What is Head Start? (with pictures)

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Children who participate in a Head Start program may be more ready to learn how to read.
Children who participate in a Head Start program may be more ready to learn how to read.

Head Start is US program designed to help children from birth to age five, who come from families with incomes below or at the poverty level. Its goal is to help these children become ready for kindergarten, and also to provide needed requirements like health care and food support. President Lyndon Johnson approved the program in 1965 as part of his more comprehensive social program that he termed the War on Poverty.

The Head Start Program has several facets and is now administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Early services include access to prenatal care and to food programs for mothers of newborns and for children under five.

Head Start was part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."
Head Start was part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."

Most are more familiar with Head Start programs that provide preschool education for children aged three and over. In order to participate in a preschool associated with the program, a family must qualify financially. Additionally, all children who are in foster care qualify, regardless of the foster family’s income.

If one is receiving welfare or disability, the child is immediately qualified for Head Start. Otherwise eligibility rests on income level. The federal poverty level is often way below that which would be considered a survivable income in certain parts of the country. For example, a family of four is considered impoverished with an income of $20,000 US dollars (USD) yearly. That is the maximum income allowable for children in Head Start pre-schools or for pregnant women participating in early Head Start programs.

Children who participate in Head Start are more ready to enter kindergarten.
Children who participate in Head Start are more ready to enter kindergarten.

Some Head Start preschools allow for 10% of their spots to go to families with a larger income. Usually, however, these preschools are fairly full, so children with parents who have an income above the poverty level may have no chance of enrolling in one.

These preschools have been shown to slightly increase the IQ of children entering kindergarten. Children who participate in the program also seem more ready to learn beginning reading and math. A government study released in 2005 shows that such children have mild to moderate advantages over children who participate in charitable community programs run to help impoverished students.

Other studies have not been so favorable. A 1995 study showed that white children derive more long-term benefit from the program than children of other races.

Access to prenatal care is a facet of the Head Start program.
Access to prenatal care is a facet of the Head Start program.

A 2004 study concurs with previous studies that children are more academically prepared for kindergarten as the result of Head Start preschools. However, these same children seemed less socially prepared to be in kindergarten and tend to have more behavior problems.

Others have questioned the IQ benefits of Head Start. Some cite that most children who do not participate in the program quickly catch up with peers in IQ level and academic readiness. Long-term effects may not be as beneficial as stated according to some studies. The 2004 study also showed that behavior problems tended to linger after kindergarten in students who had attended Head Start preschools.

Head start can help children adjust to being separated from parents prior to enrollment in school.
Head start can help children adjust to being separated from parents prior to enrollment in school.

Though there are disadvantages to the program, these studies can help Head Start adjust programs to reflect long-term need. No social program of this kind can be without a few issues. Head Start remains an important program by which many children benefit. Questions remain as to the longevity of such benefits and whether other programs or services would further help impoverished children and their families.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I do not think early education is good. Some other countries, I believe it was Korea and Sweden, but I am not sure, do not start their kids until they are seven years old, and these schools tested number 1 in math and science.

It seems the programs are more geared toward emphasizing the amount of time away from the parent, when the first six years are the attachment years kids go through.

The food in these federal programs is also bad. Look at the ingredients and do your research. I can't do it for you. These are only two of the things that bother me. I have also seen teachers yelling at kids.


Head Start is a school that is designed to work with the entire family, and not just the child. They have family advocates who help them set up goals for their family and help them achieve these goals.

The teachers and the Family Advocates conduct three home visits. The teachers want the families to be a part of their child's education, since they are the child's first teachers. Head Start's goal with children is not only academic; every part of the program works on socialization, from family style meals, to cooperative play and conflict resolution. The studies conducted for long term effects are only the academic benefits. This program works with the entire family and can help the family make great strides in other aspects of their life.

I noticed a study quoted behavior issues for some of these children in kindergarten. When the children have undiagnosed issues, the school helps support the family to receive the services they child needs. Unfortunately, there are limited services available for them. The school also has a high percentage of DCF students who are moved from foster family to foster family. These poor little darlings have a lot of misplaced anger and people wonder why they have behavior issues. Head Start does not see race and loves all children. I'm sorry to hear other people feel differently.


It would be nice if, as parents, we were to realize we are our child's first teachers and then to partner with teachers as our children begin any preschool program which sets the foundation for their first school experience.

I have worked for state preschools, private non-profit and am now with Head Start in the capacity of an education supervisor. On my journey through these varying programs, I have seen some challenging students in all three programs, some wonderful teachers and some not-so-wonderful teachers and a great diversity in teachers as well as students.

