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Making a Difference in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers and Their Families: The Impacts of Early Head Start

In June 2002, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families released its funded report evaluating the Early Head Start programs. The evaluation was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and Columbia University's Center for Children and Families at Teacher College, in collaboration with the Early Head Start Research Consortium.

Early Head Start is designed to provide high-quality child and family development services to low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers. Administered by the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), Early Head Start operates in 664 communities and serves about 55,000 children. Roughly 3 percent of all eligible infants and toddlers are enrolled in Early Head Start programs. Early Head Start, like Head Start, is a comprehensive program of cognitive, health, nutrition and parent involvement for very low income pregnant women, infants and toddlers.

The evaluation was conducted with a sample of 17 programs from across the country.

Findings:

  • Three-year-old Early Head Start children performed significantly better on a range of measures of cognitive, language, and social-emotional development than a randomly assigned control group.
  • Early Head Start parents scored significantly higher than control group parents on many aspects of the home environment and parenting behavior. Early Head Start parents were observed as being less detached in their interactions with their children and less likely to have spanked their children in the past week, and as having a greater repertoire of discipline strategies.
  • Early Head Start parents were more likely to read to their children.
  • Early Head Start programs also had impacts on parents' progress toward self-sufficiency and on subsequent births.
  • Early Head Start fathers benefited from the program. They were less likely to report spanking their children, and were observed to be less intrusive and more attentive during play.

Recommendations

The authors of this study outline some recommendations for program improvement and further development:

  • Implementing the Head Start Performance Standards early and well is important for maximizing impacts on children and families.
  • Programs should continue to consider program options carefully-whether the program is center-based on home-based. All program options can have impacts on children and families, but those that combine the feature of both types of programs have the strongest impacts.
  • Programs will need to explore new and alternative strategies for serving families that have large numbers of demographic risks (the group that did not show positive impacts). Need to explain this in more lay terms if you can.
  • Programs that enroll families during pregnancy have the greatest chance to effect change.
  • The study showed that Early Head Start programs can have success with families that other intervention programs have not often affected-including teen parents, parents showing depressive symptoms, fathers, later-born children, and first-born children.
  • The program is able to have an impact across a wide range of child and parenting outcomes-parents' daily reading to their children, and other ways parents improve children's language and pre-literacy development-that contribute to later success in school.

The executive summary and three-volume technical report from this study are available online at: http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/core/ongoing_research/ehs/ehs_intro.html.