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Head Start Facts and Impacts


School Readiness and Academic Success

  • Head Start children have a higher likelihood of graduating high school, attending college, and recieivng a post-secondary degree, license, or certification (Bauer et al. 2016).
  • Head Start children have higher math test scores in 8th grade, are less likely to be chronically absent, and less likely to be held back a year by 8th grade (Phillips et al. 2016).
  • Children in Head Start make progress toward norms in language, literacy, and math during the program year and score at the norm on letter-word knowledge at program exit (Aikens et al., 2013).
  • Children in Early Head Start show significantly better social-emotional, language, and cognitive development than control group children, and are more likely to be immunized and have services for children with disabilities (Love et al., 2002).
  • The nationally-representative Head Start Impact Study found Head Start children scored better than a control group of children in all measured domains of cognitive and social-emotional development at the end of their Head Start experience (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010).
  • Head Start children in foster care or other non-parental care are more ready for school than peers who did not participate in Head Start (Lipscomb et al., 2013).
  • Compared with matched children who were in parental care before kindergarten, Head Start children performed considerably better on cognitive measures (Zhai et al., 2011).
  • Children who attend Early Head Start and transition to Head Start are more ready for kindergarten than children who do not attend Head Start (Love et al, 2002).
  • Head Start graduates in the Baltimore City Schools enter kindergarten with higher attendance levels than their peers and maintain those levels through third grade (Connolly & Olson, 2012).
  • The Harrisburg Preschool Program Evaluation, examining a collaboration between the Harrisburg School District and Head Start, found graduates had higher mean scores in the fifth grade than a control group on all academic and executive function outcomes (Greenberg & Domitrovich, 2011).
  • Head Start children in the Montgomery County Public Schools who had full-day services were dramatically more likely to meet reading benchmarks by the end of kindergarten than their peers who attended half-day Pre-K or no Pre-K, particularly minority children. Head Start full-day students required half as many special education services per week as their peers without MCPS pre-K experience (Zhao & Modarresi, 2010).


Social-Emotional Development

  • While there is variation across different Head Start centers, Head Start reduces disparities in the cognitive skills of low-income children, especially dual language learners and Spanish speakers. (Bloom, Howard S. and Weiland, Christina, Quantifying Variation in Head Start Effects on Young Children's Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Skills Using Data from the National Head Start Impact Study)
  • Head Start children increase their social skills, impulse control, and approaches to learning and decrease their problem behaviors including aggression and hyperactivity over the course of a year (Aikens et al., 2013).
  • Children show additional gains in social-emotional development as a result of participating in Head Start at both 3 and 4 years old  (Aikens et al., 2013).
  • Early Head Start children show impacts on social-emotional functioning that last through fifth grade (Vogel et al., 2010).
  • Compared with matched children who were in parental care or prekindergarten programs before kindergarten, Head Start children performed better on social-emotional measures (Zhai et al., 2011).
  • Compared with matched children who were in center-based programs, Head Start children performed better on social measures and had fewer attention problems and negative behaviors (Zhai et al., 2011).
  • Head Start children in foster care or other non-parental care have stronger relationships with teachers than peers who did not participate in Head Start (Lipscomb et al., 2013).
  • Researchers in Oregon have designed an 8-week intervention for Head Start children and their parents that has impacts on selective attention visible on brain scans, bringing children to a typically functioning level and strengthening parents' skills as well (Neville et al., 2013).


Health and Wellness

  • Mortality rates for 5- to 9-year-old children who had attended Head Start are 33 to 50 percent lower than the rates for comparable children who were not enrolled in Head Start (Ludwig & Miller, 2007).
  • Head Start children are more likely to receive dental checkups and have healthy eating patterns than non-participants (Lee et al., 2013).
  • Head Start children have lower Body Mass Index (BMI) scores and are less likely to be overweight compared to children in non-parental care (Lee et al., 2013).
  • Preschool age children who were obese, overweight, or underweight and who participated in Head Start had a significantly healthier BMI by kindergarten entry than control children (Lumeng et al., 2015).
  • Children who attend Early Head Start have significantly fewer child welfare encounters during their elementary years (Green et al., 2014).
  • Head Start improves adult health status for graduates; they are 7% less likely to be in poor health as adults than their siblings who did not attend (Johnson, 2010; Deming, 2009).
  • As adults, Head Start graduates are 19% less likely to smoke than their siblings who did not attend - and savings from reduced health costs are equal to 36%-141% of the program costs (Anderson et al., 2010).
  • The Head Start Trauma Smart program integrates training for program staff and parents, support groups, classroom consultation and individual child treatment to support children who have experienced trauma; the program has increased CLASS scores and decreased children's need for special education services (Holmes et al., 2014).


