Long-term Head Start Impact on developmental outcomes for children in foster care
Lee, K. Child Abuse Neglect (March 2020).
Background: In 2016, about 437,000 children were in the foster system in the United States. Children in the foster care system are at higher risk for experiencing poverty, abuse, chronic diseases and developmental impairments. Children in foster care are also at greater risk for struggling academically due to instability in their living situations and inconsistent school attendance. These risk factors affect not only health outcomes but social-emotional and cognitive outcomes as well. Children in foster care are eligible to participate in the Head Start program, which pairs high-quality early care and education with family supports and access to specialized services. This study looks at whether participating in Head Start improves developmental outcomes for children involved with the foster care system.
Methods: Data for this study was collected from 187 children placed with foster families, 103 of whom were enrolled in Head Start and 84 who were in other child care arrangements. Each child’s primary caregiver participated in an interview to describe the child’s social-emotional, health and behavior outcomes. Researchers assessed children’s language, math and problem-solving skills at age 3-4 years old and again at 5-6 years and 8-9 years old.
Results: When children were assessed at age 3-4 years and age 5-6 years, there were no significant differences in cognitive outcomes (e.g., language and math skills) between children in foster care who were enrolled in Head Start and those who were not. When they reached 8-9 years of age, however, children who had been in Head Start had significantly higher word-identification scores. Social-emotional outcomes (e.g., social skills, positive approach to learning) followed the same trend. Head Start children were also significantly more likely to have gotten regular dental check-ups at 5-6 years and 8-9 years of age compared to non-Head Start children.
Conclusion: Head Start services can support children in the foster care system in various aspects of life. Head Start seems to promote long-term development and potentially counteract the risk factors associated with children’s involvement in foster care. Many eligible foster children are not participating in Head Start and therefore missing out on the potential developmental benefits of the program.
Although children in foster care are eligible to participate in Head Start, this article points out that many still do not participate in the program. Their foster families may be unaware that children are eligible, they may not have access to Head Start programs in their area or the Head Start programs may not be available during times that the families need child care. That means children in foster care are likely being served in community-based child care centers and family child care homes, so it is important for those providers to offer high-quality, trauma-informed care as well. While most child care programs do not have the built-in services, staff and resources that Head Start programs have to support foster families, they can still conduct regular developmental screenings and refer families to special services based on the child’s needs.
This article notes that foster families may be unaware that children are eligible for Head Start, and that outreach to families that speak languages other than English is critical. Child welfare agency staff need to be trained about services available to children in foster care, including Head Start, and have informational materials available in multiple languages.
As mentioned in the practice implications above, many children who are eligible for Head Start and even those enrolled in Head Start often use community-based child care as well. It is critically important for state agencies and community advocates for Head Start and child care to work together on early childhood policy issues. States should consider providing supplemental funding to increase access to Head Start and to build stronger coordinated early childhood systems.