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- What are the characteristics of children and families in Head Start?
- How are families doing at the beginning of the Head Start year?
- How are children doing at the beginning of the Head Start year? How does this vary by Head Start exposure (that is, newly entering children compared with those returning for a second year), the age of newly enrolled children, and race/ethnicity?
A national portrait of the population Head Start serves provides information for Head Start to consider when assessing needs and setting national goals for the program. It is important for Head Start to have information about children and families’ strengths and needs at the beginning of the program year.
Information on child and family characteristics, including prior exposure to Head Start, child age, race/ethnicity, and home language, can help Head Start better tailor services to the needs of the population being served. In addition, information on family well-being and other characteristics, such as education, employment, depression, and home learning activities, provides important information about children’s developmental contexts to inform how Head Start programs might best serve children and their families.
Examining children’s school readiness skills at the beginning of the Head Start year provides a starting place from which to measure children’s progress. In addition, by examining differences in skills among subgroups of Head Start children, we can gain insight into possible ways to tailor services to support specific child needs.
This research brief describes the characteristics, well-being, and development of children and families at the beginning of the Head Start program year, using recent data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES 2014).
The purpose of this brief is to provide a national portrait of the characteristics and well-being of children and families and children’s school readiness skills at the beginning of the Head Start program year. The brief recognizes that understanding the characteristics and needs of the changing population served by Head Start is key to delivering responsive, high quality program services and for setting goals for the program.
Key Findings and Highlights
- Head Start served a diverse group of children and families.
- Hispanic/Latino children represent the largest ethnic/racial group of children in Head Start.
- Slightly less than half of Head Start children live with both of their biological or adoptive parents, reflecting diverse family structures.
- There is variation in the strengths and needs of Head Start families.
- More than three-quarters of the children live with one or more parents with at least a high school diploma or GED, and around half of the children live with at least one parent who is working full-time.
- However, two-thirds of the children live at or below the federal poverty threshold, with more than 30 percent living below 50 percent of the poverty threshold. Almost half of children’s parents report experiencing financial strain—such as being unable to afford the medical care or home they need—and one-third of parents report some level of food insecurity.
- Many Head Start parents face additional challenges, with more than 40 percent reporting some level of depressive symptoms, which may adversely affect their interactions with their children.
- Nevertheless, the majority of parents report engaging in a variety of home learning activities at the start of the program year. More than three-quarters report reading to their Head Start child at least three times in the past week.
- Children begin the Head Start program year with a range of prior experiences, skills, and needs.
- The language, literacy, and early math skills of Head Start children lag behind others of the same age in the general population, on average.
- Children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills vary by Head Start exposure (that is, newly entering children versus children returning for a second year), the age of newly enrolled children, and race/ethnicity.
The FACES sample provides information at the national level about Head Start programs, centers, classrooms, and the children and families they serve. We selected a sample of Head Start programs from the 2012–2013 Head Start Program Information Report, with two centers per program and two classrooms per center. Within each classroom, we randomly selected 12 children for the study. In total, 60 programs, 119 centers, 247 classrooms, and 2,462 children participated in fall 2014.
The sample used for this brief includes 1,908 children enrolled in Head Start in fall 2014. All findings are weighted to represent this population.
Tarullo, L., E. Knas, A. Kopack Klein, N. Aikens, L. Malone, and J. F. Harding. “A National Portrait of Head Start Children and Families: FACES 2014.” OPRE Report 2017-98. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017.
- Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey