Everyone deserves to have the opportunity to succeed in education, and from an early age, federal programs help children and their parents achieve just that — a chance to be set up for success in school and at home. With the promise to “Give every vulnerable child an opportunity to succeed,” Head Start is one of the leading federal programs promoting learning readiness for young students in the U.S. So exactly what is Head Start and what services does it include? Use this guide to understand the ins and outs of the program.

What Is Head Start?

Head Start is a federal program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and families. The program’s goal is to prepare children for school and to help them succeed in life. Head Start programs provide a wide range of services to meet the needs of each individual child and family — including educational activities, health screenings and services, nutritious meals, social and emotional support, and help finding childcare or employment. Head Start programs, which vary state by state, provide support for parents as they work to improve their own skills and knowledge. Parent involvement is a key part of the Head Start program because it helps ensure parents are actively involved in their child’s education and development.

What Is the Goal of Head Start?

The goal of Head Start is to help vulnerable children catch up to their peers academically, socially, and emotionally. The program provides comprehensive services that include early education, health and nutrition, and social and emotional support. Head Start also works to involve families in their child’s education and development. According to the National Head Start Association (NHSA), this is the goal of Head Start:

“NHSA’s vision is to lead — to be the untiring voice that will not be quiet until every income-eligible child can access the Head Start model of support for the whole child, the family, and the community — and to advocate — to work for policy and institutional changes that ensure all children and families have what they need to succeed.”

Head Start is a federal program administered by local organizations, which means each Head Start program tailors its services to meet the needs of the community it serves. However, all Head Start programs must adhere to certain standards set by the federal government.

What Is the History of Head Start?

The Head Start program began in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. Since that time, the program has helped millions of children get a head start on their education and development. Head Start programs are available in every state, as well as in many tribal communities and in Puerto Rico.

While Head Start is a federally funded program, it also relies on funding from state and local sources. This funding helps to cover the costs of staffing, supplies, and transportation. In some cases, Head Start programs also receive funding from private sources, such as foundations or businesses.

What Are the Most Important Things to Know about Head Start?

Head Start is a hugely impactful program for young children and their families. Here’s a recap of must-know points about Head Start, including:

  1. The program gives every child the chance to succeed.
  2. You can easily see if you qualify for Head Start.
  3. Guardians receive services from Head Start, too.
  4. Head Start is free to those who qualify. 

What Services Does Head Start Provide?

Center-based programs provide services to children in a group setting, usually at a childcare center or school. Some of these include:

  • Home-based programs that provide services to families with young children in their homes
  • Migrant and seasonal farmworker programs that provide services to families who move frequently for work

Head Start programs are required to offer the following services:

  • Early childhood education designed to meet the needs of each individual child
  • Health and dental screenings and referrals
  • Mental health and disabilities services
  • Nutrition education and meals
  • Parental involvement opportunities
  • Social services
  • Transportation

In addition to the required services, other services through Head Start may include before and after school care, summer programs, and family literacy programs. Exact programs and services vary by region.

What Are the Age and Eligibility Requirements of the Head Start Program?

To be eligible for Head Start, a child must come from a family that meets the federal poverty guidelines. In addition, Head Start programs give preference to children with special needs, such as those who are homeless, in foster care, or have a disability. Head Start programs are required to provide services to eligible children from birth to age five. In some cases, Head Start programs also provide services to individuals with disabilities and pregnant women and their families.

According to Neighborhood House, foster children, homeless families, and families receiving TANF, SSI, or SNAP (CalFresh) are considered categorically eligible for Head Start.

Children with disabilities are fully-included into the program. Services for children with disabilities and their families are provided in coordination with local early intervention and education agencies, community organization, and school districts. Head Start staff work closely with families to advocate in securing necessary services and resources for their children.

In order to receive Head Start services, families must apply through the local program. Once a family is accepted into the program, they will work with staff to create an individualized service plan for their child. This service plan will outline the activities and services the child will receive while in Head Start.

What Is the Head Start Curriculum?

Head Start curriculum includes individualized learning plans for students to reach their full potential. The Head Start Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center outlines the Head Start curriculum families can expect their children to receive. All curriculum must:

  • Be research-based
  • Be content-rich
  • Include broad and varied experiences and activities
  • Promote children’s learning and development

The individualized service plan is just one way Head Start programs ensure each child gets the services they need. Head Start staff also conduct regular assessments of each child’s development and progress. These assessments help to identify any areas where a child may need additional support.

Head Start programs are required to provide services for a minimum of six hours per day, five days per week. However, many programs offer extended hours or even full-day services. This allows working families to participate in the program and still have time for their jobs.

What Is the Cost of Head Start?

If you meet the eligibility requirements, in some cases Head Start is a free program, per MAAC’s description of the federal service. It can also be a low-cost option for early childhood education. Income-eligible families may participate in the program at no cost. Head Start provides a comprehensive early childhood education and development program to low-income children and their families. 

Depending on the location, the program may include education; medical, dental, social, and mental health services; and nutrition. Families also receive assistance with finding and accessing resources in their communities. Head Start promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social, and other services to enrolled children and families. Head Start programs provide a learning environment that supports children’s growth in many areas including language, literacy, mathematics, science, social, and emotional development.

At little or no cost, Head Start also works with families to set goals and achieve them. The program helps families by providing information about child development, parenting, and other topics related to family life. Referrals to community resources can help families meet their needs. Children and guardians are encouraged to participate in all aspects of the program as they play a key role in decisions that affect their lives.

Head Start vs. Preschool

When it comes to early childhood education, there are several options available. Two of the most popular educational programs for young children are Head Start and preschool, according to education site The Classroom. Both programs have unique benefits that can help prepare children for kindergarten and beyond. Let’s take a closer look at the similarities and differences.

As described above, Head Start is a federally funded program that provides free or low-cost early childhood education and developmental services to eligible children from birth to age five. In order to be eligible for Head Start, children must live with families that meet certain income guidelines. Head Start programs are typically located in high-poverty areas and provide comprehensive services that address the needs of the whole child, including their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Preschool, on the other hand, is a type of early childhood education typically offered by private schools or daycare centers. Preschool programs vary in terms of their cost, curriculum, and length of time they are open each day. However, most preschools follow a similar basic structure and typically operate for two to four hours each weekday. Like Head Start, preschool programs also focus on the development of the whole child and provide a variety of activities that encourage learning.

What Is a Head Start Teacher?

The Resilient Educator describes a Head Start teacher as a highly trained and experienced early childhood educator who works with children from birth to age five. As Head Start programs are designed to promote school readiness by providing comprehensive educational, health, nutritional, social, and other services, Head Start teachers serve as the coordinators for these programs to children and their families.

Head Start teachers work closely with other members of the Head Start team — including family service workers, health care providers, and education specialists — to ensure each child in the program receives the individualized care and attention they need to succeed.

If you’re interested in working for a Head Start program, there are a few steps you can take to prepare. First, check with your state’s department of education to see if they have any specific requirements for working in a Head Start program. Then, contact your local Head Start program to inquire about job openings and get more information. Finally, consider pursuing a degree in early childhood education* or a related field to further improve your chances of working in a Head Start program. 


* An online degree from the University of Arizona Global Campus does not lead to immediate teacher licensure in any state. If you want to become a classroom teacher, contact your state’s education authorities prior to enrolling at the University of Arizona Global Campus to determine what state-specific requirements you must complete before obtaining your teacher’s license. 

Certain degree programs may not be available in all states. 

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