School Readiness

The Foundations for School Readiness: Fostering Developmental Competence in the Earliest Years


Early childhood programs recognize the importance of preparing children for success in school and later in life. Head Start has long been a leader in this effort and in defining the goal of social competence. Considering media attention on the importance of the earliest years, policymakers, researchers, parents, and child advocates have taken an interest in what it takes to fully prepare children to succeed in school. In addition, the rising number of working parents has increased the demand for high-quality child care for very young children. Comprehensive early childhood services such as Migrant and Seasonal Head Start and Early Head Start are available to children from birth, raising questions about what school readiness means for programs serving infants, toddlers, and expectant families.

Both social and emotional development are important for young children’s mental health. In fact, early childhood mental health is the same as social and emotional development. caretaker holding toddler with toyResearch shows that this development, and more specifically, the nature of early relationships play a critical role in fostering children’s overall development. Both the parent-child relationship and the relationships that children develop with other significant caregivers—for example, in child care settings—have an effect on child development (Institute of Medicine, 2000; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004). In fact, social and emotional characteristics provide children with the skills to learn and the motivation to want to learn (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004; Zero to Three, 1992).

In this technical assistance paper, we explore the scientific knowledge base concerning the remarkable developmental tasks that occur in the first five years of life. We identify the capacities that equip children with the skills they need to negotiate the relationships, responsibilities, and challenges they will face throughout their lives. We show how early childhood programs, beginning with support to expectant families during the prenatal period and through the first 5 years of life, can play a pivotal role in this process. In fact, comprehensive early childhood programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start have the potential to dramatically influence the future of our most vulnerable children. Also, we explore school readiness to show how early development influences later learning. However, the characteristics we hope to inspire in the children with whom we work are ones that not only equip them for success in school but also prepare them to become competent, resilient, effective human beings in all areas of their lives.

Last Updated: November 5, 2019