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Studying Head Start's Families: General Themes

This chapter highlights several of the general themes that emerged from the roundtable discussions. The roundtable members, throughout their deliberations, sought to establish a useful framework within which a progression of studies on Head Start children and families could be developed. They considered approaches to reconceptualizing traditional notions of parental involvement and family support in order to capture more dynamic views of the family-Head Start interface. Their objective was to offer a guide to research that: (1) provides an accurate portrait of families' experiences in Head Start, (2) identifies effective approaches to working with families, and (3) documents the benefits to families and their children of the nation's investment in Head Start.

The wealth of background information to which roundtable members were exposed (see Chapters 3 through 5) led them to emphasize that:

  • The relationship between Head Start and its families is reciprocal—Head Start both affects and responds to families; mutual adaptation between families and programs is the process of interest;

  • The family-Head Start relationship takes many forms and evolves over time; it is best approached as a process, rather than as a discrete set of activities that operate as inputs to parent and child outcomes;

  • Although the primary caretaker at home is the pivotal connection to the family, the consequences of any family's encounter with Head Start



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Beyond the Blueprint Directions for Research on Head Start's Families 2 Studying Head Start's Families: General Themes This chapter highlights several of the general themes that emerged from the roundtable discussions. The roundtable members, throughout their deliberations, sought to establish a useful framework within which a progression of studies on Head Start children and families could be developed. They considered approaches to reconceptualizing traditional notions of parental involvement and family support in order to capture more dynamic views of the family-Head Start interface. Their objective was to offer a guide to research that: (1) provides an accurate portrait of families' experiences in Head Start, (2) identifies effective approaches to working with families, and (3) documents the benefits to families and their children of the nation's investment in Head Start. The wealth of background information to which roundtable members were exposed (see Chapters 3 through 5) led them to emphasize that: The relationship between Head Start and its families is reciprocal—Head Start both affects and responds to families; mutual adaptation between families and programs is the process of interest; The family-Head Start relationship takes many forms and evolves over time; it is best approached as a process, rather than as a discrete set of activities that operate as inputs to parent and child outcomes; Although the primary caretaker at home is the pivotal connection to the family, the consequences of any family's encounter with Head Start

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Beyond the Blueprint Directions for Research on Head Start's Families extend beyond those who are directly involved, to other members of the family and the kinship and fictive kin networks in which many Head Start families are embedded. Approaching research on Head Start families within a framework that emphasizes mutual adaptation, change over time, and effects beyond the immediate parent-child dyad has implications for virtually every aspect of research that is discussed in the succeeding chapters of this report. Suzanne Randolph called for more descriptive case studies of the complexities of families' circumstances. Poor families tend to organize themselves into multigenerational units and many bridge traditional and nontraditional norms within their own culture in rearing their children. We need to understand how such multigenerational families interact with and are influenced by Head Start centers. It is important to revisit how the family is construed in Head Start research and who is considered to be the client. Traditional descriptive categorizations of families (e.g., single-and two-parent; white, black, and Hispanic) fail to capture the aspects of family structure and functioning that may account for most of the variance in how families relate to and are affected by Head Start, and in turn mediate Head Start's effects on their children. In particular, definitions of family need to be more descriptive of the relationships, dimensions of culture and ethnicity, and economic circumstances that affect children's lives (e.g., Randolph, 1995). A family's multigenerational configuration and its implications for how childrearing responsibilities are allocated may, for example, provide a better guide for selecting who Head Start should attempt to involve than traditional approaches that assume the mother is the sole or principal caregiver. In other cases, the immigrant status of families may be a better indicator of a family's needs and interests than their ethnicity. Many of these important family features, including family configuration, fluctuate over time, adding to the instability that itself may affect Head Start's capacity to foster children's development and helpful relationships with their families. An effort aimed at providing descriptive information on children and

