Moving Beyond Language Barriers Through Early Head Start

When Anabel Valdez came to Fort Worth, Texas, from Mexico in 1997, she did not know a single word of English but was determined to make a life for herself and her family. She wanted to make sure her young children would receive top-tier education and developmental services, with bilingual language resources to learn and play. Driven by her desire to adapt and succeed, she sought out community resources for her family. A neighbor pointed Anabel toward the local Early Head Start program.

The Center for Transforming Lives works side-by-side with women and their children to disrupt the cycle of poverty throughout Tarrant County. Their Early Head Start program serves around 300 children each year, and focuses on establishing long-term financial and emotional wellbeing for the entire family.

Anabel’s children, who primarily spoke Spanish at home, were welcomed into a community of dual language learners. Children who are dual language learners (DLL) make up at least one-third of all children in Early Head Start and are in more than 85 percent of programs. Research shows that supporting bilingualism and multilingualism from the early years can result in wide ranging benefits—from cognitive, academic, and social advantages in the preschool and school years, to health and economic ones later in life.

In Fort Worth, the Hispanic population has grown 114% in the last decade. Fort Worth is now 40% Hispanic, helping make the Dallas-Fort Worth Hispanic market the seventh largest of all U.S. cities.

In Texas, there are currently 67,844 slots for Head Start and Early Head Start children and families. With more than 1,100 centers across the state and 18 serving nearly 1000 children in Texas’ 12th Congressional District alone, Head Start and Early Head Start employ more than 20,000 teachers and staff in their communities, and currently service more than 47,000 parents who have reentered the workforce, are currently in job training, or have gone back to school.

Children build their English skills in the classroom and grow their home language when not in the classroom. Parents are encouraged to continue speaking their home language, but are assisted with finding language programs to improve their own English-language skills if they choose to do so.

As time went on, Anabel involved herself in the program, attending parent meetings, volunteering, and finding ways to engage in her children’s learning journey. Early Head Start meant more than language acquisition; it meant empowerment to expose her children to American culture, to equip them with opportunities she didn’t have growing up in Mexico, and to share her history and culture with them outside of the classroom.

As part of their parent outreach, Transforming Lives hosts monthly Parent Cafés for at-risk families and offers a research-based parenting curriculum that strengthens positive relationships with children, while providing an opportunity to connect with peers and build natural support systems. Parent Cafés engage parents in meaningful conversations about what matters mos—their families—and how to strengthen them by building protective factors that can mitigate the negative impacts of trauma.

As part of Head Start and Early Head Start programs, family service coordinators work with parents looking to learn the language with English as a second language (ESL) education. Not all parents take advantage of these services, but studies have shown that those who do see measurable growth in English language skills, and greater agency in their child’s schooling. “Language should never be a barrier to parental involvement,” reflected Anabel. “I tell parents: ‘Don’t feel like you can’t attend the meetings because you don’t speak the language. We can help!'”

Anabel’s positive experience with Early Head Start inspired her to pursue a career with Head Start and work with families like her own. She is now a family service coordinator at the Center for Transforming Lives in Fort Worth encouraging parents to get involved.

“Early Head Start helped me to reach my goals, Head Start helped me with the language, Head Start helped me with my job, and Head Start helped me be a better human being for people in my community,” said Anabel.

Early Head Start

This post is one in a series of features about Early Head Start programs across the country. Early Head Start helps families navigate and access the comprehensive, wraparound support they need during the most critical years of their children’s development—prenatal to age three. When all families are able to build a strong foundation for their children, we all have a brighter, healthier future. To help ensure all parents and caregivers have access to Early Head Start support, visit to learn more and become an advocate.

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