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Head Start and Early Head Start

PRIORITY POLICY

Head Start and Early Head Start

Giving babies and young children the boost they need to perform in school and maintain a healthy weight

Head Start is a comprehensive early childhood education program that helps prepare children for school by providing education, health, and social services. Every year, it reaches more than 1 million children under the age of 5 in families who have low income. It began as a program for preschoolers in the 1960s and was expanded in the 1990s with the creation of Early Head Start, which serves pregnant women, infants and toddlers. The federal government provides funding and oversight to local agencies that administer the program. For FY2019, Head Start and Early Head Start received more than $10 billion, a $200 million increase from FY2018. Additionally, as of 2020, lawmakers from 14 states have directly committed over $400 million in state funding to expand Head Start to more than 25,000 children ages birth to five, filling critical services gaps for children and families who have low income.

In 2016, updated Head Start Performance Standards took effect, the first major changes to the standards since the 1970s. The revised standards require Head Start programs–which participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program or the federal school meals programs–to actively engage in obesity prevention in the classroom and through family partnerships. The new standards require healthy snacks, culturally appropriate nutrition services, easily accessible drinking water throughout the day, and the integration of physical activity into the daily curriculum.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed in March 2020 to provide $750 million in grants to all Head Start programs to help them respond to coronavirus-related needs of children and families, including making up for lost learning time. 

Recommendations

• Head Start and Early Head Start should be adequately resourced, so that the programs are stabilized and can hire, retain and support high quality staff.

• Head Start and Early Head Start programs should expand access for the nation’s most vulnerable families, especially for infants and toddlers.

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Featured Studies and Resources

Spotlight

Healthy Kids, Healthy Childcare in New Mexico

More than 25% of New Mexico’s children begin elementary school at an unhealthy weight. Through the Healthy Kids, Healthy Childcare initiative, New Mexico is helping more than 160 early care and education centers, including Head Start programs, create strong wellness policies and practices to address childhood obesity in the earliest years of life.

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Research

Head Start Effective in Reducing BMI

A study examining the effectiveness of a six-month educational intervention at Head Start programs in Minnesota to promote healthy eating and physical activity demonstrated significant reductions in body mass index (BMI) and in the proportion of obese children and adults.

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Study

Staff Perceptions About Obesity Prevention in Head Start

This study surveyed directors and teachers about promoting healthy eating and physical activity in Head Start centers. Teachers reported more barriers to promoting healthy eating than directors, suggesting that teachers may need more support. Barriers reported by teachers include: limited time, insufficient funds and lack of support from food service staff.

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Fast Facts

42%

Children who received 60 minutes of outdoor play time during Head Start programs were 42% less likely to be obese at the end of the Head Start year compared to children who played outside less often.

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36%

As of 2020, only 36% of eligible children ages 3 to 5 had access to Head Start.

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86%

A 2016 survey of Head Start program directors and health managers found that 86% of health managers identified obesity among children as a major health concern for the program.

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Data to Share

In their most recent budgets, state lawmakers have directly committed over $400 million in state funding to expand Head Start to greater than 25,000 children ages birth to five, filling critical services gaps for children and families with low income.
Children who participate in Head Start have better healthy eating habits and are more likely to get dental checkups, compared to other children from families with low income who do not participate in the program.
Children in Head Start are nearly three times as likely to have healthy eating patterns compared to non-participants.
Preschool-aged children who entered Head Start at an unhealthy weight had a lower body mass index (BMI) by kindergarten compared to children who didn’t participate in the program.