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Top 5 Lessons Learned in the World of Head Start

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Please note that the views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect NHSA's own views.

Top 5 Lessons Learned in the World of Head Start

Head Start is a fabulous program with its own culture, language, sense of community — and many moving parts. As a former Head Start Director, I learned a number of valuable lessons throughout the years. Here are five fundamental elements that are vital to a Head Start program’s success.

1. Custom designed, practice-based training for staff

Invest in the staff to ensure they have the knowledge and skills needed to provide the high quality services that’s expected from Head Start and that children and families deserve. When staff members feel their organization is investing in their professional development, each staff member will give their all to their job. Just as programs provide services that meet the specific needs of their community, staff training should also be custom designed to meet the specific needs of each group. Whenever possible, use a “learning by doing” training model so staff will know how to take what they learn and implement it immediately.

2. Helping teachers do their best work with children

Our teachers work tirelessly to prepare children for Kindergarten. We know from research that teachers do their best work by receiving professional development in both a group environment as well as individually. Providing teachers with training on topics such as improving CLASS scores, working with children with challenging behaviors, and interpreting data to drive instruction is instrumental in increasing teachers’ knowledge. It’s equally important to provide teachers with mentor coaching — an opportunity for one-on-one modeling, guidance, and support to improve teacher practice. Investing in our teachers has a direct impact on promoting positive child outcomes.   

3. A comprehensive, user-friendly Community Assessment

A comprehensive Community Assessment is an essential document for making programmatic decisions. When collecting and examining current data, be sure to also have information from recent years on hand. This gives you the opportunity to compare data and identify trends. To encourage all staff members to use the information to guide their decisions and efforts, create a user-friendly Community Assessment. Summarizing key findings under each graph or chart and adding “Highlights and Considerations” at the end of each section makes a Community Assessment easier to read in order to make critical decisions.

4. A focus on data-driven decision making

Data is the driving force of decision-making. Develop a culture of data-driven decision making by analyzing major programmatic documents. Strategic planning, for instance, is a great opportunity to review documents such as your Community Assessment, Self-Assessment, child assessment data, CLASS data, and family engagement data. This data should be used not only when writing your refunding application, but also when creating your program’s goals and objectives. Multiple data sources and the resulting analyses are critical in creating changes that increase child and family outcomes as well as improving overall program quality.

5. An engaged Policy Council and Board of Directors

The training agenda for the Policy Council and Board of Directors typically includes topics such as roles and responsibilities and shared governance. Be sure to also include topics that are specifically aimed at engaging your Policy Council and Board of Directors, such as the history and vision of Head Start as well as leadership development. This will encourage your Policy Council and Board of Directors to be truly invested in your Head Start program. The Policy Council and Board of Directors should be given the opportunity to discuss what they would like to achieve for the program as members of the governing body. This helps communicate to the Policy Council and Board of Directors the tremendous value they bring to an agency.


About Essential Elements:

At Essential Elements, we provide custom designed services to meet the specific needs of Head Start and Early Head Start programs around the country. We provide staff, Policy Council and Board training; create Community Assessments; conduct CLASS Observations; provide Mentor Coaching; offer strategic planning, grant writing for Recompetition; and more. Learn more about our services at and contact us with your T&TA needs at (713) 594-7060 or at


Visit NHSA's Professional Development Consultants Directory to learn more about consultants and organizations who are ready to help your program get the results and outcomes you’re striving for.