Family Engagement and Self-Sufficiency

  • Early Head Start parents offer more stimulating home environments, read more with children, use less physical punishment, and have higher levels of self-sufficiency (Love et al., 2002).
  • Head Start parents are more likely to increase their educational levels during their children's early years than other at-risk parents (Sabol and Chase-Lansdale, 2014).
  • Head Start parents invest more time in learning activities with their children, and non-resident fathers spend more days per month with their children (Gelber and Isen, 2011).
  • Children's academic growth in Head Start varies by the level of family engagement and the content area, with clear benefits from higher family engagement in learning (Miller et al., 2014).


Long-Term Impacts and Return on Investment

  • Exploring the evidence on lasting effects of Head Start for children and society both from and beyond the Head Start Impact Study shows the long-term effects and benefit-cost ratio of Head Start ("Informing Investments in Preschool Quality and Access in Cincinnati Evidence of Impacts and Economic Returns from National, State, and Local Preschool Programs" by Lynn Karoly and Anamarie Auger of RAND).
  • Among children who attended Head Start in the 1960s-70s, white children were 28.3% more likely than their siblings to complete high school and 27.6% more likely to attend college (Garces et al., 2002).
  • Among children who attended Head Start in the 1960s-70s, African American children who attended Head Start were 12% less likely to be arrested or charged with a crime compared to their siblings (Garces et al., 2002).
  • Compared to siblings who did not attend, Head Start graduates demonstrated improved educational attainment, adult health status, and men’s wages and decreased grade repetition and incarceration rates for black males (Johnson, 2011).
  • Educational and wage benefits were higher where Head Start and schools were funded at higher rates (Johnson, 2011).
  • Head start increases outcomes by .228 standard deviations compared to no preschool, which closes the bottom to median income gap by a third and the racial achievement gap by three quarters. Such outcomes occur in spite of fadeout in academic test scores and are strongest for the most disadvantaged children (Deming, 2009).
  • Head Start provides 80% of the effects of the well known early childhood programs Perry Preschool and Abecedarian at 60% of the cost (Deming, 2009).
  • Head Start students are: more likely to graduate high school (particularly for children of mothers with low cognitive scores), more likely to go to at least one year of college, less likely to be “idle” - meaning out of school and unemployed, less likely to be in poor health (Deming, 2009).
  • For past cohorts of Head Start graduates, long-term outcomes return benefits exceeding the cost of the program. Based on the small cognitive effects for Head Start children in the 1980s and their long-term effects, the similar short-term effects documented by the Head Start Impact Study may lead to similar long-term benefits (Ludwig & Phillips, 2008).
  • Long-term impacts of Head Start may be rooted in social-emotional development and other "soft skills" rather than academic measures, and may occur regardless of test score convergence (Gibbs et al., 2011).

Photos by William Plowman



Aikens, N., Kopack Klein, A., Tarullo, L. & W est, J. (2013). Getting Ready for Kindergarten: Children’s Progress During Head Start. FACES 2009 Report. OPRE Report 2013-21a. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (link)

Anderson, K.H., Foster, J.E., & Frisvold, D.E. (2010). Investing in Health: the Long-term Impact of Head Start on Smoking. Economic Inquiry, 48(3), 587-602. (link)

Connolly, F., and Olson, L.S. (2012). Early elementary performance and attendance in Baltimore City Schools’ pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. (link)

Deming, D. (2009). Early Childhood Intervention and Life-Cycle Skill Development: Evidence from Head Start. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1:3, 111-134. (link)

Garces, E., D. Thomas, and J. Currie. (2002). Longer-Term Effects of Head Start. American Economic Review, 92(4): 999–1012. (link)

Green, B.L., Ayoub, C., Bartlett, J.D., Von Ende, A., Furrer, C., Chazan-Cohen, R., Vallotton, C. & Klevens, J. (2014) The Effect of Early Head Start on Child Welfare System Involvement: A First Look at Longitudinal Child Maltreatment Outcomes, Children and Youth Services Review. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.03.044 (link)

