Reaching and Supporting Families Most in Need: Lessons and Practice Considerations from the Head Start REACH Case Studies

What is the Head Start REACH project?

The Head Start REACH project is examining the ERSEA approaches that programs for infants and toddlers (Early Head Start) and preschool-age children (Head Start) use to engage Head Start–eligible families experiencing adversities.

Adversities is a broad term that refers to a wide range of circumstances or events that pose a threat to a child’s or a caregiver’s physical or psychological well-being. The adversities that families experience are often intertwined with poverty, may co-occur, and are influenced by systemic factors such as structural racism. Common examples include but are not limited to poverty, homelessness, involvement in the foster care or child welfare system, and effects of substance use. The case studies focused on these common adversities, based on priorities identified by staff at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and their emphasis in Head Start standards, policies, and initiatives.

Head Start programs engage parents to support children’s growth from birth through age 5 by providing services that promote early learning and development, health, and family well-being. These programs specifically seek to assist families with low incomes and families facing a variety of other adversities. The Head Start REACH:

Strengthening Outreach, Recruitment, and Engagement Approaches with Families project is focused on understanding the eligibility, recruitment, selection, enrollment, and attendance/retention (ERSEA) approaches that Head Start programs use to engage Head Start–eligible families experiencing adversities (see Box). One of the foundational activities of the project was to conduct case studies to obtain an in-depth understanding of the ERSEA approaches that are being used with families experiencing adversities; the factors that affect their implementation; and how families find and experience early education and child care, including those who are and are not enrolled in Head Start.

Programs conduct annual community needs assessments to help them decide which families to focus on for their recruitment, selection, and enrollment activities. They supplement the assessments with information from parents’ applications.

Program staff described using the community needs assessments, which are conducted annually, for the identification of families for recruitment and enrollment. Programs use their needs assessments to understand the context in which they are operating, including the adversities that families in their communities are facing. Staff reported that the community needs assessment “really does help determine where the funding goes.” For example, a staff member from one program said the needs assessment revealed housing had become an area of more urgent need during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program planned for new partnerships to meet this need, including partnerships to find affordable housing options and help families stay in their homes.

Programs supplement information from their community needs assessments with information from conversations with Parent Policy Council members and parents’ applications. In one program, for example, a staff member said parents in the policy council raised substance use as a community concern, which prompted the council and staff to explore how substance use affected the community. These conversations led the program to prioritize reaching out to and supporting families facing substance use challenges. Staff also said parents provide information about adversities they are experiencing during the application process. For example, one staff member said a question on the application asks about families’ current housing status, which allows staff to identify families who need housing support.

Programs prioritize factors other than income, including families’ adversities and demographic characteristics, to identify and enroll the families most in need of services.

Per the eligibility requirements outlined in the Head Start Program Performance Standards, homelessness, involvement in foster care, and receipt of public assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) render a family categorically eligible for Head Start. Staff noted that families experiencing these adversities or receiving these benefits do not have to provide evidence of income eligibility; instead, they provide proof of their circumstances and/or that they are receiving government assistance.

Staff reported that programs’ prioritization processes also consider other adversities (such as whether families are affected by domestic violence, substance use, or mental health issues) and demographic characteristics (such as whether families live in the program’s service area, are single parent homes, had a family member deported, or have a child enrolled in the program already).

Formal plans help guide programs’ recruitment.

In most participating programs, recruitment is a year-round process, and programs use recruitment plans to inform their outreach to parents. One ERSEA staff member said the recruitment plan provided useful information about where to focus their recruitment efforts. A staff member from a different program said their plan described recruitment strategies that had and had not worked in previous years.

To recruit families, programs use a range of approaches.

/Word of mouth. Staff and parents from all programs participating in the case studies described using or benefitting from word of mouth as a recruitment strategy. Most Head Start parents explained that they were referred to the program by other parents enrolled in Head Start. These parents might be connected to eligible parents through family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors.

/Community outreach. Staff host or attend community gatherings and visit popular community locations to reach families. For example, they set up tables or booths at community fairs or other events, distribute flyers, and describe program services to parents. Staff also described going door-to-door in neighborhoods and visiting locations where they are likely to find eligible families, such as laundromats, farmers’ markets, community shelters, and outdoor encampments for families experiencing homelessness.

/Marketing. Programs use marketing and social media to recruit. Most participating programs develop outreach and marketing materials to share information about their programs and reach families; these include flyers, brochures, door hangers, and branded items. Staff also use social media, such as Facebook groups, to advertise their programs and let people know when they have open slots.

/Collaborating with partners. Head Start staff reported that maintaining communication with community partners often resulted in direct referrals. Staff often attend community partners’ meetings or the parenting classes partners host and


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