Head Start Services

Head Start promotes the school readiness of young children from low-income families through agencies in their local community. The Head Start program is authorized by the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 [PDF, 271KB].

  • Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide comprehensive services to support the mental, social, and emotional development of children from birth to age 5. In addition to education services, programs provide children and their families with health, nutrition, social, and other services. Head Start services are responsive to each child and family's ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage.
  • Head Start encourages the role of parents as their child's first and most important teachers. Programs build relationships with families that support positive parent-child relationships, family well-being, and connections to peers and community.
  • Family members must apply with a program in their area. The Program Locator can help you find the program nearest you.

Local Head Start services are delivered by about 1,700 public and private nonprofit and for-profit agencies. These agencies receive grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Head Start agencies design services for children and families that meet the needs of their local community and the Head Start Program Performance Standards. Some cities, states, and federal programs offer funding to expand Head Start and Early Head Start to include more children within their communities.

What programs are offered by Head Start?

Head Start began as a program for preschoolers. Three- and 4-year-old preschoolers made up over 80 percent of the children served by Head Start last year.

Early Head Start serves pregnant women, infants, and toddlers. Early Head Start programs are available to the family until the child turns 3 years old and is ready to transition into Head Start or another pre-K program. Early Head Start helps families care for their infants and toddlers through early, continuous, intensive, and comprehensive services.

Both Head Start and Early Head Start programs offer a variety of service models, depending on the needs of the local community. Programs may be based in centers, schools, or family child care homes. Early Head Start services are provided for at least six hours per day, whereas Head Start preschool services may be half-day or full-day. Another program option is home-based services, in which a staff person visits children once a week in their own home and works with the parent as the child's primary teacher. Children and families who receive home-based services meet twice monthly with other enrolled families for a group learning experience facilitated by Head Start staff.

What is school readiness?

The Office of Head Start (OHS) defines school readiness as children being ready for school, families ready to support their children's learning, and schools ready for the children who enter their doors.

Children's school readiness is measured by the skills set out in the five domains of the Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework: 

  • Language and Literacy
  • Cognition and General Knowledge
  • Approaches to Learning
  • Physical Development and Health
  • Social and Emotional Development

Families are engaged in their children's learning and development and are poised to support the lifelong success of their child. Head Start recognizes that parents are their children's primary teachers and advocates.

Schools become ready for children when Head Start programs, parents, and schools work together to promote school readiness and engage families as their children make the transition to kindergarten. Learn more about school readiness.

What are comprehensive services?

Head Start comprehensive services include:

  • Education
  • Screenings and follow-up for health, development, and behavior
  • Health and safety
  • Social and emotional health
  • Nutrition
  • Family goal-setting
  • Social services
  • Transition services
  • Services for children with disabilities

Comprehensive services are delivered in a learning environment that is individualized to support children's growth in the five essential domains. A minimum of 10 percent of a program's total enrollment must be children with disabilities. Additionally, Head Start services are designed to be responsive to each child and family's ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage.

How many children and families receive services?

Over a million children are served by Head Start programs every year, including children in every U.S. state and territory and in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities. In fiscal year (FY) 2013:

  • Head Start programs served 932,164 children and their families.
  • Early Head Start programs served 150,100 children and 6,391 pregnant women and their families.
  • Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS), which serves children from birth to age 5, served an additional 31,907 children.
  • AIAN programs served 21,055 Head Start children, 4,240 Early Head Start children, and 482 pregnant women and their families.

View Head Start fact sheets to learn more about demographics, state allocations, program statistics, and general information on Head Start enrollment history.

What Head Start research is conducted by HHS?

HHS commissions research to better understand the different variations in programs and to guide program improvement in both Head Start and Early Head Start. For example, Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) and Baby FACES provide a picture of children's development and academic readiness over their time in Head Start and Early Head Start. HHS also commissions shorter term studies such as the Head Start CARES project, which compared different curricula directed at social and emotional development.

Learn more about recent research and projects on Head Start and Early Head Start.