MDRC in the News

Three Ways Head Start Programs Can Use Federal Relief Funds to Support Parents’ Economic Mobility

Commentary by Meghan McCormick, Teresa Eckrich Sommer, Terri Sabol, and JoAnn Hsueh
Spotlight on Poverty


Recent federal legislation collectively provides over a billion dollars in new funding for Head Start, offering an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen the program’s anti-poverty programming. Since its founding in the 1960s, Head Start – including Early Head Start – has had a dual mission (perhaps not well-known to the general public) to advance the education and wellbeing of children and parents.

There is already rigorous evidence that Head Start improves the educational outcomes of young children. Now is the time to expand and strengthen services to support parents’ own economic mobility goals – through education and career services – with equal intensity and attention to quality. Here’s how to begin strengthening this system:

Give Specialized Staff Training to Support Families’ Economic Mobility

Head Start staff should be able to help parents set and work on goals that directly link with their economic mobility. But the vast majority of Head Start teachers, home visitors, and family support staff have backgrounds in early childhood education and children’s early learning and development. In one study of Early Head Start, when we worked closely with programs to add tools and supports for parents, we found that many staff expressed discomfort and had less experience setting and directly supporting parents’ education or career advancement goals. While many staff believed that it was crucial to help families move out of poverty, we found that most parents set goals related to their child’s development, rather than focusing on their own education or career advancement.

Programs can provide specialized training to bolster front-line staff to help parents achieve their own educational and career goals. For example, Head Start programs in Tulsa took on CareerAdvance, a workforce development and training program intended to prepare parents for careers in healthcare. All Head Start management and front-line staff received training on the approach, helping to ensure that parents received consistent messaging and information about CareerAdvance’s requirements, principles, and practices as they moved through the program. Recent findings about CareerAdvance showed that these efforts did have benefits for both parents and children, increasing rates of parental employment, and improving children’s attendance in Head Start programming….

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