appropriate school readiness goals for different ages of children?

A: School readiness goals are broad statements about children's progress in the five central domains of learning and development needed for success in school. For example, a program may choose broad school readiness goals that apply to all enrolled children, birth to 5. A program may choose to distinguish its school readiness goals for children, birth to 3 years, from its preschool goals for children, 3 to 5 years. The ELOF describes age-appropriate goals that reflect varying developmental needs and skill progression across the early years.

Q: Does a program develop school readiness goals for its services to enrolled pregnant women?

A: No, a program does not develop school readiness goals for its services to enrolled pregnant women, because school readiness goals are set around the program's expectations of children's learning and development. However, when a program delivers high-quality prenatal and postnatal services to the pregnant mother and expectant family, it is preparing the newborn for healthy development and engaged learning, which are foundational for school readiness.