Head Start Supports the Early Learning of Hispanic Children and Families

September 25, 2015
Photo of Hispanic Children at a Head Start Migrant Center in South Texas.

Photo of Office of Head Start Director Blanca EnriquezDr. Blanca Enriquez, Office of Head Start Director.By Dr. Blanca Enriquez, Director, Office of Head Start

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, and we should all be proud that our great nation continues to be a draw for people searching for a new and better life. As Head Start celebrates its 50th anniversary Visit disclaimer page , we look forward to continuing to support the diversity that is part of America’s strength.

Head Start has always reflected the communities in which it operates, so it is natural that our programs take special effort to make sure eligible children of immigrant parents access the variety of services it offers. Today, one in four preschoolers has a parent who was born outside of the United States, and that is important information because children of immigrant parents are less likely to attend early learning programs than other children.

In 2013, 36 percent of all children eligible for Head Start were Hispanic. Similarly, 37 percent of the children who actually accessed Head Start services were Hispanic. Head Start services include Head Start, Early Head Start, Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (farmworkers), and American Indian and Alaska Native programs. Over 90 percent of our Head Start programs serve at least one child who identifies as Hispanic, and over 75 percent serve at least one family that speaks primarily Spanish at home.

Due to the diversity of our programs, many Head Start children are dual language learners. Although Spanish is the largest percentage, many other children are learning Russian, Syrian or the language of their Native American tribe.

Head Start was created and codified to reach children most in need of services.  For example, Head Start has more than 20 Performance Standards requiring respect of the home language and cultural backgrounds of children and families.  The Performance Standards require local programs to:

  • Assess their communities to identify the location and ethnic composition of Head Start-eligible children
  • Respect and support the family’s culture and language
  • Talk with parents in a language they understand
  • Keep in mind that some behaviors (e.g., no eye contact with adults) may be typical for a child from a different culture

Additionally, Head Start offers resources to help programs support the child’s culture and language. These include the 10 Multicultural Principles that guide programs to understand, respect and be responsive to the cultures of all stakeholders. One principle is to think about children’s culture when making curriculum choices. Another principle is that staff members should reflect the face and culture of the community and families the program serves. Head Start has also developed a Community Assessment Workbook for programs serving Hispanic and other emerging populations.

Successful Head Start programs have tailored their outreach to the families in their communities. They address the parent concerns about language, logistics, and paperwork that could hinder participation. Great programs have staff that reflect the population and culture of their community, and hire parents of Head Start children and other community members.

Head Start is innovative in finding new ways to ensure high quality services for dual language learners. An increasing area of improvement emphasizes bilingualism as a strength in the interactions between teachers and children.  For example, the best programs focus primarily on the development of the home language of infants and toddlers in the program, while also providing babies with experiences in English.  With older preschoolers, programs also focus on both the home language and English. Moreover, programs are improving the way they assess children who are dual language learners by capturing the child’s skill level and language development in both their home language and English.

Head Start programs are most effective when their systems and services support the cultural diversity of enrolled families. Research shows the population of children in America who are dual language learners is highly diverse, and local programs respond to this diversity by coordinating this research with their policies and practices. As Head Start continues responding to the changing demographics of our nation, program-wide management approaches that support dual language learners is a necessity for the development of children who are prepared and ready for success.

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