Local governments can invest in this strategy using State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
  • This strategy can address educational disparities and promote healthy early childhood environments. The U.S. Department of Treasury has indicated that strategies that help achieve these outcomes are eligible for the use of Fiscal Recovery Funds.
  • Investments in this strategy are SLFRF-eligible as long as they are made in qualified census tracts or are designed to assist populations or communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Program overview

  • Supporting children’s development: Head Start is a federal early childhood education program that delivers services to low-income families with young children (ages 3 to 5) through a network of over 1,600 agencies across the United States. By offering a range of early learning, health, and family wellbeing services, Head Start programs aim to promote children’s development and school readiness.

  • Providing a range of supports: Head Start provides comprehensive early childhood education services, which focus on preparing children for kindergarten. In addition to educational components, programs often provide wrap-around services, connecting families to social services; providing healthy snacks and meals; offering medical, dental, and mental health screenings; and more.

  • Using a federal-to-local model: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funds and provides technical assistance to local Head Start programs, which are operated by school districts, nonprofits, faith-based institutions, and other eligible organizations. This approach allows programs to adapt their services to the needs of the local community (e.g., providing services in multiple languages).

  • Varied models to serve low-income children: Children are eligible to participate if they meet federal low-income guidelines, are in the foster care system, or are experiencing homelessness. The majority of children in a Head Start program receive services at a child development center, though programs may offer home-based, family-administered, and hybrid delivery options. All services offered by Head Start programs are free to eligible families.

Cost per Participant
Federally funded with 20 percent local match

Multiple studies with rigorous designs provide some evidence for Head Start as a strategy for improving children’s school readiness and social-emotional development.

  • A 2022 research synthesis identified preschool education programs as a scientifically supported strategy for improving academic achievement, cognitive skills, and social emotional skills.

  • A 2015 meta-analysis found some evidence that Head Start improved general reading achievement.

Note: this content is under review.

  • Screen and assess children to provide individualized support: Children have different interests, strengths, and needs. To properly support each child, Head Start programs should conduct initial screenings and perform ongoing assessments of each child’s development and learning. This information can inform curriculum planning, pedagogical strategies used, and more.

  • Solidify relationships with partners: Head Start programs should build formal relationships with community partners that can support parents and guardians as they work toward their goals for their children and family. Programs can identify the resources families want through parent surveys, focus groups, and community assessments. As partnerships are developed, memoranda of understanding, contracts, and letters of agreement are tools to define shared goals with partner organizations.

  • Use an evidence-based curriculum: Head Start providers should use an early childhood curriculum that reflects current best practices on how children learn and is consistent with Head Start’s Early Learning Outcome Framework. Such a curriculum offers children varied and sequenced learning experiences, asks them to think deeply, and builds on their prior knowledge.

  • Work toward higher staff retention: Like other early childhood education providers, Head Start programs often face high rates of staff turnover. To increase staff retention, programs should work to offer competitive compensation and invest in improvements to the work environment. Examples of the latter include allowing staff to observe their colleagues’ classrooms, hiring full-time assistant staff to provide extra support during transitions (e.g., going to lunch), creating a peer mentoring program, and more.

  • Use data to inform decision making: Head Start programs should use data to inform decision making and planning at both the child and program level. By using a management information system, programs can more easily capture and share relevant data, such as from developmental screenings of children, staff performance appraisals, program self-assessments, and more. These data are shared with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Head Start for compliance purposes.