Stimulus Funding Widens Early Head Start’s Reach
The following article was published in the October 2010 issue of OCD's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here. 

Federal economic stimulus funds are enabling Early Head Start programs across the nation to reach 55,000 additional low-income infants, toddlers, and pregnant women and increase their payrolls to accommodate expansion, including 20 programs in Pennsylvania, three of which serve Allegheny County families.

The federal grants provide for the most significant expansion to date of Early Head Start, which was created in 1995 as an initiative to promote healthy prenatal outcomes for pregnant women, the development of very young children, and healthy family functioning in American neighborhoods challenged by poverty.

"We’ve always had our eyes set on expansion," said Vivian Herman, director of Early Head Start at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development (OCD), which administers University of Pittsburgh Early Head Start, known locally as Family Foundations. “Pretty much from the time we started in 1996 it was clear that it would not be difficult to find more children who we could serve.”

Family Foundations added 140 children to the program with an Early Head Start expansion grant received earlier this year, raising its total enrollment to 310 children across six Allegheny County community sites.

Other Early Head Start programs in the county that were awarded expansion grants include those operated by Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. The additional money has allowed each to enroll another 72 children in their program.

Focus on Early Years

Early Head Start was created at a time when scientific evidence was emerging that portrayed the infant and toddler years as critical periods in the maturation of the brain during which experience and proper stimulation could play key roles in enhancing development.

Prior to recent expansion, more than 86,000 low-income children ages birth to 3 years and about 11,000 pregnant women were enrolled nationwide in the federal community-based program.

The most recent data on the children and families enrolled in Early Head Start come from the program’s 2005–2006 Program Information Reports, which sites across the country are required to submit each year. Analysis of the data provides a glimpse of those served.

Early Head Start, for example, enrolls a diverse range of low-income children, families, and pregnant women. Nationwide, the racial and ethnic profile included 42 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic, and 25 percent African American. About 92 percent of the pregnant women enrolled received prenatal and postnatal care. Among children who did not have health insurance when they enrolled in Early Head Start, 54 percent obtained insurance during their first year in the program. And 93 percent of children in the program received all immunizations appropriate for their age.

Some of the best evidence of the impact Early Head Start has on children, families, and pregnant women was reported in a rigorous, large-scale, random assignment evaluation of 17 program sites that was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Although some of the gains reported tended to be modest overall, the impact of Early Head Start was found to be greater among certain subgroups, including African American families and families who enrolled during pregnancy. And Early Head Start children made gains in several areas that are important predicators of later school achievement and family functioning.

Early Head Start, for example, largely sustained statistically significant, positive impacts on cognitive development among 3-year-old children. On average, they scored higher than children who did not participate in the program on the Bayley Scales of Infant Development Mental Development Index, an assessment of cognitive development. Fewer Early Head Start children scored in the at-risk range of developmental functioning. Early Head Start children scored higher on assessments of language development than peers in the control group. And Early Head Start children improved several aspects of social-emotional development at age 3, including lower ratings for aggressive behavior.

The evaluation also reported that Early Head Start contributed to improving a range of parenting outcomes. Early Head Start parents, for example, were found to be more emotionally supportive with their children than parents who did not participate in the program. They were more likely to report reading to their children every day and were less likely to engage in negative parenting behaviors. They also tended to use a greater range of discipline skills, including fewer punitive strategies.

Impact of Expansion

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, known as the economic stimulus bill, provided $1.1 billion for expanding Early Head Start nationwide, increasing by more than 50 percent the number of children and families receiving the benefits the program.

Family Foundations was awarded a two-year expansion grant that when annualized totals about $1.5 million a year. It received $1,069,331 in February as a partial-year expansion grant. The expansion grant supplements the program’s $2.4 million in annual federal funding. In addition, the Heinz Endowments provides the 25 percent matching funds Early Head Start requires.

The expansion funds have allowed Family Foundations to offer the benefits of its services to children and families in two additional communities. A site serving Pittsburgh’s North Side and surrounding neighborhoods, and a Tri-Boro site serving Braddock and nearby communities were added to the Family Foundations network, which includes sites in the city’s Hill District and East End neighborhoods, and the McKees Rocks and Clairton areas.

The new sites were established to address areas of need identified in the program’s annual community assessment update performed by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Family Foundations recruited 40 families in each of the new sites and added 10-20 new families to the enrollments of the other four. In doing so, the program increased its enrollment of low-income children and families by more than 80 percent.

To accommodate expansion, 19 new employees were hired to supplement the Family Foundations staff of 40, which includes home visitors, child development specialists, and recruiters, who play a key role in identifying families in need and keeping Family Foundations fully enrolled, which is an Early Head Start requirement. The program also offers the services specialists from other agencies, such as mental health specialists, nurses, and nutritionists.

Family Foundations is predominantly home-based in its delivery of services and it takes an infant mental health approach, which focuses on building strong relationships between mother and child to help promote optimal social, intellectual, emotional, and physical development in children, healthy family environments, and resiliency. Services include in-home child development activities, early literacy, parenting information, links to quality childcare, and infant/toddler socialization. Family Foundations also gives families a voice in the program. A parent council, for example, provides them with input on matters such as curriculum and hiring.

The Early Head Start expansion grants were competitively awarded based on proposals and past performance. Herman said that a history of strict compliance with federal regulations, its record of success, and its approach emphasizing child-parent relationships are among the program’s strengths. “We believe it’s about the parent-child relation- ship, about the attachment between the mother and baby,” she said. “We believe when children are socially and emotionally healthy they learn better, their cognitive development is better, their physical development is better, and their motor skills are better. And we’ve found that parents are hungry for relationships with people who support them in their parenting.”


Information in this article related to national Early Head Start demographics and outcomes data were summarized from the following studies:

Love, J.M., Kisker, E., Ross, C.M., Schochet, P.Z., Brooks- Gunn, J.B., Paulsell, D., Boller, K., Constantine, J., Vogel, C., Fuligni, A.S., & Brady-Smith, C. (2002, June). Making a Difference in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers and Their Families: The Impacts of Early Head Start, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

Hoffman, E., & Ewen, D. (2007, December). Supporting families, nurturing young children: Early Head Start programs in 2006. CLASP Policy Brief (Head Start Series), 9. Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy.