Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Uniquely Supports Children’s Transitions

BlogEarly ChildhoodJan 17 2023

The more than 300 Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) centers in the United States serve children in families whose primary caregivers engage in agricultural labor. MSHS differentiates these families into two groups based on the frequency with which families may move for agricultural work: Migrant families are those who have changed their geographic location within the past two years, and seasonal families are those who have not changed their residence in the past two years. MSHS centers are specifically equipped to meet the needs of young children who will likely experience more transitions in and out of early learning settings than children in families who are not on agricultural schedules.

However, not all children in MSHS centers have the same transition needs, so center leaders must often identify ways to support a variety of unique needs. These supports are especially important during the critical transition from MSHS programs to kindergarten. Migrant children, for example, may move to new residences multiple times during a year. To ensure consistent access to high-quality care, they may need specific supports as they move from one setting to another. Seasonal children, on the other hand, may stay in the same place for a couple of years, but their caregivers may require supports that work around their schedules.

MSHS programs often tailor transition supports for children and families during critical transition periods. The Understanding Children’s Transitions from Head Start to Kindergarten (HS2K) project explores the critical transition between Head Start and kindergarten. As a part of that project, Child Trends looked at three sets of transition practices reported by MSHS center directors in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) 2017 dataset—including transition practices for children entering kindergarten or those migrating or moving—as well as coordination practices with local elementary schools. (Key findings are highlighted in a new brief by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE).) Offering a variety of supports allows families to receive information multiple times, or in ways that match their schedules and preferences. The following are suggested strategies that MSHS center directors can use based on the findings highlighted in the brief:

  • Centers and directors, who have unique insight into the makeup and needs of the children they serve, may be ideally suited to tailor transition supports. For instance, MSHS center directors in the study who reported that over half of the children in their center were from families who did seasonal agricultural work—and who are thus less mobile than children from migrant families—were more likely to offer a greater number of transition practices. More information is needed to understand this pattern, but these center directors may increase the number of supports to meet the needs of both children in seasonal and migrant families.
  • Although centers can support kindergarten transitions by coordinating directly with schools, they are more likely to provide direct supports to parents and families. MSHS center directors may not always know where children will transition, so direct supports ensure that resources are in the hands of those who need them. Common practices include sending key information about kindergarten transition home to families or providing records directly to families to bring to their next school.
  • Centers can collaborate with likeminded organizations to ensure that MSHS and schools support migrant and seasonal children’s transitions. Center directors in the study who collaborated with programs like Migrant Education offered more transition supports. Although we do not know the mechanism by which collaboration increases the number of transition supports, the Head Start to Kindergarten (HS2K) theory of change suggests that Head Start programs that collaborate with community partners are able to increase the level of cross-sector coordination to what is necessary to support effective transitions.

When early learning staff intimately know the needs of the children and families they serve, they are better equipped to provide more supportive transition practices. While the study highlighted here focused on children in Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, researchers must learn more about other children who also experience challenges during transitions, including the kindergarten transition period. For example, the practices that support children in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Head Start may require a different approach. To build our knowledge of effective supports for all children during critical transitions, we must understand and acknowledge a child’s culture, language, background, and context and how these inform the types of supports that centers can offer.