Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Head Start’s Family Support Services

By Marissa Strassberger, Carol Hafford


One of Head Start’s hallmarks is its whole-family approach to the services it provides: improving children’s well-being by supporting families’ well-being. Children’s well-being includes their health, development, and school readiness, while families’ well-being includes their physical and mental health, housing, and financial stability. Head Start aims to do this over the long term by providing a comprehensive, integrated set of family support services that are tailored to meet the individual needs of parents and families as well as the needs and resources of local communities. However, beyond basic information about the family support services that Head Start programs offer, little is known about exactly how programs coordinate the provision of those services.

To fill this knowledge gap, the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation contracted MDRC and its partners—the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (NORC) and MEF Associates—to conduct the Head Start Connects project. Head Start Connects aims to gather details on the strategies Head Start programs use to coordinate family support services, and the processes or practices used to ensure that service coordination is aligned with individual family needs and fosters family well-being.

The Head Start Connects research team conducted case studies with six Head Start programs to learn details about their processes for coordinating family support services. Data collection took place from September to December 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic that forced Head Start programs across the country to make major changes to center operations and services to keep children, families, and staff members safe. Drawing on findings from the case studies, this brief describes how the six sites adapted their coordination of family support services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A final report on the case studies is expected to be published in 2022.


This brief describes how six Head Start sites participating in the Head Start Connects case studies adapted their coordination of family support services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It draws on information collected for the Head Start Connects case studies, which aimed to fill the knowledge gap about the strategies Head Start programs use to coordinate family support services, and the processes or practices used to ensure that service coordination is aligned with individual family needs and fosters family well-being.

Key Findings and Highlights

The six Head Start Connects case study sites responded to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on in-person activities by quickly pivoting from in-person interactions with families and community providers to virtual connections via phone, text, video conference, and email, tailoring the mode to individual situations and preferences. Specifically, sites adapted their key coordination activities in the following ways:

  • Program recruitment: All sites were able to continue some form of recruitment amid pandemic restrictions, with four sites shifting most recruitment to take place over the phone, on social media, and via printed materials. Two sites reduced their recruitment activities because they had previously relied heavily on live events and recruiting in person in the community, such as at doctors’ offices.
  • Enrollment: All sites adapted their enrollment process in slightly different ways. They reported conducting enrollment:
    • Completely in-person;
    • Completely over the phone;
    • Via paperwork parents completed independently; or
    • Using a combination of these processes.
  • Formal one-on-one parent meetings: All sites shifted most meetings from in-person to phone or video conference. However, family support workers from four sites reported trying to hold some meetings in-person  in some instances (for example, meeting with high-risk families, usually outside the family’s home). The content of the meetings also changed: Family support workers addressed parents’ pandemic-related income losses and parents’ priorities shifted from longer-term to shorter-term goals.
  • Informal check-ins: All sites adapted the ways they checked in with parents informally:
    • Family support workers moved their check-ins at drop-off and pick-up from inside the center to greeting parents in their cars or on the playground.
    • Virtual check-ins via phone calls, texts, and emails replaced many of the more spontaneous in-person interactions family support workers had previously relied on.

At four sites, staff reported spending more time checking in on families, especially when their centers were closed to all in-person activities.

  • Group parent events: All sites moved their group parent events to virtual formats or cancelled them.
  • Partnering with community providers: Outreach and interaction between Head Start staff and community providers changed for all sites. Pandemic restrictions made it difficult for family support workers to attend events and connect with providers in the usual ways and to get updates on locally available services and resources. Families increased their use of emergency services to meet basic needs. Yet some services were not available, including—at three sites—access to child care, a domestic violence program that provides legal assistance, and a program serving refugee women.

Throughout the pandemic, the case study Head Start programs and family support workers remained flexible and adjusted their service coordination, demonstrating their commitment to delivering responsive support services and meeting families’ needs.


The data presented in this brief come from the Head Start Connects case studies. The case studies used a multiple case, qualitative design to describe similarities and differences in coordination processes across the six participating sites. Researchers conducted one-on-one, semi-structured interviews by video conference or phone with Head Start staff, parents, and community providers at each site. Through these interviews, the research team learned retrospectively about family support service coordination and changes that programs had to make in response to the COVID-19 crisis from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to their interview date in fall 2020.