Early Head Start School Readiness: It’s All About Relationships


Early Head Start: Relationships at the Core of School Readiness

Since Head Start’s beginning in 1965, it has aimed to improve school readiness of children from low-income families and focused on family engagement and comprehensive services.  Using an ecological theory of child development, Head Start’s guiding principles emphasize the development of the “whole child” and support of families and communities to produce optimal developmenti of children.   In 1994, Early Head Start (EHS) was authorized to expand services to serve pregnant women and children from birth to 3 years.  This deepened the interest in strengthening early parent-child relationships that begin before birth and contribute to children’s long-term development.   (For more details, read Advisory Committee on Head Start Research and Evaluation)EHS Parenting Assessment.

The Office of Head Start’s current Early Head Start Program Performance Measures Conceptual Framework highlights the importance of program quality improvement, quality staff performance, and family engagement.  Although the underlying concepts aimed at promoting school readiness have not changed, the updated pyramid emphasizes the importance of outcomes of parent-child relationships and strengthening families in reaching the ongoing goal of Children’s well being and competence.  This ongoing goal for children at the pyramid’s apex sits directly atop three outcomes:  1) Enhance children’s growth and development, 2) Enhance parent-child relationships and 3) Strengthen families.  The pyramid correctly shows these three outcomes on the same level and of similar magnitude.  This focus on parenting and families has a strong research foundation in the child development literature.

The pyramid’s foundation, Management Systems, calls for high standards that foster quality in staff performance, engagement with families, partnering with programs and communities to ensure that their children have the opportunity to prosper within comprehensive nurturing environments.  Most compelling is the central theme of the pyramid.  If you look at the green level labeled Program Services, quite prominent in the very center is the mandate to Develop strong relationships with parents and children.  Looking from the bottom level up through the core of the pyramid, the theme of building relationships is shown as supporting the ongoing goal for Child well being and competence.  As the Office of Head Start aptly summarizes, Infants and toddlers’ well-being and competence in the five essential domains is developed in the context of trusting relationships.  Ensuring positive relationships through nurturing experiences during the earliest years supports children’s developmental competence throughout their preschool and school years.”  

The relationship-based focus of the EHS Conceptual Framework Pyramid complements the Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework and accompanying program self-assessments, discussed in previous blogs. This Framework guides programs in building relationships with families that support family well-being, parent-child relationships, and ongoing learning and development for children so they are ready for school.  This Framework further delineates seven family outcomes: (1) family well-being, (2) positive parent-child relationships, (3) families as lifelong educators, (4) families as learners, (5) family engagement in transitions, (6) family connections to peers and community, and (7) families as advocates and leaders.  

How Does the Relationship-Based Process Work?

Stephanie Powers, Editor of the Journal of Zero to Three, explains how the relationship-based process in early childhood programs works in helping parents help children get ready for school.  “Parents who have safe, supportive relationships with staff members can use those relationships as models for how to create a nurturing environment for their children.  Just as children need support to cope, express emotions, communicate, persist in tasks, and negotiate conflict, so do adults. . . . Building partnerships with families is integral to fostering the skills that promote school readiness.” (Read more in S. Powers (September, 2012) From Research to Practice: Strategies for Promoting School Readiness in Programs Serving Infants and Toddlers, Journal of Zero to Three, Vol. 33(1), 37-43.)  

It’s all about relationships!  So, how can staff build safe, supportive relationships with parents that, in turn, strengthen nurturing parent-child relationships and contribute to children’s well-being and competence?  One strategy is to offer families a parenting assessment in which parents and staff observe their parent-child interactions together to learn about their strengths and areas for growth.  The KIPS parenting assessment is a tool to guide these observations, by focusing on a set of 12 parenting behaviors that have been proved to promote children’s development and school readiness.  KIPS observations can unlock insights into parenting for both families and staff, and point to specific skills that would enhance the parent-child relationship.