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Your Complete Guide to the Head Start Program

Your Complete Guide to the Head Start Program

The Head Start program helps the social and educational development of children from low income families, children in foster care, and children experiencing homelessness. A program called Early Head Start serves pregnant mothers, infants, and toddlers to encourage strong and healthy attachments between parents and their children.  

The Head Start Program is funded by the federal (national) government, but is operated at the state and local level. This means that depending on where you live, there may be some variation in the program offerings, as well as eligibility requirements. Early Head Start serves kids and families from pregnancy through age 3. Regular Head Start serves children ages 3-5. 

As the name suggests, the Head Start program is a great way to give your kids a head start in life.  Read on for more information about the benefits of Head Start programs, who is eligible, where to find a Head Start program near you, and a few things to consider when choosing a program.

children at a head start program. Only their hands and lower half of their bodies are visible as they pick out pieces of multicolored chalk from a box on the ground.

What is Head Start?

First, it is important to know that there are two types of Head Start programs that can benefit your family. Early Head Start serves pregnant women, infants, and toddlers through age 3. The regular Head Start program serves children ranging in ages 3-5. 

Head Start programs are run by local nonprofit organizations, community agencies, and school districts. While Head Start is often thought of just as an educational or pre-K program, families also receive medical, nutritional, and parenting help. 

In addition to high quality personalized educational curriculums for kids, families taking part in Head Start programs can expect:

  • Medical, dental, hearing, vision, and mental health screenings and referrals
  • Education on health, nutrition, advocacy, and parenting
  • Family goal setting
  • Healthy meals for kids
  • Assistance connecting with other community resources
  • Support during the transition from Head Start to public school
  • Special services for children with disabilities. Head Start programs are required to reserve 10% of their spots for children with disabilities or special needs.

Head Start also offers leadership and volunteer opportunities for parents and caregivers, which can be a great way to get more involved in your community and gain experience in childcare and early childhood education. 

A baby of about three months old lying on a white blanket to demonstrate that infants are eligible for head start.

Are my kids eligible for Head Start?  

There are several ways that eligibility is determined for Head Start and Early Head Start programs. If your family meets any of the following criteria, you may be eligible to enroll in Head Start. 

  • Your family’s income is at or below the federal poverty line: If your family has two members, that means your yearly income must be $17,420 or lower. For a family of four, the poverty threshold is $26,500. A full listing of the 2021 federal poverty guidelines is available here. Please note that the poverty threshold is slightly higher in Alaska and Hawaii.
  • A child is in foster care. Children in foster care are eligible for the Head Start Program regardless of the family’s income. 
  • Your family receives SSI or TANF: If your family receives assistance in the form of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), you are eligible for Head Start. You do not have to show proof of income in these cases. 
  • Your family and/or child is experiencing homelessness: All children experiencing homelessness are eligible for Head Start Programs, and you do not need to offer proof of your family’s income in this case.

The eligibility requirements listed above are the minimum requirements set by the federal government to guide local programs. Head Start programs are allowed to enroll children from families who have incomes above the federal poverty line, so it’s possible that your local Head Start program has looser guidelines than the ones listed above. In other words, even if you don’t qualify based on the criteria above, it is a good idea to apply anyway. 

A boy of about four and a girl of about three painting with watercolors and smiling at a head start program

Is Head Start free?

Head Start and Early Head Start programs are free. They are funded by the federal government through grants to local nonprofit organizations, community agencies, and school districts.

How can I find a Head Start Program near me?

To find a Head Start program in your area, you can call the Head Start Information and Communications Center toll free at 1-866-763-6481. You can also use this Head Start Locator, which will show you all the Head Start programs near you on a map. Visit the Head Start website for more information. 

Baby of about eight months wearing a onesie with an elephant on the front and playing with a xylophone.

Things to consider when choosing a Head Start Program

If you have more than one Head Start program option in your area, you can compare the programs to determine which one you like the most, and which one best meets the needs of your family. You should feel empowered to ask questions about the quality of any program you and your family may enroll in.

Chances are, you and your family will have a positive experience with a Head Start program. All Head Start programs are required to meet high standards set by the federal government. However, it is still a good idea to get a sense of the environment your kids will be spending so much of their time in. Visit the school or center where the program operates and get a feel for what it’s like. Do the kids seem happy? Are the teachers and staff warm and friendly toward the children? Are the teachers and staff warm and friendly toward you? Are the children supervised closely? Is the facility clean and safe? 

Another thing to consider is childcare. Because this may be where your children will spend the day while you are at work, it is important to find out what the program’s hours of operation are, and whether they operate during the summer months. If the program doesn’t run after a certain time or during the summer, you may need to arrange for outside child care. 

For parents who want to give their kids every opportunity to reach their full potential, Head Start may be the right choice for you and your family. For more information about Head Start and Early Head Start, visit their government website.

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Catherine Hall, LMSW is a therapist at a small group practice in New York City. She earned her master of social work degree at New York University.