Overview of Head Start

Head Start is a federally funded program founded in 1965 with the mission of promoting the school readiness of young children from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development. This blog focuses primarily on Head Start programs, which provide preschool services and support to children ages three through five and their families, rather than Early Head Start, which supports pregnant people and families with children under age three. However, the challenges outlined here are applicable to Early Head Start as well. The focus on Head Start here is because that is where the majority of resources are currently dedicated.

Head Start programs are free for families who are eligible, which include:

  • Families who are at or below 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL)
  • Families receiving public assistance such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Families experiencing homelessness
  • Children in foster care
  • Children with disabilities

With the child at the center of their approach, Head Start programs provide services in three key areas: early learning and development, family engagement and wellbeing, and health and wellness. There are also Head Start programs that provide services tailored to specific populations. American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Head Start programs serve children of AIAN heritage and offer traditional language and cultural practices that honor their rich heritage. Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs provide services to families who are in agricultural labor and have changed their residence within two years or who are engaged in seasonal agricultural labor.

Head Start operates using a federal-to-local funding model. Head Start grantees include local school districts, nonprofit and for-profit groups, faith-based organizations, and tribal councils. Thus, Head Start can be provided in a variety of settings, including child care and development centers, schools, and family child care homes (Office of Head Start, 2022).

Access to Head Start

Close to one million children access Head Start and Early Head Start each year, yet many families cannot access the program due to a range of systemic and programmatic barriers. In 2021, the National Head Start Association conducted a survey, focus groups and key informant interviews that identified key issues that make participating in the program difficult for families – access to transportation, outdated locations, the instability of poverty, low income eligibility limits, inadequate hours of service for families, the workforce crisis, lack of awareness of the program’s comprehensive services, and a possible bias for school-based services.

Perhaps the greatest systemic barrier to accessing Head Start is the income eligibility limits. Income eligibility is based on the federal poverty guidelines. The United States’ method for determining the poverty level is incredibly outdated. The calculation does not consider housing, transportation, child care, or medical costs. Geographical differences are also not considered, even though costs of living vary significantly across the country. Another systemic barrier is transportation, with low income families disproportionately having limited or no access to personal or public transportation.

Head Start programs are required to conduct annual family and five-year community assessments to determine whether slots are distributed in the most appropriate locations, whether the hours of service are meeting families’ needs, and a variety of other topics. These assessments are then used by the program staff and the Policy Council to determine how best to implement the program. However, making significant changes such as changing the location of a center or increasing the hours of service can be costly, require a great deal of time, and be difficult to implement.


Head Start has a deep history providing two generational programming for very low income families. The standards have been reviewed and revised over the 60 years of implementation, based on research as well as parent, community, and grantee feedback. The power of Head Start is not only in its comprehensiveness but also in the inclusion of family leaders in governance and implementation of the program. In addition to being a child development program, Head Start is also an economic empowerment program, providing training and jobs for parents.

The funding per child for Head Start grantees, though significantly more than the average per child reimbursement for state pre-k, is directly related to the depth of the standards. It is important to note that as a national program, many of the regulations, funding and eligibility principles are averaged across all the states and territories. This can create significant implementation challenges for states and communities with high costs of living particularly regarding staff compensation, facilities, and enrolling income-eligible families. These challenges can lead to under enrollment and missed opportunities for collaboration in mixed delivery pre-k, leaving many families without the opportunity and supports needed as they strive to provide their children with a foundation for future social and academic success.

Federal policy solutions to these problems included allowing grantees to convert Head Start slots to Early Head Start slots with supports for the cost increases and allowing for automatic eligibility for families that already quality for SNAP and housing assistance. States can consider providing funding for Head Start and Early Head Start programming with higher income eligibility requirements that are more fitting for their state and community context.

Children have many big emotions! Preschoolers are learning to name and manage them. They are also learning friendship and other social skills. And sometimes, their behaviors are challenging. Many behaviors are appropriate for a child’s stage of development yet are found challenging by adults. This may be one of the biggest pain points for educators in early childhood. We’re taking a new approach to support educators who want to build positive social skills and decrease challenging behaviors in their classroom – Reflectable SEL.

