Young children develop in many different ways. But leaps in one area--a slew of new vocabulary words, perhaps--are often followed by frustratingly slow steps in others, such as shyness around new children or a refusal to be toilet trained.
That’s why experts stress that a strong program of early-childhood education should not only encourage children’s cognitive growth and knowledge of basic concepts, but also pay attention to their nutritional needs, their social and emotional health, and other aspects of their physical development.
Since the 1960s, the best example of such a comprehensive approach has been Head Start, the federally subsidized preschool program for children from low-income families. While some states make limited attempts to provide additional services to young children, the vast majority don’t come close to following the Head Start model.
Besides receiving an educational experience in the classroom, Head Start children receive medical and dental care and are served at least one nutritionally balanced meal each school day. Head Start’s program-performance standards specify points at which children should be screened and follow-up evaluations should occur.
Parents are expected to volunteer in Head Start classrooms as well as serve on committees and councils that make decisions about the program. Family-support services, such as employment counseling and referrals to other professionals, are also part of the program.
Because Head Start was conceived as more than an educational program, supporters are opposed to moving it out of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and into the Department of Education--a proposal made by President Bush that is likely to be debated during next year’s reauthorization process. While administration officials have said they don’t intend to jeopardize the nonacademic part of the program, many advocates are concerned those services would be threatened.
“It is essential to understand that in order for children to excel in cognitive skills, the whole child must be nurtured,” says a recent position paper from the National Head Start Association.
Where States Stand
An early evaluation of preschool services for poor children by the Department of Education found that Head Start programs were far more likely to provide supportive services than either school-sponsored programs or preschools in child-care centers were.
As state-financed preschool programs have expanded throughout the country in recent years, though, interest in the services Head Start provides has increased.
The most recent examination of the issue comes from Walter S. Gilliam, an associate research scientist at the Yale University Child Study Center. After surveying state prekindergarten programs, he concluded in a 2000 paper that “whereas Head Start programs are mandated to provide comprehensive services to all enrolled children and families, state-funded preschool programs are inconsistent in their delivery of these services.”
His study of state-financed programs found that about half provided some comprehensive services, such as health referrals, hearing and vision screenings, and meals, but fewer had family caseworkers on site or conducted home visits.
Oregon is one state in which children in the state prekindergarten program receive the same level of comprehensive services as those in Head Start. By law, the state-subsidized program must meet the Head Start performance standards for health screenings, nutrition, and parent services.
Since 1989, the state has operated a Head Start program alongside the federal one. Together, the two serve about half the eligible children in the state.
“We know that if you want to impact the life of a young child, you cannot do that in isolation,” says Anita McClanahan, the director of early-childhood-education programs for the Oregon education department
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week