Stafford Schools Early Head Start (EHS) is a federally funded program for 28 low-income families with infants and toddlers and pregnant women. Stafford Schools provides local assistance and this program provides teen parents with support to finish their high school education. The mission of the Early Head Start program is:
- to promote healthy prenatal outcomes for pregnant women,
- to enhance the development of very young children, and
- to promote healthy family functioning.
The community-based Early Head Start programs are based on a foundation of nine principles:
- High Quality: A commitment to high quality means that programs will develop policies and practices that are founded in the knowledge, skills, and professional ethics embraced by the fields of child development, family development, and community building. Of particular importance is an understanding of the unique nature of infant and toddler development. Program practices must spring from an awareness of both the opportunities for intervention and the fact that young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a negative caregiving environment. The commitment on the part of the Federal government to ensure program quality includes the training and technical assistance network, the program performance standards, and research and evaluation activities
- Prevention and Promotion: The proactive promotion of healthy child development and family functioning begins before conception, and continues prenatally, upon birth, and through the early years. With an emphasis on promoting healthy development, the prevention and detection of developmental concerns should occur at the earliest possible time.
- Positive Relationships and Continuity: Strong positive relationships that continue over time are key elements in a high quality program. These relationships include the child, family, and staff, and recognize the parent-child bond as the child's most significant relationship. Infant and toddler caregiving practices must support child attachment by minimizing the number of different caregivers and supporting long-term caregiving relationships. The relationship between staff and family is based on respect for the child and family's home culture.
- Parent Involvement: The Early Head Start initiative supports the highest level of parent involvement and partnership. Programs will make a special effort to support the role of fathers in parenting activities. Programs will recognize the parents as the child's primary nurturers and advocates. Parents will also be active participants in policy and decision-making roles.
- Inclusion: Programs will welcome and fully include children with disabilities. The individual needs of each child will be evaluated and responded to in a way that builds upon individual strengths. Programs will also support the child and family's full participation in community activities. Early Head Start programs will have the responsibility to coordinate with programs providing services in accordance with Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
- Culture: The home culture and language of each family will be supported as an important aspect of early identity formation. Programs will also explore the role of culture and language in child and family development, and community values and attitudes.
- Comprehensiveness, Flexibility, Responsiveness, and Intensity: Program services are grounded in the belief that all families can identify their own needs and strengths, set their own goals, and are capable of growth. Thus, programs must maintain the flexibility to respond with varying levels of intensity based on families' needs and resources.
- Transitions: Programs are responsible for facilitating a smooth transition from Early Head Start into Head Start or other high quality programs and support services. A smooth transition is important to ensure each child continues to receive enriching early child development services and each family continues to receive the support services necessary to healthy family development.
- Collaboration: Collaboration with local community agencies and service providers will maximize the resources available to families with young children in a cost-efficient and comprehensive manner. Early Head Start programs, with the recognition that no one program can meet all of a child and family's needs, will seek to build strong alliances within the communities in which they operate.
The framework of the Early Head Start program includes four cornerstones, plus three other areas of importance - Administration/Management, Continuous Improvement, and Children with Disabilities:
- Child Development: Programs must support the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language development of each child. Parenting education and the support of a positive parent-child relationship are critical to this cornerstone. The services that programs must provide directly or through referral include:
- Early education services in a range of developmentally appropriate settings;
- Home-visits, especially for families with newborns;
- Parent education and parent-child activities;
- Comprehensive health and mental health services; and
- High quality child care services, provided directly or in collaboration with community child care providers.
- Family Development: Programs must seek to empower families by developing goals for themselves and their children. Staff and parents develop individualized family development plans that focus on the child's developmental needs and the family's social and economic needs. Families that are involved in other programs requiring a family service plan will receive a single coordinated plan so that they experience a seamless system of services. The services that programs must provide directly or through referral include:
- Child development information;
- Comprehensive health and mental health services, including smoking cessation and substance abuse treatment;
- Adult education, literacy, and job skills training to facilitate family self-sufficiency;
- Assistance in obtaining income support, safe housing, or emergency cash; and
- Transportation to program services.
- Community Building: Programs are expected to conduct an assessment of community resources so that they may build a comprehensive network of services and supports for pregnant women and families with young children. The goal of these collaborative relationships is to increase family access to community supports, make the most efficient use of limited resources, and effect system-wide changes to improve the service delivery system for all families in the community.
- Staff Development: The success of the Early Head Start program rests largely on the quality of the staff. Staff members must have the capacity to develop caring, supportive relationships with both children and families. On-going training, supervision, and mentoring will encompass an inter-disciplinary approach and emphasize relationship-building. Staff development will be grounded in established "best practices" in the areas of child development, family development, and community building.