In early childhood, we have always focused on social and emotional learning. We know that high quality social and emotional skills are linked to all other areas of children’s learning and critical to their success; skills like empathy, regulating behaviors and emotions, and problem solving. It can be challenging to supply the support preschoolers need to develop these important skills.

Every Pre-K teacher that I have met is deeply invested in the growth of their students. They want to send children to kindergarten ready to succeed in school and in life.

How Early Childhood Teachers are Feeling Today

At this moment, teachers are worried about the state of children’s social and emotional growth. There is an increasing number of challenging behaviors in the classroom that they must deal with, like emotional dysregulation, difficulty building relationships, or coping with change in routine. These challenges affect the mental health of both teachers and children in ways we haven’t seen before.

The recent pandemic highlighted the vital role early childhood teachers play in families’ success and how under supported they are. We know educators experience high levels of stress—and when they are stressed, children show more challenging behaviors. And the cycle of worry, frustration, anger, and dysregulation repeats.

In a recent visit to a child development center, I asked teachers, “What do you need to help children grow and learn skills like empathy, sharing, friendship skills and regulating their emotions?” Their answers:

  1. We need support that is focused and specific to the work we are doing.
  2. We need support that helps us respond to challenging behaviors in the moment during our daily work.

There are many valuable frameworks, curricula, and learning models for promoting growth and preventing challenging behaviors. Their use creates lasting and positive effects on children. But it is hard to apply frameworks, curricula, and special resources to guide a teacher’s practice day to day in real time.

Applying a Human-Centered Approach to Problems of Practice

At the Early Learning Lab – where we combine human-centered design and early childhood expertise with data and technology – we asked: How might we help practitioners quickly recall the strategies they learn in training to make it easier to use them with children? How might we provide easy mindfulness supports?

To answer these questions, we used a discovery process to create a new tool and bring it to teachers to get their ideas and input. These pilot teachers helped us make the experience one that would be helpful to them. With guidance from these educators, we built the first Reflectable tool to supply focused and specific bite sized actions in simple and easy to apply language. This put the power in the teachers’ hands. They were able to reflect on the topics that mattered most to them. This made it easier for teachers to practice the skills they learned during training in a way that made sense for their unique needs. In turn, this helped educators make quick choices for how to best care for children when challenging behaviors appear.

“I didn’t realize I had the power to really change things!” – Pilot Pre-k Teacher

After using this simple, new tool to reflect on practice and set weekly goals, teachers said they:

  • felt valued as experts for the work they were doing
  • could thoughtfully make choices that help children’s growth
  • made meaningful mindset shifts for themselves
  • experienced less stress themselves and saw fewer challenging behaviors among children

A New Tool to Support Reflective Practice

The result of testing and refining this tool is Reflectable® and its Social Emotional Learning content module. Reflectable’s online, guided 10-minute weekly reflection, helps educators see the power of taking small, intentional steps. These steps improve their social emotional learning practice in the areas they decide matter most and positively impact children.

Reflectable is a helpful pause for educators to take time for themselves and give children the attention and support they deserve. In turn, this boosts outcomes, morale, self-efficacy, and job satisfaction.

It’s time to rethink support tools for the early learning workforce. They are a precious resource, and their job is tough. The early learning workforce deserve to be heard and valued so they can listen to and value the children in their care.

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Reach out to us for a behind the scenes look at how Reflectable can support your SEL implementation.

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Start Early is proud to introduce Dr. Barbara J. Cooper as the Senior Vice President of Professional Learning. Dr. Cooper brings a wealth of experience and expertise in the field of education, particularly in early childhood education, and we are honored to have her on board.

In her role, Dr. Cooper will lead Start Early’s strategy to support and advance the early childhood workforce and oversee scaling the organization’s professional learning enterprise for professionals working in prenatal through PreK.

