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Do you want to know the secret ingredient of Head Start?

by Jeff Goldammer, Director of Head Start and Early Head Start and 30-year Head Start veteran, Economic Security Corporation in Joplin

October is Head Start Awareness month.  What do people need to know about Head Start?

Some people will want to know that Head Start was established in 1965 and has served more than 38 million children, birth to age 5 and their families, since its inception.

Others will want to know that Head Start promotes school readiness for children in low-income families by offering educational, nutritional, health, social, and other services.

Some may even want to know that in Missouri, Head Start is funded to serve around 15,000 children and pregnant women in centers, family homes, and in family child care homes in urban, suburban, and rural communities throughout the state.

But, I’m pretty sure that what most people really want to know is this:  “What is the secret ingredient that makes Head Start special?”

Learning about a secret is an especially cathartic experience.  There is anticipation, suspense and wonder.  What could it be?    The secret can be totally unexpected or something you suspected all along.  Once you know, you can decide to either keep the secret or share it with someone else.  The secret of Head Start should be shared with everyone.

Working in Head Start for more than 30 years, there were many times that I thought I knew what the secret of Head Start was.  But only recently have I discovered the truth.  At first I questioned it, but I have come to the conclusion that there is no doubt about it.

Are you ready?  I’ve stalled long enough….The secret to Head Start is joy.  That’s right J-O-Y.  Why joy?  Let me share a quick story.

I first started learning about joy while researching why children in Finland performed so well on international tests.  This occurs despite only a half day kindergarten that children start at age six and a lack of urgency in teaching reading until children are age seven. What I found is that the national curriculum for young children in Finland focuses on “children learning with joy”.  I was surprised to find that joy is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept.  Joy is a fundamental belief for the people of Finland.   In fact, there’s an old Finnish saying– “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.” 

The contrast is striking.  In Finland, the focus is on “children learning with joy”.  In the US, we’ve had Common Core Standards, the 30 Million Word Gap, No Child Left Behind and the inclination to push rigorous academic expectations down to younger and younger age groups.

While trying to wrap my head around this, our Head Start program set up a number of parent focus groups designed to get feedback to improve the program and services.  As parents started talking about their experiences in Head Start, imagine my surprise to hear several of them talk about how the program brings them joy!   As first one and then another parent talked about the joy the program brought to them, soon all the parents in the group were nodding their heads in agreement.  This response was repeated when we brought other parents together at other focus groups.  It even happened again the next year.  I expected parents to be generally satisfied with the program, but I did not expect them to say “this program brings me joy”.

Head Start should definitely be in the business of bringing joy.  We serve the families in our community who are most in need.  The parents and their children often struggle in ways we are not even aware of.  Families are faced with traumatic stress, poverty and other risk factors.  They could use a little joy.

Our Head Start program made it a priority to bring joy to parents.  The first conversation we have with a parent is to ask what they want their child to accomplish during their time in Head Start.  Then, we work all year to make that happen.  We make sure that all our staff know and are engaged in this effort.  We track it and measure our success.  We report back to the parent and celebrate our success with them.

We also want the children to “learn with joy”, just like the children in Finland.  We spend the first 60 days in the classroom focusing solely on social-emotional skills.  The whole school readiness approach depends on the relationships that are built at the beginning of the school year.  We make it a priority to teach friendship, kindness and forgiveness.

Bringing joy to parents and children is also satisfying and enriching for staff.  Whether you are a teacher, cook or bus driver, you want to make a difference for children and families.  It’s easy to see when you bring joy to someone.  There may be jobs that pay more than Head Start, but few where you can so easily bring a little joy into a person’s life.

So, now you know the secret ingredient to Head Start.  But bringing joy can be the practice of any organization.  It can be easy to get frustrated with regulations, rules and policies, but when you are focused on bringing joy to children and families, you have a higher purpose and a real-life focus.  How can you bring joy to children and families where you are?

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