Greenberg, M. & Domitrovich, C. (2011). The Harrisburg Preschool Program Evaluation: Final Report. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, Prevention Research Center. (link)

Holmes, C., Levy, M., Smith, A., Pinne, S., and Neese, P. (2014). A Model for Creating a Supportive Trauma-Informed Culture for Children in Preschool Settings. Journal of Child and Family Studies. DOI 10.1007/s10826-014-9968-6 (link)

Johnson, R.C. (2010). The Health Returns of Education Policies from Preschool to High School and Beyond. American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 188-194. (link)

Johnson, R.C. (2011). School-quality and the long-run effects of Head Start; Unpublished paper. (link)

Lipscomb, S.T., Pratt, M.E., Schmitt, S.A., Pears, K.C., and Kim, H.K. (2013). School readiness is children living in non-parental care: Impacts of Head Start. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31 (1), 28-37. (link)

Lee, R., Zhai, F., Han, W.-J., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Waldfogel, J. (2013). “Head Start and Children’s Nutrition, Weight, and Health Care Receipt.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(4), 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.06.003. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.06.003 (link)

Love, J. M., Kisker, E. E., Ross, C. M., Schochet, P. Z., Brooks-Gunn, J., Paulsell, D., . . . Brady-Smith, C. (2002). Making a difference in the lives of infants and toddlers and their families: The impacts of early Head Start. Volumes I-III: Final technical report and appendixes and local contributions to understanding the programs and their impacts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation. (link)

Ludwig, J. and Miller, D. (2007). Does Head Start improve children’s life chances? Evidence from a regression discontinuity design. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122 (1): 159-208. (link)

Ludwig, J. & Phillips, D.A. (2008). Long-Term Effects of Head Start on Low-Income Children. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1136, 257-268. (link)

Lumeng, J., Kaciroti, N., Sutrza, J., Krusky, A.M., Miller, A. L., Peterson, K. E., Lipton, R., & Reischl, T.M. (2015). Changes in Body Mass Index Associated with Head Start Participation. Pediatrics, 135(2): 1-8.

Miller, E. B., Farkas, G., Vandell, D. L. and Duncan, G. J. (2014). Do the Effects of Head Start Vary by Parental Preacademic Stimulation?. Child Development, 85: 1385–1400. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12233  (link)

National Bureau of Economic Research. (2011, September). Does Head Start Do Any Lasting Good? (Working Paper No. 17452). Cambridge, MA: C. Gibbs, J. Ludwig & D. Miller. (link)

National Bureau of Economic Research. (2011, December). Children's Schooling and Parents' Investment in Children: Evidence from the Head Start Impact Study (Working Paper No. 17704). Cambridge, MA: A. Gelber & A. Isen. (link)

Neville, H.J., Stevens, C., Pakulak, E., Bell, T.A., Fanning, J., Klein, S., & Isbell, E. (2013). Family-based training program improves brain function, cognition, and behavior in lower socioeconomic status preschoolers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(29): 12138-12143. (link)

Sabol, T.J. and Chase-Lansdale, P.L. (2014). The Influence of Low-Income Children's Participation in Head Start on Their Parents' Education and Employment. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. doi: 10.1002/pam.21799 (link)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. (2010). Head Start impact study: Final report. Washington, DC. (link)

Vogel, C.A., Xue, Y., Moiduddin, E.M., Kisker, E.E., & Carlson, B.L. (2010). Early Head Start Children in Grade 5: Long-Term Follow-Up of the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Study Sample. OPRE Report # 2011-8, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (link)

Vogel, C. A., Boller, K. A., Xue, Y., Blair, R., Aikens, N., Burwick, A., . . . Stein, J. (2011). Learning as we go: A first snapshot of Early Head Start programs, staff, families and children. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (link)

Zhai, F., Waldfogel, J., and Brooks-Gunn, J. (2011). Head Start and Urban Children's School Readiness: a birth cohort study in 18 cities. Developmental Psychology, 47(1), 134-52. (link)

Zhao, H. & Modarresi, S. (2010, April). Evaluating Lasting Effects of Full-day Prekindergarten Program on School Readiness, Academic Performance and Special Education Services. Office of Shared Accountability of Montgomery County Public Schools. (link)