A Family’s Guide to the Head Start Program

For some families, Head Start can be an important program that teaches their young children critical development skills relating to socialization, critical thinking and cognition. This initiative, which is available in community districts throughout the country, provides toddlers and children with the opportunity to begin learning at a young age. Occasionally, households may ask “What is Head Start?” Generally, these families should note that this program provides children who live in low-income households with opportunities to develop and learn at appropriate rates.

Children who are enrolled in comprehensive early childhood education programs are more likely to develop skills that they can use throughout the rest of their lives. For these reasons, programs such as the Early Head Start initiative can help ensure young children being raised in economically stressful situations are growing properly. However, these programs are not available for everyone. In fact, there are specific eligibility requirements that candidates need to meet in order to receive Head Start benefits. To help families determine if these programs could be good resources for them, the sections below outline general program requirements and provide information about these initiatives.

What is Head Start?

Early Head Start (EHS) and the general version of this program provides infants, toddlers and children from low-income families with the opportunities to develop and learn with others. Additionally, these programs help children and their parents or guardians to increase early-stage abilities and promote healthy habits. Generally, a Head Start preschool program will take place at schools or child care centers. However, some programs may also offer services that include trained professionals visiting these children and their parents at home. Wherever these programs take place, the goal is to ensure that children are growing and developing properly. Additionally, this initiative works to make sure that these young enrollees are learning skills that they can use throughout their lives.

Differences Between Head Start and the Early Head Start Program

There are two different Head Start programs that families should know about: the general Head Start initiative and Early Head Start (EHS) program. Both programs receive funding through the federal government. However, these initiatives are slightly different, especially regarding the children who can successfully enroll. As its name would suggest, the Early Head Start program is available to younger children, including:

  • Infants.
  • Toddlers who are younger than 3 years of age.
  • Pregnant women.

Furthermore, EHS aims to provide low income families with opportunities to develop healthy relationships with one another. During this stage in children’s lives, these familial connections are some of the most important bonds they can develop. This program is also beneficial to caregivers, who develop parenting techniques that they can eventually implement on their own once the EHS program ends. Families must also remember that this program is available to mothers and fathers, and either can participate.

The Head Start program primarily serves children who are between 3 and 4 years of age. As a result, this initiative functions more like preschool and prepares children to enroll in kindergarten when they turn 5 years old. However, the goals are similar, and Head Start works to ensure that children in this age bracket continue to develop and learn properly.

Learn About Head Start Requirements

In some aspects, Head Start requirements are the same throughout the country. However, individual community programs may require families to meet additional prerequisites before they enroll in this initiative. Generally, though, one of the most important Head Start eligibility requirements that families need to meet relates to their income levels. Most states require that families who wish to enroll their children in Head Start have total incomes that are at or below the federal poverty guidelines. This is determined in relation to how many people live in their households, and guidelines are established each year. In addition to these Head Start income requirements, children can qualify for this program regardless of how much their families earn if:

  • The children are enrolled in foster care.
  • The children are homeless.
  • Their families receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
  • Their families receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The Early Head Start eligibility requirements are similar to those for the general program. Likewise, parents and guardians should be sure to speak with their specific program representatives to ask about any additional enrollment requirements for their areas.

How to Apply for Head Start

In order to apply to a Head Start program in their communities, families must contact the program directly. These local program representatives provide applicants with the general and Early Head Start application they need to complete in order to apply for admittance. When households apply for Head Start, they must also remember that they will likely be required to provide proof that they meet the programs’ enrollment requirements. Therefore, families should be prepared to give their program representatives verification of the following prerequisites when they apply:

  • Income: Pay stubs or tax forms
  • Identity: Driver’s licenses, passports or birth certificates
  • Residency: Utility bills, mortgage payments or leases
  • Public benefits receipts: SSI, TANF or receipts for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)

Can Head Start students qualify for free school lunches?

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federal initiative that provides low-income children with free or reduced lunches throughout the school year. Families who have their children enrolled in Head Start programs may wonder if their dependents are eligible to receive food benefits while enrolled in this early education program. Not only are children enrolled in Head Start eligible to participate in the free school lunch program, but they are automatically eligible to do so. This helps to simplify the enrollment process for families while ensuring that Head Start enrollees have access to healthy lunches every day they are participating in these learning programs.

Generally, guardians and parents who wish to enroll their children in this food initiative need to meet the National School Lunch Program requirements that relate to income. However, this is not the case for EHS and the Head Start program enrollees. As long as these children are properly enrolled in Head Start, they are automatically admitted into the federal lunch program. Through this initiative, Head Start enrollees have consistent access to lunches and milk, which they may not have been able to afford otherwise.