Dr. Cooper has made a remarkable impact at every stop throughout her career. In July 2020, she was appointed by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey as the Secretary of Early Childhood Education and also served as the Governor’s Birth through Grade 12 policy advisor. Starting in 2018, she played a crucial role in the administration of Alabama’s esteemed First Class Pre-K program as a part of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. Her contributions have significantly impacted the quality of early education in Alabama, garnering national recognition and serving as a model for others.

Dr. Cooper’s perspective will also be instrumental in advancing racial equity throughout all areas of our work as we continue our journey of being an anti-racist organization. That work will begin using the Educare Network’s recently published research agenda on advancing racial equity as a foundation. The agenda will serve as a guide and platform to bring about systemic change in early care and education — for children, families, and the workforce — so that equitable access and experiences become a reality for all. We are excited for Dr. Cooper’s leadership in spearheading Start Early’s efforts with early childhood professionals, culminating at the intersection of practice, policy, and research.

Additionally, Dr. Cooper was already familiar with Start Early’s work before joining, engaging with the Essential 0-5 Survey measurement system during her tenure in Alabama. This system functions as an assessment tool to better understand early education organizations and aid in improving their processes.

Originally from Chicago, she now resides in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband, Walter. Together, they have three adult children and two precious grandchildren.

We are so pleased to have Barbara join the Start Early family!

Start Early believes that the early years of a child’s development are critical to their ability to thrive in life, and that all children have the right to environments that support their healthy development. The impacts of climate change undermine the development and physical safety of young children and threaten the relationships and environments that shape their earliest years. If those who care for young children are key partners in designing for the future, we can mitigate these effects, while simultaneously strengthening and investing in our early childhood systems and communities.


As climate change progresses, frequent extreme heat, weather events and humanitarian emergencies will create the kind of toxic stress that impedes family wellness and children’s growth, development, learning and physical and mental health.

For infants, young children and pregnant people, their physical characteristics and particular circumstances make them more susceptible to the health effects of climate change, including illness and disease, injury and premature death and threats to mental health (according to the Centers for Disease Control). That vulnerability is also more severe for groups that have historically been under-served and those who are more vulnerable to heat and severe weather, including frontline and fenceline communities, BIPOC communities, refugees, people with lower incomes, people living with disabilities, and those at the intersections of these groups.

The changing climate will create new demands on both mental health resilience in the face of adverse childhood experiences brought on or worsened by extreme weather and physical infrastructure resilience in the neighborhoods, homes, centers and health care settings where children are cared for.

These challenges – and the need to respond to them – place additional burden on already-overworked and under-resourced caregivers and early childhood systems.


As the impacts of climate change expand and worsen, we must look to the strengths and protective factors offered by our early childhood system to support young children and their families in the context of a changing climate. Start Early is a champion for quality early learning and care, focused on closing the opportunity gap for our youngest learners. It is increasingly clear that we must expand our idea of what it means to care for young children to address the new and increased mental and physical health challenges that many of them are experiencing or will experience in the years ahead.

The challenge of climate change is daunting, but well-resourced, accessible early childhood systems are key in helping young children and their caregivers prepare and adapt.

Early childhood providers, health care providers, home visitors, doulas and others who support families are often the first stop and most trusted resource for young parents seeking information and help. Parents and providers also have valuable expertise on what young children need and how our support systems can help (or hinder) their development. These partnerships and insights will be critical to supporting the safety and resiliency of young children in the years ahead as programs and systems plan for the future.

In order to center the needs of young children and their families in climate adaptation and resiliency planning, Start Early President Diana Rauner is co-chairing the Early Years Climate Action Task Force, a group of cross-sector partners co-convened by Capita and This is Planet Ed (the Aspen Institute). The Task Force is in the process of developing the first-ever U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan, which will include recommendations for how the country can help young children, birth-to-age 8, flourish in the face of climate change. Be the first to know when we share the final plan this fall.

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