What we know about Early Head Start

Lately the newspapers and blogs have been filled with budget woes. No doubt about it, states and the nation are facing difficult decisions. Over the next few posts, we’ll summarize research about several children’s programs that have been mentioned in the news, including Early Head Start, Child Care and child nutrition and health programs.  Some of these programs have had rigorous evaluations while others have not. Some have been around for decades while others are relative newcomers.  Child Trends does not advocate for certain policies or programs; however, our mission to inform policy and improve practice compels us to communicate what we know about what works (and doesn’t work) regarding the children’s issues under discussion.

Within that framework, let’s look at Early Head Start.  Created in 1995, Early Head Start is a federally funded community-based program for low-income families with infants and toddlers and for low-income pregnant women. Nationally, approximately 50 percent of children who live in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty level utilize center-based child care or child care in another’s home. Research shows that infants and toddlers from low-income families are at a greater risk for negative outcomes such as school failure in later years, learning disabilities, behavior problems, mental retardation, developmental delay, and health impairments than infants and toddlers in middle to high income families.

A rigorous, large-scale, random-assignment evaluation, Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project, found that the program makes a positive difference for children and families in terms of school success, family self-sufficiency, and parental support of child development.  Other studies have found significant benefits for participants, including: better vocabulary and improved cognitive and social-emotional development, lasting positive effects for children, improved parenting, and improved quality among existing providers who partner with Early Head Start and Head Start programs. Child Trends published a summary of Early Head Start evaluation findings in 2010.

-Marci McCoy-Roth
Senior Director of Public Policy and Communications, Child Trends

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