Early Head Start

RESULTS believes in extending early childhood programs to infants and toddlers age 3 and under. That is why we also support the Early Head Start program, which is funded as a set-aside of Head Start. Because research has shown how critical a child’s earliest years are in terms of brain development, RESULTS supports early childhood development programs that include infants and toddlers.

Early Head Start was created in 1994. The program’s mission is to promote healthy prenatal outcomes for pregnant women, enhance the development of very young children (age 3 and under), and promote healthy family functioning. Comprehensive services provided by Early Head Start include:

  • Quality early education both in and out of the home
  • Parenting education
  • Comprehensive health and mental health services, including services to women before, during, and after pregnancy
  • Nutrition education
  • Family support services

Concerns about a child’s development are evaluated by staff through screenings to make sure each child’s needs are addressed and met.  Also, due to the Head Start Reauthorization in 2007, 10 percent of all slots must be reserved for children with special needs.

Unfortunately, Early Head Start serves less than 4 percent of all eligible families with babies and toddlers. RESULTS will continue to advocate for funding increases for both programs so that more children and their families can be served.

In February 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (H.R.1), a bill to revive the slumping economy. This bill included $2.1 billion in temporary funding for Head Start ($1.1 billion of that is for Early Head Start).  In 2011, however, the House of Representatives sought to undermine these gains by targeting Head Start and child care for deep cuts. Fortunately, RESULTS volunteers, along with our allies, were able to stave off most of these cuts in the FY 2011 budget.  Head Start/ Early Head Start saw a $340 million increase in funding in FY 2011 and a $409 million increase in FY 2012, ensuring that existing enrollment levels were maintained.

Unfortunately, in FY 2013, sequestration led to a more than 5% cut to Head Start and Early Head Start, resulting in nearly 6,000 children losing access to Early Head Start.  These cuts were restored in FY 2014, and $500 million in additional funding was made available to expand Early Head Start - Child Care Partnerships.  For FY 2015, a proposed Senate appropriations bill would increase funding for Early Head Start by $65 million, which would include funding for Early Head Start - Child Care Partnerships.  However, the House appropriators may aim to slash funding for Head Start and Early Head Start.  

Without a sustained effort to push back against reckless and devastating cuts, they could become reality. We need to put a local face on these programs so that members of Congress think twice before turning their backs on low-income children. See our Current Campaigns Summary and Recent Developments in Early Childhood Development Policies for the latest on Congress' action on these important programs. Join us by taking action -- see our U.S. Poverty Actions and News page for strategic ways you can impact this debate, including sending e-mails to Congress using our Head Start and child care funding action alert.

The Critical Importance of the Early Years

Children living below the poverty threshold are 1.3 times more likely than non‐poor children to experience learning disabilities and developmental delays.  In January 2007, Jane Knitzer, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), testified before the House Committee on Ways and Means on the economic and societal costs of poverty. In her testimony, she highlighted key facts about child poverty, drawing particular attention to the critical importance of a child’s earliest years. To promote a strengthened focus on young children, she mentioned three core “take home” messages:

  • The earliest experiences shape the “hard-wiring” of the brain
  • The active ingredient in early brain development is relationships
  • Once brain circuits are built, it becomes harder to change them

After stating these facts and referencing the great amount of research that has gone into children’s brain development, she emphasized the need to invest in the expansion of Early Head Start. In her report, she states, “We lose too much time if we wait until four. It is shocking, when juxtaposed against brain science that we have a national Early Head Start program that is serving only 62,000 children, even though we have research that shows that for most of the children enrolled, Early Head Start improved parenting practices and behavioral and cognitive outcomes.”

During the hearing, one of the congressmen asked the panel what they would invest in if they were given a large amount of money to help reduce poverty, and Knitzer responded, saying, “I would invest in Early Head Start.”

The Impacts of Early Head Start

To meet the requirement in the 1994 and 1998 reauthorizations for an evaluation of the Early Head Start program, a national evaluation (pdf) was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. in collaboration with the Early Head Start Research Consortium.  The 2002 report, which examined outcomes at age 3, found that Early Head Start had the following positive impacts for low-income families with infants and toddlers:

  • Early Head Start (EHS) children scored higher, on average, on a standardized assessment of cognitive development and a separate assessment on receptive language
  • Programs had favorable impacts on several aspects of social-emotional development 
  • EHS parents were more likely to be more emotionally supportive, were more likely to read to their children daily, and were less likely to engage in negative parenting behaviors
  • EHS programs had some impacts on parents’ progress toward self-sufficiency
  • EHS mothers were less likely to have subsequent births during the first two years after they enrolled
  • Programs had favorable impacts in several areas of fathering and father-child interaction

A follow-up study conducted when children had reached Grade 5 (seven years after the end of the Early Head Start program) found that:

  • The program had a lasting positive impact on a social-emotional success index
  • For African-Americans, EHS had a continued positive impact on social-emotional development, parent support for their children's education, and parental mental health
  • For Hispanic families, EHS had long-term benefits in the area of family self-sufficiency. Hispanic mothers who had participated in Early Head Start had higher educational attainment 
  • For whites, there were favorable effects of EHS on improving children’s problem solving, reducing externalizing behavior problems as well as reducing parenting distress, family conflict and welfare participation

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin also found that mothers who have high-quality early childcare are more likely to be more involved in their children's school career. This greater involvement included regular communication with teachers, and getting involved with the school community by forging friendships with other parents or attending school-related events. This shows that programs like these have far-reaching benefits that affect the whole family.

Julia’s Story About Early Head Start

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