We want children to have a positive school experience and in order to do that, we use re-direction, reminding, visual cues and above all, modeling. In order for us to create this positive atmosphere we need, the parents as well as the centers have to buy in. I am fortunate to work with a very strong staff that has strengths in different areas, allowing us to learn from and share with one another. Do we always agree with upper management? Probably not. Do we have an abundance of paperwork and deadlines? Yes. Are we always thinking of strategies to improve our classrooms or centers? Yes. Are we sometimes in a hurry so may seem distracted or come off as rude? Most likely. Do we invite and encourage parents to volunteer in the classroom and do activities in the home? Yes. Do we sometimes get discouraged because we don't know how or what to do for that child who is a little more challenging? Yes.

Like any program or career, there are always two sides to any story. And in order to prosper in the future, we should remind ourselves to keep an open mind. Maybe that teacher who was rude to you just lost their house? Maybe that teacher who wants your child observed just was informed their child has just been diagnosed with a delay. Most teachers who work for a Head Start program have a vision and are passionate for working with a diverse group of children.

If we keep looking at them as low income families, as merely children living below the poverty level, are we truly giving them a chance? Because, instead of simply saying children, but also by throwing in immigrant children, poor children we are going in biased and will not really be giving them the Head Start that may make a difference in their lives!


My daughter will be starting Head Start in Texas due to speech difficulties. I work in the school setting and know first-hand how bad the cafeteria food can be. I wanted to pack my daughter's lunch, and they told me absolutely "no". I will have no say in what she eats during the school day due to government funding and policies.

We do not have an economic need for free lunch, so why should my child be forced to eat terrible cafeteria food that comes mostly from cans!


When did the headstart school year begin in the year of 2004.


I am a Pre-K teacher from Southern California, who for the last 15 years has worked with both the state preschool system and currently with Head Start for the last five years.

Head Start is a wonderful opportunity for family and child education and empowerment, but unfortunately as mentioned previously before, there is no accountability for parent participation, in return for the abundance of free services that the taxpayers are financially supporting.

As much as I adore my job, students and families, there are moments when I see our clients actually becoming overall more dependent, not independent from the services provided, the goals established by the FSW's for the families and a curriculum that encourages bad behavior in the classroom.

Although the parents are extremely involved in creating a programs immediate program policies, which is something I have always supported, an over-abundance of power in the long run instead is created and is delegated in the forms of the actual hiring, firing and grievances of employees, curriculum and how to spend extra money, all without requiring the families to act responsibly or to be accountable for their own actions.

At the same time, if you are a really good teacher like me, who also has K-6 credentials and has been trained to work with special needs learners, I am often discouraged to expose my students to advanced Kindergarten and first grade material after achieving their objectives and closing that gap. It's almost as though I am overstepping my boundaries by preparing these children beyond what the data should assume about low-income families and heaven forbid I share the knowledge of critical thinking and the socializing skills that are actually the foundation of good early childhood education.

Being able to control the behavior of 20 learners using creative and positive strategies has instead earned the reward of even more paperwork!

Instead of an educator, I feel as though I am more of a social worker because we are also required to set up medical, dental, mental health services and do home visits twice a year. What's worse is if you mention that you work after hours or on weekends, Head Start looks at it as though you suck at time management and have an overall poor performance, as opposed to being a hard working, committed teacher who is being accountable!

Oh, and by the way, I am with my 20 learners from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and I am expected to complete the services and documentation in the mentioned above within the remaining two hours of the day, although it takes at least four hours to do!

Every year the salaries and benefits get lower, but Head Starts teaching requirements get more demanding and what's insane is that at some Head Start locations, the teachers do the family service workers' paperwork also, which to me could never produce any kind of quality if you are overwhelming employees with work that normally takes two people to do, in order to save money, or have to pay the government grant money back!

The biggest thing that keeps Head Start from being what it should be is the income eligibility guidelines most people that impoverished (family of four making $20,000), are either not motivated or don't have the transportation for their child unfortunately, and instead of doing the right thing and raising the scale by 10-20,000, which would serve more overall, and who we know in this economy who desperately need the childcare, support education in the home and can consistently bring their children and are already paying for the program with their taxes (which 80 percent of our clients are not).

