Head Start Connects


One of the hallmarks of Head Start is its whole-family approach to the services it provides. This approach is informed by evidence that low-income parents face challenges related to health, safety, and financial stability that can affect their well-being and economic mobility and their children’s school readiness. The Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) outline expectations for programs to provide a comprehensive, integrated set of services tailored to the individual needs of parents and families, as well as to the needs and resources of local communities. However, reflecting the community flexibility that is fundamental to Head Start, the HSPPS do not specifically outline how family support services should be provided or coordinated within a program.

Existing data sources provide broad snapshots of family support services, but important details are lacking regarding the many strategies Head Start programs use to deliver family support services, and regarding the implementation challenges and other inherent challenges Head Start programs confront as they coordinate family support services. Existing research leaves open many questions about how well different approaches to service coordination are currently implemented, and about what specific activities are typically involved. 

The purpose of Head Start Connects is to fill this gap in knowledge. The project aims to build substantial knowledge about how Head Start grantees, delegate agencies (an agency that is contracted to operate a grantee’s Head Start/Early Head Start program), and staff members across the country coordinate family support services for parents and guardians, and the processes or practices they use to ensure that service coordination is aligned with individual family needs and fosters family well-being. Family well-being support services for parents and guardians include the following: education, employment services, financial capability services, housing and food assistance, emergency or crisis-intervention services, substance-abuse treatment, physical health services, and mental health services.

Head Start Connects is sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The project will include a literature review, the development of a theory of change, consultation with experts, a small number of case studies, and possibly a large-scale descriptive study.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Head Start Connects is guided by several broad research questions: 

  • How do Head Start programs identify and assess individual family needs and develop tailored plans for family support services?   
  • How do Head Start programs refer families to family support providers and services? How do Head Start programs help families navigate services if multiple needs are identified?  
  • How do Head Start programs track service use, particularly for services delivered by community partners? How do programs determine whether referrals and services are meeting families’ needs?  
  • How do Head Start programs identify service providers in the community? How do community-needs assessments inform how programs coordinate family support services? How do programs develop and maintain partnerships with service agencies?  
  • What are the facilitators and barriers to coordinating family support services at the family, program, and community levels? What resources at the organizational or systems level support coordinating family support services?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Head Start Connects involves several research activities that build on and inform one another.

  • Literature review and theory of change. The research team will conduct a review of research on programs that coordinate family support services. This literature review will inform the development of a theory of change that articulates pathways from program activities and the coordination of family support services to outputs and outcomes for families and children.

  • Case studies. The literature review and theory of change will guide the research design for six case studies based on interviews with Head Start staff members, families, and community providers. The staff interviews will include reflective case narratives where staff members describe their work with specific types of families and explain how they engage with these families over time to coordinate family support services.

  • Design options. The team will use insights from the case studies to develop design options for a national, descriptive study that would clarify how Head Start programs coordinate family support services.