Head Start CARES Project


Head Start, which serves nearly 1 million low-income children, is the nation’s largest federally sponsored early childhood education program. Designed to narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers, Head Start provides comprehensive programming during the preschool period to improve children’s social competence and academic readiness for school.

Because they are exposed to a wide range of psychosocial stressors, low-income children have been found to be at greater risk for developing emotional and behavioral difficulties than their middle-income peers. Empirical studies have documented prevalence rates of emotional and behavior problems among preschool children as high as 20 to 40 percent, such that four to seven children in any given Head Start classroom may require additional assistance in managing their emotions and behavior. Research has consistently revealed relationships between such social-emotional skills and children’s academic and social success in school. Consequently, Head Start programs and other preschools in low-income communities report a pressing need for effective tools to build children’s social-emotional skills in preschool settings. Indeed, the payoff of such prevention efforts may be high, as supporting low-income children’s healthy emotional and behavioral development during the preschool years is likely to influence their chances for success in school and beyond, both for the highest-risk children in the classroom and for their lower-risk peers.

This study, which tested the effects of three evidence-based social-emotional program enhancements in Head Start settings, came at an important juncture for the field of early childhood education. New advances in neuroscience have increased the public’s understanding of the importance of early years of development, and policymakers have become increasingly focused on the role of early education in increasing preschool children’s readiness for school. At the same time, there is a surprisingly thin base of rigorous research investigating how preschool programs can most effectively support children’s social-emotional development as part of that effort. Without such knowledge, programs like Head Start will have difficulty improving children’s school readiness.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Building on theories of how children’s development unfolds, researchers and practitioners have created a new generation of classroom-based strategies that are specifically designed to improve children’s social-emotional competencies. Three basic theoretical approaches have been emphasized. In one approach, children are provided with very specific hands-on activities and lessons to build their knowledge of emotions and their ability to consider alternative solutions when faced with a conflict with a peer. In a second approach, teachers are trained in specific behavior strategies that support the social-emotional development of preschool children — for instance, praising children for socially competent behaviors and setting clear limits on children’s behavior. In a third approach, children are supported and “scaffolded” by teachers to accomplish more highly regulated classroom behavior through pretend play. However, the majority of these programs had been tested only in single cities, with programs highly motivated to take up the intervention, and with training and technical assistance provided under the direction of senior academic researchers. Never had multiple social-emotional programs been tested on a national level in the context of a federal initiative.

Head Start CARES (Classroom-based Approaches and Resources for Emotion and Social skill promotion) is a national research project sponsored by the Office of Head Start and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families. The demonstration project, which operated from 2009 to 2011, was designed to test the effects of three evidence-based social-emotional program enhancements in Head Start settings. Using a group-based randomized design, this study used a lottery-like process to randomly assign 104 Head Start centers from metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas across the country to one of three differing social-emotional enhancements or to a “business as usual” comparison group. Two or more classrooms were invited to participate from each center. In each case, teachers were trained in the new approaches and then provided with coaches who helped them implement the new strategies in their classrooms. At the end of the research study, comparison group centers were given the opportunity to be trained in one of the new social-emotional approaches. This rigorously designed study on a nationally heterogeneous set of Head Start centers and classrooms has provided information for federal policymakers and Head Start programs to increase Head Start’s ability to improve the social-emotional skills and school readiness of preschool-aged children.

This study seeks to improve our understanding of: (1) promising approaches to building children’s social and emotional development, (2) the processes by which the largest and most sustained effects on children’s social and emotional development are likely to occur, and (3) the features of Head Start settings and families that contribute to successful implementation of these program models.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The project is currently tracking participating families into the elementary school years. In the past few years, the project has:

  • Implemented three evidence-based enhancements in 17 grantees around the country, with support from coaches, trainers, and developers.

  • Collected data on children and teachers. At the start of the study, in the spring of the preschool year, and at the start of kindergarten, data were collected from one or more of the following sources: teacher reports on children, teacher surveys, direct child assessments, or classroom observations. Program data were collected by coaches and trainers on how faithfully each of the three programs was implemented, and implementation interviews were conducted with key staff members. Follow-up of children in the participating Cohort 2 centers was conducted in the spring of their kindergarten school year (spring 2012).

  • Released reports summarizing the findings. An implementation report and impact report summarize the main Head Start CARES findings for four-year-olds. A parallel impact report summarizes exploratory findings for a subset of children who were three years old. A companion report describes the process of adapting one of the programs for a migrant/seasonal population. A brief describes who the Head Start CARES coaches were.

Restricted Access Files are posted on the Research Connections website. They provide researchers with access to child-level, teacher-level, and center-level impact and implementation data from the Head Start CARES study.