I am glad that other Head Start teachers posted about the behavior problems and parent accountability because I thought I was imagining things at first, but inevitably came to my own conclusions, but have decided to keep it to myself for fear of harassment from my site supervisor, which has happened in the past and been cited as "insubordination" as opposed to advocating for my students' best interest. There is all the research data, assessments, evaluations and overall data they gather from this "social experiment," and I am wondering if any other teachers have experienced a form of nazism from administration, especially since they are paid substantially more than the teachers who are making the deadlines and doing all of the actual field work. They expect us to set the best examples possible in order to make our families successful, and yet we are never praised, micro-managed, required to deal with paperwork when we are with students, instead of during our prep time, which is when we should be doing it. We are expected to give up lunch and break times as well as weekends, but condemned for mentioning it or even acting/looking exhausted, which is completely the opposite message!

The veteran teachers say that administration's job is basically dealing with "risk management" issues and intimidating the teachers into making sure deadlines are completed and to oppress you even more if you discuss/disagree/debate the issue further! Respectfully, Anon.

P.S. Head Start would have longer lasting effect in K-3, but with the privatization of public schools, caused by the education reform globally, over the last 10 years, the "quality" Head Start can provide is not offered at schools which serve low-income parents. Therefore, the gap itself is always only "closed," and students are not encouraged to advance even further.


As a Head Start employee, my decision to leave the private part day program I was teaching in for five years was due in part to wanting more time in the classroom to teach and needing a 40-hour workweek. The program I am involved with in Tennessee has some of the same benefits and flaws as other HS programs commented on here.

The main thing I am appalled with is the lack of behavior management in a classroom. Teachers have no final say in the child's behavior. Repeat bad behavior issues are rampant and I've been told that I can't use methods that are developmentally appropriate to quell children with difficult (typically aggressive and/or violent) behaviors. I'm not talking about the unruly child who won't stay seated at lunch. I'm talking about the ones that repeatedly hit, kick, throw things and slap other children throughout a single day, every day!

The family specialist has been in my room and I have sent children out of my room. But the parents are not required to attend any parenting classes, nor are they held accountable for their children's behavior. The parents aren't required to do anything to improve their lives at all, including walking their child to the provided transportation! Many of my parents are wonderful young families just trying to make their way in the world and doing right by their children. They teach boundaries.

If, as a Head Start teacher, all I'm allowed to do is redirect behavior, or say make good choices, or oh it's so sad that you have behaved this way again, then what are we really teaching these kids? From my perspective, we are teaching them they have all the power and that there is no expectation for them to behave in a socially responsible manner.

Discipline needs to start early and be consistently applied. Being economically poor is not a reason to be a poor citizen, especially when programs like this are available for you to help your child succeed in life. Where is the accountability for welfare recipients to earn their keep, so to speak? Where is the incentive to improve their lives? I am not a person of means. I grew up that way but have not been as fortunate in my adult life. I still work hard and have used federal services at times when I needed help.

I have gone into debt to earn a college associates degree, and will do everything in my power to stay with this Head Start school because the pay and benefits will allow me to look after my children and go back to school to earn a bachelors degree and maybe even move on to a Master's degree after that. I learned discipline at an early age. All children need, and actually want discipline. Head Start needs to step up to the plate and stop making excuses for poor behavior and demand better from their parents and students.


I imagine the term "immigrant parents" is being used very liberally here. If you mean, why do they discriminate against "illegal aliens" then you have already answered your question. If they are indeed legal immigrants, you should seek a lawyer because it is illegal to discriminate based on race. Civil Rights Act of 1964 section 7.


I need some advice. I am going on an interview for a head start teaching job on monday, after swearing off ever being a pre-school teacher again. Should i go through with this or am i making a big mistake? I do love children, but it's all the drama that comes along with it that scares me. Help!


I'm thinking about enrolling my son and one thing about me, although I am poor and can't afford the best education for him, education is important to me.

I was a straight A student and take the time to study and learn things on my own. I have always been that way since my childhood and I want to be in the field of neuroscience.

I will always try to read to my son every day and play with certain methods to teach him numbers and math. I have to say he's a brilliant boy but I don't want to put him in a farce program and he somehow "gets left behind" when I could have been home with him. I will indefinitely teach him still but I don't want him to think school is just babysitting and fun because I don't want a babysitter.

I have been to "good" schools and poor public schools and I absolutely wish I could somehow start some sort of organization to really, really, really reinforce the "joy" in education. I always felt it was due to people not feeling represented as far as race and culture in their studies and african american history, for example, is just not enough.

If those parents of those children worked so poorly to help their child's education it probably meant that their academics suffered and were instilled as a must and not a joy. I think some even don't even believe in their education and just do it to get by. I used to find many inconsistencies in the text of my course books, so from them on I used to reject certain history. Then I realized that learning it and then reeducating myself on it and to think in a functionally critically manner, not a cyncial one, was important.

