Jan 16, 2013


Early Head Start, established by Congress in 1994, is a grant-driven, community-specific program that provides services to enhance children’s development and support families during the first three years of children’s lives. Services are administered through either center-based services or home-based services, or a combination of the two. Target participants are low-income families with children under age 3, and low-income pregnant women. A national experimental evaluation of Early Head Start indicates the program had modest positive impacts on parents’ outcomes (parenting and life skills, educational outcomes), and children’s outcomes (cognitive development, social-emotional development). The program produced the most positive outcomes with African American and Hispanic families, with teen mothers, and when employing a mix of home- and center-based services.


Target population: Low-income families with infants and toddlers (up to age 3), as well as low-income pregnant women.

Early Head Start is a grant-driven program designed to provide two-generation services to enhance children’s development and support families during the first three years of children’s lives. Program specifics differ by site, but are universally designed to produce outcomes in four domains: (1) children’s development (e.g., social, cognitive and language development, health); (2) family development (e.g., parenting skills, the home environment, family health, economic self-sufficiency); (3) staff development (e.g., professional development, relationships with parents); and (4) community development (e.g., improved quality of child care, community collaboration, service integration).

Early Head Start grantees are allowed a great deal of flexibility in the programs they implement. They are required to tailor their services to the needs of low-income families with infants and toddlers and low-income pregnant women within their communities. Program options include home-based services, center-based services and a combination of the two (that is, some families receive only center-based services, some receive only home-based services, and some receive both types of services). Center-based services include child care, parenting classes, and parenting support groups; home-based services include weekly home visits. In addition, families are provided referrals for health care and other community services (e.g., services related to employment, education, mental health needs).

· Number of Children/Teens in Program: As of June, 2002, it was estimated that the program serves about 55,000 children in 664 communities.
· Length: A family is eligible from pregnancy through the child’s third birthday.
· Intensity: The Head Start Program Performance Standards require home-based programs to provide each family with weekly home visits and bi-monthly parent-child group socialization activities; center-based programs are required to provide each family with at least 20 hours per week of center-based child care and at least two home visits per year.
· Service Delivery Mode: Center-based services (e.g., child care, parenting education, parent support groups), home-based services (home visits), or a combination of the two approaches, as well as referrals to other community services.


Evaluated population: The evaluation is based on 1,513 families in the experimental group and 1,488 in the control group, in which the primary caregiver was pregnant or parent to a child under the age of 12 months. These families come from urban and rural settings across the country. The average age of primary caregivers in the experimental group was 23 years old (99 percent of primary caregivers were mothers); about one-third of the families were headed by a teen parent and 62 percent were first-time parents. One-quarter of the primary caregivers lived with a spouse; the rest lived with other adults or were raising their children alone. About one-third of the families were African American, one-fourth were Hispanic, and one-third were white. Four programs predominantly enrolled African American families, three were predominantly Hispanic, five were predominantly white, and five were racially/ethnically diverse. About half of the primary caregivers did not have a high school degree at the time of enrollment, and most were receiving public assistance of some kind (e.g., WIC, Food Stamps, AFDC or TANF). About one-quarter of primary caregivers enrolled during pregnancy.

Approach: In 1996, the Administration on Children, Youth and Families partnered with 17 Early Head Start (EHS) sites to conduct an experimental evaluation (Love et al., 2002). The sites represent all regions in the country, as well as both urban and rural settings. When initially funded, the sites were fairly equally divided among the three program approaches (center-based, home-based and mixed). By the fall of 1997, however, four were center-based, seven were home-based and six were mixed.

The Administration’s evaluation involves two main components. The first, which has been completed, included an impact evaluation that investigated program effects on children and families through the children’s third birthdays (Love et al., 2001; 2002), and an implementation study (Kisker et al., 1999). The second component, which follows children and families from the original study through kindergarten entry, began in 2001 and will continue through 2004; this component will not be included in this discussion.

