Head Start & Early Head Start

Head Start Services

Updated: June 30, 2023

Head Start programs support children's growth from birth to age five through services centered around early learning and development, health, and family well-being. Head Start staff actively engage parents, recognizing family participation throughout the program as key to strong child outcomes.

Head Start services are available at no cost to children ages birth to five in eligible families. Head Start preschool services work with children ages 3 to 5 and their families. Early Head Start services work with families that have children birth to age 3, and many also serve expectant families. Many programs operate both Head Start preschool and Early Head Start services. Programs deliver child development services in center-based, home-based, or family child care settings. All Head Start programs continually work toward our mission for eligible children and families to receive high-quality services in safe and healthy settings that prepare children for school and life.


Services for Children and Families

Head Start programs help children get ready to succeed in school and in life through learning experiences tailored to their changing needs and abilities. Our programs do this in a few key ways:

Early Learning and Development

  • Build strong relationships as the foundational driver for early learning.
  • Engage families in their child's learning and recognizing parents as a child's first and most influential teacher.
  • Implement effective practices to promote children's growth in five key domains (approaches to learning, social and emotional development, language and literacy, cognition, and physical development).
  • Encourage learning through play, creative expression, and guided activities with schedules and lesson plans that include the cultural and language heritage of each child and family in relevant ways.
  • Create welcoming learning environments in indoor and outdoor settings that are well-organized and safe.
  • Conduct ongoing screenings and assessments to guarantee each child is making progress.
  • Collaborate with parents and community agencies when further assessment is needed.
  • Support the full inclusion of children with disabilities and build on their strengths.


girls counting

Health and Wellness

  • Engage all children in both indoor and outdoor physical activity.
  • Serve breakfast, lunch, and snacks that are healthy and nutritious.
  • Ensure children receive medical, dental, hearing, vision, and behavioral screening.
  • Make sure children brush their teeth after meals; promote oral health and hygiene.
  • Help families understand and support their child's health and behavioral health needs.
  • Assist with mental health services for children and families, as needed.
  • Build resilience to help children and families heal from traumatic experiences or events and overwhelming situations.

Family Well-being

  • Offer parenting support and strategies.
  • Support parental health and links to community services during pregnancy.
  • Connect families to community and federal assistance.
  • Help families identify and reach their goals and dreams, including those related to finances and economic mobility, housing, employment, and education.
  • Provide a career pathway in early care and education — about 22% of program staff are current or former Head Start parents.

Family Engagement

  • Invite parents to share information and insights about their child.
  • Celebrate the role of fathers and male caregivers through father engagement.
  • Engage parents as their child's lifelong advocate.
  • Welcome parents to offer ways to improve children and families' experiences in the program, including through leadership roles on the Policy Council.
  • Support child and family transitions to the next step in Head Start, kindergarten, or another early childhood program.
classroom learning

Meeting Community Needs

To reach the children and families who need Head Start services the most, programs are designed according to community need. Directly funded at the local level, Head Start programs tailor their programs as appropriate for families in the designated service area. These programs may be provided in different settings and hours according to the needs indicated by their community assessment.

Federal-to-Local Funding Model

The federal government funds Head Start programs through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Across the country, school districts, nonprofit and for-profit groups, faith-based institutions, tribal councils, and other organizations qualify to become a Head Start recipient and receive federal funding.

The federal-to-local model allows local leaders to create a Head Start experience that is responsive to the unique and specific needs of their community. Many programs combine funding from federal, state, and local sources to maximize service delivery and continuity. Head Start Collaboration Offices facilitate partnerships between Head Start agencies and other state entities that provide services to benefit low-income children and their families.

Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) programs serve children birth to age 5 from families engaged in agricultural work, either seasonally or across geographic regions. American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Head Start programs serve children from federally recognized tribes and others in their communities.

Head Start programs either provide transportation services or help families arrange transportation of children to program activities.

Eligibility and Enrollment

Head Start programs serve families with children from birth to age 5, as well as pregnant people and expectant families. Eligible participants include children whose families meet the federal low-income guidelines — that is, whose incomes are at or below the federal poverty guidelines or who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) public assistance services. Other eligible participants include children who are in the foster care system or experiencing homelessness. Programs may also accept a limited number of children who do not meet any of those eligibility criteria.

MSHS programs have specific eligibility requirements for the children of farmworkers. AIAN Head Start programs enroll tribal children from reservations or nearby areas. All programs enroll children with disabilities and welcome children who speak a language other than English at home.

Generally, there are more eligible children than what program funding supports. Each program maintains a waiting list according to their selection criteria for when a spot becomes available.

Program Settings

Head Start services are delivered in a variety of settings, sometimes referred to as options. This consistent, supportive setting is designed to foster strong relationships between program staff, families, and children. The selection of settings offered by any Head Start program is determined by its assessment of community needs.

  • Center-based services are located in child development centers. More than half of Head Start children are enrolled in center-based services, five days per week for at least six hours per day.
  • Home-based services are mostly delivered in a family's own home, along with planned group socialization activities. More than a third of children enrolled in Early Head Start programs receive home-based services.
  • Family child care services are located in a family-based child care setting.
  • Locally-designed services are often delivered through some combination of the above settings, depending on the needs of the community.
kids silhouette playing with airplane toy


Since 1965, Head Start programs have reached more than 38 million children and their families. Children enrolled in Head Start programs are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college; have improved social, emotional, and behavioral development; and are better prepared to be parents themselves than similar children who do not attend the program. Children enrolled in Early Head Start programs have significantly fewer child welfare encounters related to sexual or physical abuse between the ages of 5 and 9 than those who don't attend.

Research consistently shows a broad array of benefits for children at the end of their Head Start enrollment. While these benefits may appear to diminish in the early grades, economic benefits emerge as children become adults. The Head Start program's two-generation design — coupled with research-based, high-quality comprehensive services — has the power to change children's outcomes.