Your child’s early years are a time for big growth. Every day, your little one grows physically, but they’re also developing in ways that are not as easy to see. They’re growing socially and emotionally, too.
Through early learning experiences, your child’s brain is busy getting ready for school, even if kindergarten seems like a long way off. And there are programs that can help.
Head Start and Early Head Start are designed to help infants, toddlers and preschoolers prepare for school in many different ways. These programs are especially important for children who are at-risk because of socio-economic, environmental or developmental factors.
“Early Head Start and Head Start are federally funded early childhood programs that are open to anyone who is determined to meet or fall below the federal poverty income levels,” explains Denise Garza, assistant director of early learning with Easterseals of Chicagoland and Greater Rockford. All the centers and the home visiting program are inclusive and welcome children of all abilities.
Early Head Start center-based programs serve infants six weeks- to age 3, and Head Start serves preschoolers ages 3 to 5. The programs are offered full-day, year-round, enabling parents to work and attend school while their children are cared for in enriching, age-appropriate environments. Head Start programming is available in Chicago and west and south suburban Cook County.
Early Head Start families also have the option of enrolling in a home-based program model. Weekly 90-minute visits take place in the children’s home setting for families. “These visits focus on supporting the parent to be their child’s first teacher,” Garza says. Expectant parents and children up to age 3 are served within this program. Areas such as health, nutrition and parent education are all components of a home visit. “The family engagement piece is really important,” Garza says. Together the home-based educator and parent work to create individualized learning opportunities for children.
How can Head Start or Early Head Start help your child and your family? Read on for five top benefits of these great early childhood programs.
Prepare for school
“Our goal is to prepare children and families for school readiness,” Garza says. “This is something that makes Head Start stand out from other programs.” Head Start is focused on developing and nurturing the whole child and it’s also focused on supporting families so they can support their children, too.“Making connections and building relationships are key to supporting families and children so they can be successful, and that starts with understanding a family’s needs,” she says. Sometimes this means connecting families to financial assistance programs and food and nutrition resources, too — because all of this contributes to a child’s future success in school.
Head Start and Early Head Start use the Creative Curriculum, a research-based, proven framework that helps teachers and caregivers provide the best educational experiences for children while allowing them to be creative and flexible to meet children’s needs. A large focus is on children’s social-emotional development. “This foundation influences everything that children do,” Garza explains.
Even for the youngest children, this curriculum is about responsive caregiving because research shows that what happens in a child’s early years impacts them for a lifetime, Garza says. When caregivers recognize the needs of the infant, the baby learns to trust their caregivers and develop healthy relationships which, in turn, carries over into the toddler years.
“The environment is key in our infant and toddler classrooms, and the teachers are committed to meeting the needs of individual children,” she says.
Learn where your child is developmentally
Each child who enrolls in Head Start and Early Head Start receives a developmental screening using a parent-friendly tool called Ages and Stages developmental screening.
“This helps us walk parents through their child’s developmental milestones and offers ways that parents can help their child stay on track for school readiness,” Garza says. “We help parents understand that they are their child’s very first teacher.”
If a child has a developmental need for additional support, the family can get connected to services that can provide early intervention, which is important for the best outcome.
Connected to your own community
Head Start and Early Head Start through Easterseals Early Learning Program, offers early childhood programs through childcare partnerships, directly operated centers and home-based programs. These collaborations provide families opportunities to enroll in centers located within their local communities. Through layering of funding, centers are supported with hiring qualified staff, professional development trainings and coaching services for teachers.
Get involved from the start
Through Head Start, parents can recognize the value of being an advocate for their child and learn skills for engaging with their child’s school that will carry them throughout their child’s education.
“Our program values parents and wants to involve families, so we have policy councils in place where parents can have input into policies and procedures,” Garza says, adding that part of this process involves quarterly checkpoints to involve families and engage their suggestions.
“This is a big part of school readiness,” Garza says. “We want parents to feel confident in advocating for their children and to continue doing that even after they leave our program. We can help them transition to that role in their school district because it’s not just about building skills for children, but building skills for parents, too.”
Learn more about Head Start and Early Head Start programs at Easterseals, easterseals.com/chicago.