For the impact evaluation, families were randomly assigned to an experimental group (1,513) or a control group (1,488; Love et al., 2002). In order to be eligible to participate in the research, the primary caregiver had to be pregnant or have a child under the age of 12 months.

At age 3, data were gathered through interviews with parents, direct assessments of children and observations of the home environment and parent-child interactions (Love et al., 2002). Due to the fact that some families who were assigned to the experimental group did not actually take part in any services, analysis was limited to families who had received more than one home visit, met with a case manager at least once, enrolled a child in care for at least two weeks, or participated in a group activity in the 26 months after random assignment. Thus, 91 percent of the experimental group families were included in analyses. Of that number of families, 90 percent received more than this minimal level of services. However, participation levels varied widely. EHS staff members reported that families participated in EHS services for an average of 21 months; nearly half of the families participated for at least two years.

Results: Several significant, though modest, effects were found for parenting (Love et al., 2002). Through the use of the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME), parents in the EHS group were observed to be more emotionally supportive and more supportive of their children’s language and learning than control group parents. Parents also reported reading more frequently to their children and engaging in fewer punitive discipline strategies (such as spanking). There were some effects on parents’ self-sufficiency. EHS parents were more likely than control group parents to be involved in education or job training activities; they were also more likely to be employed during the course of the study, although this difference did not translate into differences in income. In addition, EHS mothers were less likely to have subsequent births during the first two years after enrollment in the program.

As for children’s outcomes, the researchers found that children in the EHS group scored significantly higher than control group children on an assessment of cognitive development (the Bayley Scales of Infant Development, Mental Development Index) at ages 2 and 3 (Love et al., 2002). They also scored significantly higher on an assessment of receptive vocabulary (the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test; PPVT-III). The results for the Bayley and PPVT-III were small but significant. In the realm of social/emotional development, EHS children were less negative with their parents during observed interactions and were rated lower in aggressive behavior by their parents than control group children.

The researchers also investigated the effects of type of program on parent and child outcomes (Love et al., 2002). They found that mixed-approach programs generally produced stronger results than either center-based programs or home-based programs. It should also be noted, however, that mixed programs chose program activities appropriate for individual families, so participants did not necessarily receive both home-based and center-based services. It appears that programs with the flexibility to meet individual needs produced the best results.

Researchers also examined the results for particular subgroups. Although all subgroups generally benefited from participation in EHS, the researchers found that the effects for parenting and child outcomes were the greatest when mothers enrolled during pregnancy. The strongest results were found for African American and Hispanic families (as opposed to white families). In addition, strong results were found for teenage mothers.

The study on implementation of Early Head Start found that programs, for the most part, were able to get up and running within the expected timeframe, but they experienced several challenges, including meeting the required schedule of weekly home visits to families in home-based programs, shifting the focus to younger children when EHS programs were added to existing Head Start centers, and paying adequate wages to program staff (Kisker et al., 1999).



Kisker, E.E., Love, J.M., Raikes, H., Boller, K., Paulsell, D., Rosenberg, L., et al. (1999). Leading the way: Characteristics and early experiences of selected Early Head Start programs. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services.

Love, J.M., Kisker, E.E., Ross, C.M., Schochet, P.Z., Brooks-Gunn, J., Boller, K., et al. (2001). Building their futures: How Early Head Start programs are enhancing the lives of infants and toddlers in low-income families. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services.

Love, J.M., Kisker, E.E., Ross, C.M., Schochet, P.Z., Brooks-Gunn, J., Paulsell, D., et al. (2002). Making a difference in the lives of infants and toddlers and their families: The impacts of Early Head Start. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services.

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KEYWORDS: Births, Children, Infants, Toddlers, Youth, Child Care, Urban, Rural and/or Small Towns, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Home-Based, Parent or Family Component, Parent Training/Education, Reading/Literacy, Social Skills/Life Skills, Manual Is Available

Program information last updated 5/8/03.