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Beyond the Blueprint Directions for Research on Head Start's Families Box 2 The Head Start Family Information System is a self-report instrument being developed to obtain on-line baseline information from programs on Head Start families and children at the time of enrollment. Its five modules address: (1) family and child background information, (2) education, including literacy, (3) health and nutrition, (4) social services, and (5) parent involvement. families is the Head Start Family Information System, now under development (see Box 2). It offers a first attempt by ACYF to generate a profile of Head Start families, and, as such, offers a focal point for efforts to ensure the collection of data that capture the most meaningful dimensions of family structure and family life. Documentation of the process of selection into Head Start is critical for tailoring programs to the needs of the communities they serve, for outreach to underserved families, and for interpreting program effects. The families who participate in Head Start are not randomly selected from among the poverty population (Hofferth, 1994). This raises important questions about who does not get into Head Start and why, particularly in light of growing concerns that this relatively high-quality but part-day program may be inaccessible to single parents who are struggling to combine childrearing and work. It is, therefore, important to ascertain the quality and stability of the care that eligible children are getting in the absence of Head Start. In view of these concerns, the roundtable members stressed the need for more complete and authoritative epidemiological data regarding children who do and do not enter Head Start. For Head Start clients, we need to know about level, amount, and kinds of participation. For nonparticipants, we need to know what types of early childhood programs are available to them and their usage of other resources. An important epidemiological effort that aims to gain a greater understanding of the trajectories of social and emotional development in young children is the National Institute of Mental Health's (NIMH) multisite, longitudinal study titled Use, Need, Outcomes, and Costs for Child and Adolescent Populations (UNOCCAP). To determine the influence of Head Start participation on children's development, ACYF is collaborat-

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Beyond the Blueprint Directions for Research on Head Start's Families ing with NIMH on a supplemental sample of Head Start programs and families. The NIMH project was initiated to explore the need for and use of mental health services among children and adolescents and the influence of family, cultural, community, and service system factors on service needs, utilization, and outcomes. ACYF's participation in this project will enable a more in-depth examination of issues related to four-year-olds in general and Head Start children and families in particular. Among the research questions that the UNOCCAP project is addressing are: How do children enrolled in Head Start compare with a community sample of children in terms of key social and emotional characteristics? How do Head Start children's mental health needs compare with those of other, non-Head Start children? Sandra Hofferth's research on Head Start families has revealed that working single-parent families, as well as Hispanics, are underrepresented. All Head Start families are very disadvantaged economically, even within the poverty population. Efforts to describe how Head Start relates to and involves family members, and to identify successful strategies for involving them, need to capture families' natural progressions into, through, and beyond Head Start. Numerous presentations made to the roundtable emphasized that parent involvement is inadequately captured by research designs that adopt a one-time approach to classifying a program's parent involvement strategies (e.g., classroom volunteer, bus driver, roles in governance, participation in home visits and literacy classes) and then compare programs in terms of whether and how much they affect family outcomes. The challenge, instead, is to describe and study the consequences of the process of a family's engagement with Head Start from selection through varying forms and intensities of participation to post-graduation. This involves understanding the pathways that family members follow given different starting points, differing goals and strategies for their participation in Head Start (e.g., improve parenting skills, prepare for employment, develop "executive" skills as advocates for their children), and different post-graduation circumstances. An important element of research on the process of family engagement involves investigating the factors that enable parents to transfer the skills learned during their in

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Beyond the Blueprint Directions for Research on Head Start's Families volvement with Head Start to their lives after Head Start. For example, how does a family's involvement with Head Start affect their involvement with their child's elementary school? It is also critical to recognize that some changes, especially those that take place after a family is no longer involved with Head Start, may not be measurable within the one-or two-year time frame of most evaluations and may be best captured in longitudinal research. Efforts aimed at discerning parents' progress as a consequence of their involvement in Head Start may entail identifying parents who have or have not made major changes in their lives, Marlys Gustafson noted. An important aspect of the trajectory into and beyond Head Start is children's transition from Head Start to public school. In order to assess the effectiveness of providing comprehensive, continuous, and coordinated services to Head Start families and children from the time of Head Start enrollment to kindergarten through the third grade of public school, ACYF has initiated the Evaluation of Head Start/Public School Early Childhood Transition Demonstration projects. The Transition Projects are designed to document the progress of children and families enrolled in Head Start as they make the transition from Head Start to elementary school up to third grade. The evaluation will provide data regarding the effectiveness of the Transition Project models in maintaining the gains that children and families achieve while in Head Start, as well as providing information about child, family, school, and service characteristics that may affect this transition process. Heather Weiss and Lynn Kagan argued that most discussions of family effects deal indiscriminantly with "outside" effects—parental employment, family participation in community activities—or "inside" effects—the kinds of person-to-person interchanges that take place within families. We need to look at the ways in which inside and outside variables influence one another.