So my point is, education carries subconscious anxieties in adults who felt pressured by it. Being a black, half latin individual, I have always seen do your homework, in a do your chores manner and I have to say i saw little involvement. I believe this has a lot to do with disproportionate test scores we always hear about. There are many, many, many exceptions but either generally this is the case or there are many issues with statisticians.


I work at a Head Start in Colorado. I love those kids so much! Our problem is the director, who has told us she is leaving because she thinks the program is not good. She would never enroll her child in head start!

My daughter was in the program, and I thought it was wonderful! So this director tells us she is leaving, through tears, then doesn't, but through policy and procedure manual, she decides to fire all of her managers and re-structure the program! Where is the justice and god help those kids!


I am now aware that the students having left the head start program ultimately scored the same as students who never attended head start. When was this officially known? Are there any public government acknowledgements of this fact? Hoping for an informed response.


We were called by our son's teacher over spring break in 2009 and asked to consider not bringing him back because he cannot pay attention enough to gain anything.

We removed him and moved to a larger city nearby and enrolled him in the local school districts preschool program. He has improved academically significantly from the moment he got away from "Head Start." Thank you Head Start for helping our son by not helping our son.


I am a pediatric dentist and I have been volunteering in the local head start program doing dental education, distribution of tooth brushes and toothpaste and examinations to get any/ all children who need dental work taken care of as soon as possible.

The head start programs that I have visited and spent the mornings with were wonderful. The teachers were engaged and the students eager to learn and to please. We have many children in our local programs for whom English is a second language and the local high school Spanish club has started to visit the schools weekly to play and work on English with these small children who love the "big kids."

I understand that not every center is perfect or that every employee is always at their best but the idea of head start and the people who work in the program want nothing more than to give these kids who are at the poverty level a chance to be successful in school.


Head Start is an excellent program. My daughter is a product of Head Start. she is the top ten in her class. head start was the foundation. thank you head start!


I work at head start, and it is a great program for

children. they do learn, and we at head start are

there because of children.


I am a Head Start employee and I believe in this program with all of my heart. I am very disappointed that many have posted bad experiences with a Head Start Center.

Not all centers tolerate bad behavior or negative attitudes from their employees. My staff knows that the child comes first above anything else.

There is a lot of paperwork and red tape, however, if you are working for Head Start for the right reasons it is manageable.

Employees need to realize that the family as a whole plays an important part of the child's education that's why there is a family service area. There are always going to be limitations to what we can do but if you are truly in touch with your families you can help guide them to becoming better parents.

This is not to say the parents are bad just because they fall below the federal poverty line. Everyone is facing economic hardship, but it is our job to show families that our children are the future and in order for them to buy into this you must truly believe it yourself.

Education is an important part of Head Start but so is teaching the child that no matter what is going on at home, that he/she is loved. I know I may sound naive but I love my job, stress and all.

I honestly feel good at the end of the day because I know that I have done my part to make every child in my center feel special.


Head Start Program is a great program who help children! the teachers and staff work hard to meet the needs of the children and parents and I am disappointed that some people don't recognize that!

Yes, we cater to low income families and we who are fortunate should recognize that we need to help those in need.

Head Start isn't a place where the staff babysit children. Children grow, learn and associate concepts through socialization! Think twice before saying things about the program. Head Start is wonderful.


I am an employee from Head Start.

We do care about the children, and want to teach them respect for themselves, others, and the classroom.

But sometimes their home lives are totally different than what we have experienced as we were growing up.

We try to instill good choices and values while we have these children everyday but many of these children have many behavioral issues and makes it very hard for us to conduct the classroom as a traditional classroom.


Why are we discussing another federally funded pre-school program when we are already paying for HeadStart with so little progress? Why not reorganize HeadStart into a real educational program rather than a baby-sitting service?


I am an employee of Head Start and work in the family service department. I think that most of the parents do not care about the benefits of the program the only thing they want is a baby sitter. Most of them do not work, are not planning a future and are a bad influence on their children. These parents should be required and held accountable for improving their life situations.

It should be mandated that parents attend some type of training or classes at the centers or local business. At the center where I work, the parents are always right even if they are wrong. They will not enforce any of the policies the parents break and the parent involvement person is a joke. She needs to go home. She does not know any of the policies or she just thinks the parents are always right!

If the parents do not want to abide by the rules of the agency, give the next child that opportunity. Signed, tired of trying to help some people who do not want help!


I am a Head Start teacher and you have to take time away from class and help teach your children. They're not going to learn if you do not show concern and help. Make it fun for them. Don't bad talk it and if you do, not in front of them, because it will only make them feel they cannot do the work.


