Brain Child: Early Head Start
Gives Extra-early Boost to Toddlers
by Holly Yettick, Scripps
Howard News Service, May 26, 2003
DENVER — Amy Lee looks like she is watching her youngest son play. But
really, she is watching him develop his mind. He is 2 years, 8 months old.
"He knows some of his letters and he can count up to 11 by himself," Lee
said of Jack, who was bouncing around a playroom in time to a CD of French
"He knows his colors, though sometimes he pretends not to."
How did Jack learn so much, so young? Early Head Start.
The federal program is a younger sibling to Head Start, America's
38-year-old preschool fund for poor children, ages 3 through 5. Early Head
Start was born during Head Start's 1994 reauthorization. It teaches the
parents of infants to 3-year-olds how to be their children's first
"Early Head Start was a very important (response to) brain research," said
Helen Blank, director of childcare for the Children's Defense Fund in
Washington. " ... They're saying the first three years are critical."
It was not Head Start's first venture into early brain development.
Low-income babies also have benefited from Parent and Child Centers and
the Child and Family Resource Program launched in the 1960s and 1970s.
"A lot of brain research has been around for 25 years," said Edward Zigler,
a Yale professor of psychology who served on Early Head Start's planning
committee. "The stuff we've discovered with brain research is similar and
consistent with all we've learned over the past 75 years in the social
science and behavioral research."
Early Head Start began in 1996 with 143 programs. From the beginning, 17
programs were selected for intensive evaluations.
Research published last year showed that Early Head Start 3-year-olds had
better language, cognitive and social skills than other low-income
3-year-olds. Early Head Start parents taught their children more at home
and had fewer discipline problems. They were also slightly more likely to
further their education and less likely to have more children during the
program's first two years. The program worked especially well with blacks
and with families who enrolled before their children were born.
Because the study only followed children to age 3, it's still unknown
whether Early Head Start will have a lasting impact. A follow-up study of
kindergartners is planned for next year.
Sharon Clark is a family-child educator at the center Lee attends —
Clayton Family Futures Early Head Start. This means she assists parents by
visiting homes, planning activities such as library visits and observing
the bright, cheerful daycare rooms on her agency's park-like campus.
Often, small suggestions make big differences.
Take the little girl who had great language skills, but was unable to name
the foods she ate.
Clark realized it was because her mother, a busy working parent, served
dinner to her kids without telling them what it was, then went off to take
care of other business around the house.
After Clark suggested she sit down at the table and point out the names of
chicken or peas, the child's vocabulary improved.
"It wasn't that mom was a bad mother," said Clark. "She wasn't aware."
Amy Lee says Early Head Start has made her much more aware.
For instance, she wanted Jack to learn to dress himself. So her
parent-educator suggested that she start getting ready to go half an hour
earlier so he would have enough time to finish. She also reads more with
Jack than with her older son, who was born before Early Head Start.
The program aims to help both infants and mothers. Lee is a single,
unemployed mother of two who has worked mostly as a hairstylist. At 31,
she lives with her mother. But now, thanks to encouragement from Early
Head Start, she is hoping to return to college.
"I'm nervous about it," she said, "but I'm looking forward to it. I'm so
grateful for Early Head Start."