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Beyond the Blueprint Directions for Research on Head Start's Families Given that families enter Head Start with vastly different capacities, needs, and orientations toward parent involvement, any effort to assess the effects of their engagement with the program must consider incremental but significant changes, rather than judge all families' accomplishments against preset benchmarks. Because the consequences of parent involvement are profoundly affected by parents' initial characteristics and circumstances, efforts to understand the efficacy of different processes for engaging parents need to assess individual growth and change from different starting points. For some parents, overcoming disabling levels of depression and being able to get their children dressed and on the bus dependably may be major achievements. For others, progress may be seen in movement from serving as a classroom volunteer to enrollment in community college classes and employment as a teacher. For still others, important accomplishments entail learning to set goals and taking small steps toward achieving those goals—a process that Project Match refers to as the ladder approach (see Box 3). The fact that most evaluations of government programs cover rela- Box 3 Project Match, described to the roundtable by Toby Herr, is a community-based, welfare-to-work program for residents of a housing development in Chicago that has recently initiated a collaboration with Head Start. This program's decade of experience has taught it that: There are multiple routes out of welfare dependence; for some, work prior to education is more effective than the more typical path from education to work; There must be a continuum of activities that count as steps on a ladder toward self-sufficiency; People should be recognized for achievement of incremental milestones that keep them moving up the ladder; and The time frame for leaving welfare dependance must be flexible if success is to be sustained. Almost half of all parents involved in the project have made steady progress, more than a third unsteady progress (in and out of jobs), and close to a fifth have made no progress at all.

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Beyond the Blueprint Directions for Research on Head Start's Families tively short periods of time presents a very serious problem in trying to capture a developmental effect—whether in a child, a family, or a community. Some changes not seen in the normal two-year span of research may quite readily be seen three or four years out. In short, parents' transformation as a consequence of their involvement in Head Start needs to be examined beyond graduation from the program to determine whether Head Start has set in motion longer-lasting changes. It is important to understand not only the ways in which parents change over the course of their involvement with Head Start, but also the ways in which Head Start adapts to meet the needs of its population. Several presentations to the roundtable emphasized that the family-Head Start interface is most appropriately viewed as a process of mutual adaptation that involves change on the part of both families and programs. Research, however, has neglected to document how Head Start program staff adapt to the characteristics, needs, and capabilities of the families they serve. What does it mean for a Head Start program to adapt to a family's cultural characteristics or self-determined goals for their children? When is adaptation inappropriate? More generally, what is the process by which Head Start programs evolve to accommodate emergent needs of the communities they serve? Jean Layzer raised the following questions: What is family growth and how do we measure it? Are there models by which we can try to understand family change, particularly toward self-sufficiency and effective parenting? Only developmental models, she insisted, allow us to understand when and how a program might be having an effect on a family. Efforts to document the effects of Head Start need to incorporate parents' and other family members' perceptions of how the program has affected their behaviors, values, and opportunities. The roundtable members frequently noted that the family-level effects of Head Start are a relatively neglected story. One critical vantage point on this story is that of parents themselves. Using parents as infor-

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Beyond the Blueprint Directions for Research on Head Start's Families mants may offer an initial step in a series of efforts to ascertain what works for whom in Head Start and in identifying aspects of family effects that the families themselves are concerned about. Oral histories from parents are an important addition to other efforts to document Head Start's efficacy: What aspects of Head Start do parents like, what would they like the program to offer them that it does not, and what do they believe their children are getting from Head Start? How has Head Start changed their relationships with their children—those in and those not in Head Start? How has Head Start enabled them to change the circumstances of their lives?