My son was enrolled in head start, or so we thought. His paperwork was overlooked. We took him to class and they made him leave. We were then admitted back into class only to be told after a three hour session with my son that he has ADHD! They now want to have my son 'observed".

It is amazing how one pre-school teacher can make a diagnosis such as this without knowing the child at all. It just so happens that he was very excited and has never been around other kids or adults. What a crock. I am disgusted at the way this program is run. He will not be going back.

What's next? Shock therapy for four year olds? We will be home schooling and networking with other homeschooled children. Beware of this program unless you are an illegal immigrant.


Well let's see, as a daughter of immigrant parents, I too am turned away for any types of services including Head Start. So it's not just "Americans" that are being turned away.

I pay a hell of a lot of taxes just like everyone else does, and don't get anything for free! Anyway, El Paso, TX Head Start employees are in fact, rude. I went there upon the recommendation of a school district to enroll my child who has a speech disability and they just plain told me you don't qualify end of story. They didn't let me explain or show them the referral!

I don't want anything for free. I'm paying for speech therapy already. I just thought it would be a idea for my child to have that socialization to help her.


I am a current head start teacher in Texas and even though I have been involved with head start for only one year, I think it could be an excellent program.

I have seen a lot of children in my room improve greatly on language and mathematics skills. The only problem is that we can't teach all that we want to because of everything we are expected to do.

We have so much paperwork and red tape, deadlines, etc. to meet that a lot of the times that gets in the way of teaching the kids.


this is not a good organization for white kids. people say that the Mexican immigrants are discriminated against. well in this case its the whites because they are outnumbered by the mexicans! End of my discussion.


Immigrants? Most of these children were born in the US -- yeah, their parents are immigrants. So what? We all are immigrants in this country, and so are you anon48731 unless you are a Native American.

Anon43047: you know why they discriminate against "immigrants", or let's say latino immigrants? Because of ignorant people! Stupid people who do not even know their background!

By the way anon48731, you are not America. My mexican american son, and all the children of all races are the future America. God bless you!


Yes, it is given to immigrants first. Because of the chances an immigrant kid has versus an American kid. Plus, let's not forget what Americans did to Indians. End of discussion.


My daughter is in Head Start in Colorado and I love it! She has learned so much. I am thankful for this program. The teachers and staff are friendly, kind, and love their students. I am sorry other people have not had good experiences.


if you're having problems with staff, or the way you're being treated, file a complaint. there are nice people who do care; it's just a matter of finding him/her. in some states this behavior is not tolerated. Please remember everyone has a boss to answer to, and your opinion counts!


I'm from El Paso too and it is funny to hear someone else mention how these people are so mean visitors.

I went to inquire about their program and they simply told me the income criteria and never got off their chair to tell me more. I'm sure they are not all like this but I have been to this specific one twice and both times I leave not wanting my child to go to head start. Which is why I'm enrolling her in a different pre-school program.


This program has been very successful in my life and in the lives of many other people that I know.

Perhaps is true that some children do not learn the alphabet or their numbers before they left the program, but perhaps the parent never took the time to sit with their child and help them at home either.

one thing I'm sure about is that, at the time any child leaves the program they are ready to interact with other children because they've been learning about social skills. That is something that will carry them through their entire lives.


My friend's granddaughter started in this program here in Trumbull County Ohio. They are not teaching them anything!

She wasn't learning her alphabet or numbers. So what is the use of this program if they do not teach like they are supposed to?


My first time of hearing about headstart. This looks like it is a pretty good program for improvished children.


They probably discriminate against immigrant parents because America is sick and tired of being turned away for services that they qualify for, and it is given to the immigrants first, no matter what. Period. End of discussion.


My only question: Why the people at the office in Head Start is always mean? Always so busy that they don't have the time for parents? Why they discriminate against immigrant parents? El Paso, TX

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    • Children who participate in a Head Start program may be more ready to learn how to read.
      Children who participate in a Head Start program may be more ready to learn how to read.
    • Head Start was part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."
      Head Start was part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."
    • Children who participate in Head Start are more ready to enter kindergarten.
      Children who participate in Head Start are more ready to enter kindergarten.
    • Access to prenatal care is a facet of the Head Start program.
      Access to prenatal care is a facet of the Head Start program.
    • Head start can help children adjust to being separated from parents prior to enrollment in school.
      Head start can help children adjust to being separated from parents prior to enrollment in school.
    • Head start has programs to help children get healthy snacks and food.
      Head start has programs to help children get healthy snacks and food.
    • Head Start not only runs education programs, but also child nutrition services.
      Head Start not only runs education programs, but also child nutrition services.