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Mel Gravely

Head Start’s Commitment to School Readiness

It’s that time of year again. Like baby birds leaving the nest, approximately 320,000 Head Start preschoolers will fly away to start the next chapter in their young lives. As Head Start teachers and administrators, we can’t help but ask, “Are they ready?”

“Did we do everything we could to prepare them?”

“Is the school ready for them?”

And perhaps most importantly, “Does their family have all the skills and knowledge to support them in the future?”

School readiness is one of the core tenets of the Head Start mission, with Head Start saying that it is “foundational” to early childhood education. In what Head Start calls the “Head Start Approach to School Readiness,” they define “school readiness” as having three parts:

  1. Children are ready for school.
  2. Families are ready to support their children’s learning.
  3. Schools are ready for children.

The first part of the Head Start Approach relates directly to in-school instruction and seeks to answer the question, “Does the child have the skills that are appropriate for their age?” Here, Head Start offers the “Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF): Ages Birth to Five” that describes all of the types of things that children should be able to do by five years of age. You can read the ELOF for yourself, but below is one example from each of the five categories of the ELOF:

  1. Approaches to Learning: Accurately recounts recent experiences in the correct order and includes relevant details.
  2. Social and Emotional Development: Takes turns in conversations and interactions with other children.
  3. Language and Literacy: Maintains multi-turn conversations with adults, other children, and within larger groups by responding in increasingly sophisticated ways, such as asking related questions or expressing agreement.
  4. Cognition: Counts to at least 20 by ones.
  5. Perceptual, Motor, and Physical Development: Uses a pincer grip to hold and manipulate tools for writing, drawing, and painting.

Also, let’s not forget that these are kids, not machines. Every child learns at their own pace. More often than not, even children who are behind will catch up to their peers as long as they are provided with opportunities to learn and grow, both in the classroom and at home.

That brings us to the second part of the Head Start Approach, and in my opinion, the most important. As we’ve said time and time again, and studies have shown, parent and family engagement is one of the strongest enduring legacies for children who attend Head Start. A great school environment will never make up for a poor home environment. For children to succeed, both places have to be fully engaged in helping the child realize their full potential.

Each child deserves a safe and comfortable place to learn. Each child deserves access to the materials they need. Each child deserves to be read to daily. Each child deserves time to play outside. Each child deserves nutritious food. And each child deserves a supportive and encouraging parent or caregiver.

Head Start only has children in its care for a short time. When Head Start helps families gain access to resources and educates them how to use them, it’s activating the world’s most powerful lifelong teachers: parents and caregivers.

Lastly in the Head Start Approach to School Readiness is making sure that schools are ready to receive the preschoolers in the Fall. We wrote about this in a blog back in 2019 called “Partnering with Your Local Receiving Schools.”

“As part of the Head Start’s goal to consider the whole child, Head Start children have been taught skills in many different areas, such as how to ask questions, taking turns, and proper hand-washing,” we wrote at the time. “When they leave Head Start, we want them prepared and ready to continue learning, and to build on the gains that they’ve made. By having a strong working partnerships with the receiving school, we can make sure that those skills can be put to work right away in the kindergarten classroom.”

Because school readiness is so foundational to Head Start, there is a lot of information available to designees on the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (ECKLC). The School Readiness section on ECKLC includes over 150 links to additional resources. There are also more materials located in the transitions section, which talks in a more targeted way about what specific tasks Head Start staff need to check off when transitioning a child from preschool to kindergarten.

For new Head Start staff or for those who are concerned about their program’s performance on school readiness, a good place to start is the Head Start Approach to School Readiness: FAQs. There you’ll find a good overview of the Head Start Approach with links to some of the most important documentation on the subject.

As always, if you’ve found something that works particularly well in your program in getting children ready for kindergarten, either in classroom instruction, parent engagement, or partnerships with local schools, we’d love to hear them! Please leave your comments below!

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  1. Janet says:

    As a Head Start teacher parent involvement is crucial and few parents are willing to or able to do so. Thus the vicious cycle.

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