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Head Start can make entire families healthier

Children run off to play after singing for guests at the unveiling of the Dolores Huerta Head Start Center, formerly Corcoran Head Start, in Corcoran on Oct. 21, 2014.
Children run off to play after singing for guests at the unveiling of the Dolores Huerta Head Start Center, formerly Corcoran Head Start, in Corcoran on Oct. 21, 2014. Vida en el Valle File

Head Start is already great at helping kids succeed in life. Now it’s working at helping families become healthier, too.

The UCLA Health Care Institute, where I work as research director, has developed a way to use business-management principles to improve the health of families. What that means in practice is that we’ve changed the way Head Start staffers are trained to do health promotion.

Over many years, we’ve learned that it’s not enough to just provide accessible written materials to families. Instead, families change their behavior when they get live, interactive training sessions with the familiar staff at their child’s Head Start school.

In a 2000 survey, 600 Head Start directors reported facing huge barriers in helping the families they serve become healthier. The survey found very low attendance at Head Start health-education programs, and Head Start directors told me the health materials they gave families often ended up in the trash.

Based on those results, we began helping Head Start agencies plan effective health-education sessions. Head Start started by holding special (and fun) health events to attract families. We also created new health materials focused on prevention at home.

These materials were easier to understand (they were pitched at a third-grade reading level) and could be adapted to the wide variety of communities and cultures they serve.

We’ve refined and expanded this work in recent years. At first, our health education focused on how to prevent and respond to common childhood illnesses and injuries that can be big burdens on families.

But we soon saw that many families and children were suffering from poor oral health and added oral health trainings. Sometimes the parents didn’t know what to do. Sometimes there were very few dentists who could provide them with service.

We expanded our offerings to include obesity prevention and mental health, and developed webinars for staff and toolkits to use with parents.

We learned we had to train teams of Head Start staff first, bringing the personnel from different states into one place, while integrating health training with management training. This was not merely training. We wanted to create a culture of health and an agency shaped by caring.

To do that, we had staffers participate as parents in mock parent-training sessions. Stepping into the parents’ shoes helped staff understand how to make the program more engaging for parents.

Once engaged, they were able to learn and interact with other parents, further enhancing the learning and reinforcement. We’ve found that when parents get the right information in the right way, they really use it.

The success of the local training also requires marketing. That may not be a word people like, but marketing, particularly internal marketing, is vital inside institutions to get buy-in from all staff in the management training and health education, to assure good attendance by families, and to maximize impact.

We’ve found that when families can better manage acute illnesses in their children, they feel empowered. Among the data we’ve seen is that parents use the health system more appropriately after training – decreasing emergency room visits by 58 percent, for example.

We’ve also seen an increase in the use of health-resource materials at home, and a 29 percent decrease in the amount of school missed by children whose families receive the health education.

Parents also showed a 42 percent decrease in workdays missed after attending the trainings and learning how to manage illnesses in their children at home. This is an important benefit for families on limited incomes.

As it takes this research and these implementation strategies for prevention and applies them to the child care environment, Head Start has even more potential to improve the health of more children and adults in this country.

It won’t be easy, but Head Start is moving in the right direction by engaging entire families in their own health and prevention.

Ariella Herman is the research director of the Health Care Institute at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. She has focused on using system approaches to improve health promotion for underserved communities. She wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.