May 10, 2012

Supporting a Healthy Start

When kids are healthier, they are better learners. A new Head Start center is helping families access the care they need.

“There’s this much information out there,” starts Al Yee, spreading his hands wide to model the shape of an hourglass.

“And the health manager is at the middle of the hourglass,” he continues, bringing his hands closer together. “And then everyone else helps to carry out the work. Everything has to be funneled through the health manager. How do we help the health managers do that job better?”

Yee is referring to the health managers at Head Start, the landmark early education and comprehensive child development program that serves children from low-income families. Health managers are an essential part of the program, helping enrolled children and their families access medical and dental care.

EDC is playing an important role in the work of health managers, as well as other Head Start administrators and program staff, through its involvement in three of six national training and technical assistance centers. The Office of Head Start contracted with the American Academy of Pediatrics to establish the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness (NCH), of which EDC is a high-level partner. EDC is also partnering with the Bank Street College of Education to operate the National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness and is leading the work of the National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations.

The centers provide programs with research-based resources that help staff make science-informed decisions on behalf of the programs and families.

Yee and Nancy Topping-Tailby are leading EDC’s work with the NCH, which was launched in September 2011. Information on health issues will be shared through webinars, conferences, research briefs, and other written materials. “There’s a lot of information out there, but it’s not always good information,” says Topping-Tailby. “We want to be the place where programs can come for accurate, evidence-based information.”

She lists asthma, obesity, and early childhood caries—a form of tooth decay—as three of the most pressing issues affecting the health of children in Head Start programs today.

Head Start grew from a revolutionary idea: that the key to lifting families out of poverty was to provide comprehensive education and health—including physical, dental, nutritional, and behavioral health services—to children before they arrive in kindergarten. Nearly 50 years and 30 million children later, Head Start remains critical to advancing the health and wellness of children throughout the country.

Both Topping-Tailby and Yee are looking forward to the opportunities afforded by the NCH. “We have science-based research, we have a vulnerable population, and we have Head Start, a program that works,” Yee says. “This is an opportunity to help the Head Start program do an even better job than it was doing before.”