Head Start’s two-generation intervention model is committed to using a collaborative and individualized approach to empower families and, ultimately, to improve child, parent, and family outcomes. As part of its model, Head Start’s family service workers (FSWs) seek to build trusting relationships with families and connect them to services that support their goals for themselves, their children, and the family unit. For example, FSWs link families to community-based resources (e.g., food banks), refer them to services (e.g., mental health services) and track their outcomes, conduct home visits, and support them in crisis.
Our new analysis examines how FSWs’ attitudes, knowledge, practices, and professional credentials may be connected to the extent to which they link families with needed services. In this brief, we first describe the constructs we used for understanding FSWs’ attitudes, knowledge, and practices. Second, we review our most important findings: that FSWs who take time to get to know the families they serve—and who collaborate with families to understand parents’ unique goals, issues with work and school, and visions for the future—are more likely to share information about services with a greater number of families, make referrals across a wider range of services, and facilitate families’ connections to services. Finally, we discuss some broader implications of our findings and provide recommendations on how Head Start can support a high-quality FSW workforce that links families to needed two-generation supports.
To better understand the relationship between FSWs’ attitudes, knowledge, practices, and credentials and the ways in which FSWs connect families to services, we analyzed data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) Spring 2015 Family Engagement dataset. This dataset includes responses from 196 FSW interviews across 60 Head Start programs, including self-reported information on FSW characteristics and practices, and the activities in which FSWs engage to connect families to services.
We grouped FSWs’ activities to connect families to services into three composite variables: the number of families to which FSWs provided information about different services (“quantity”), the range of services for which FSWs provided referrals (“range”), and the extent to which FSWs facilitated families’ connection to services through follow-ups, making appointments for families, or advocating for responsive services (“facilitation”).
FSW attitudes, knowledge, and practices were represented by seven constructs developed as part of the Family and Provider/Teacher Relationship Quality questionnaire for use with FSWs:
In addition to the above constructs, we considered the relationship between whether FSWs had each of two early childhood education credentials (the Child Development Associate [CDA] Credential and the Family Development Credential [FDC]) and FSW activities connecting families to services (i.e., quantity, range, and facilitation of services).
To explore the relationship between FSW attitudes, knowledge, practices, and credentials—and the activities through which FSWs link families with needed services—we conducted a series of regression analyses. Our models controlled for a variety of FSW characteristics and experiences (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Analytic framework for FSW attitudes, knowledge, practices, and credentials; FSW characteristics; and FSWs’ activities linking families to support services
*Note: The race categories used in this analysis come from the FACES dataset. Race categories available in the questionnaire included White, Black, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, Other, Don’t Know, and Refused.
Our findings highlight which FSW attitudes, knowledge, and practices may be particularly helpful for linking families with critical services and supports, as well as whether professional credentials are associated with a greater likelihood of connecting families to these supports.
FSW attitudes: Of the three constructs intended to capture attitudes (i.e., Commitment, Openness to Change, and Respect for Families), only Openness to Change was associated with a greater likelihood that FSWs would engage in activities to connect families with needed services. Specifically, higher ratings of Openness to Change among FSWs were significantly associated with a higher likelihood of making referrals across a greater range of services and a higher likelihood of facilitating families’ connections with needed services. Commitment to their work and Respect for Families, while likely beneficial in other ways, were not associated with a greater number of families being provided information, a range of referrals, or follow-up.
FSW knowledge: Higher ratings of Family-Specific Knowledge were associated with all three measures of connecting families to services. FSWs who were more familiar with families’ unique situations were more likely to provide information about available services to a greater number of families, to provide a greater range of referrals, and to engage in more facilitation activities to ensure that families were connected to services.
FSW practices: All three constructs intended to capture FSWs’ family-focused practices were associated with at least one aspect of linking families with services. Greater ratings of FSW-Family Collaboration were associated with all three measures of connecting families with services: higher number of families provided information, greater range of services, and greater engagement in facilitation activities. Higher ratings of Responsiveness and Family-Focused Concern were associated with a higher likelihood of facilitating families’ connections with needed services.
FSW credentials: Neither of the credentials examined (CDA, FDC) were associated with a greater likelihood of connecting families with needed services.
Table 1 includes a summary of findings.
Table 1. Associations between FSW attitudes, knowledge, practices, and credentials and FSWs’ likelihood of linking families to support services
*Check marks indicate constructs that were positively associated with linking families to services at significant levels (at p < .001 – .01).
Our analysis demonstrates that it is critical for Head Start to look beyond professional certifications and other credentialing to evaluate how well FSWs are able to connect families with needed supports. The findings in this brief are useful because they illuminate which aspects of FSWs’ attitudes, knowledge, and practices are associated with FSWs’ efforts to connect families with two-generation supports that help them meet their needs and reach their goals.
More specifically, three aspects of the FSW role that we found to be significant—knowledge about the families they serve (Family-Specific Knowledge); collaboration with parents about the parents’ own goals, visions for their future, and problems with work or school (FSW-Family Collaboration); and concern for how families can meet those goals (Family-Focused Concern)—are crucial to understanding each family as unique and getting to know them on an individual level. In other words, FSWs who are strong in these aspects are better equipped to meet each family’s unique needs. Two additional significant aspects—being open to using different ways to help parents (Openness) and changing approaches in response to parents’ feedback (Responsiveness)—reflect the critical importance of FSWs being nimble and flexible in their roles to meet family needs.
Head Start’s commitment to its two-generation model requires substantial investment to ensure a strong and effective FSW workforce. Head Start can take the following steps to help its FSW workforce further cultivate the significant aspects of the FSW role identified in our analysis and reinforce the efforts of FSWs who are already strong in them.
This publication was supported by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of the United States (U.S.) Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award (Grant #90YE0237) totaling $105,000 with 100 percent funded by ACF/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACF/HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit the ACF website, Administrative and National Policy Requirements.
The authors would like to thank Christina Padilla, Tamara Halle, Alex Demand, and the Child Trends Communications team for their reviews of and contributions to this piece.
Warren, J., Thomson, D., & LaForett, D.R. (2023). Head Start family service workers’ attitudes, knowledge, and practices are connected to how they link families to two-generation supports. Child Trends. https://doi.org/10.56417/8095m7421s
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