National Academy of Medicine

Building Health Literacy and Family Engagement in Head Start Communities: A Case Study

By Bhavna Sivanand, Ariella Herman, Carol Teutsch, and Steven Teutsch
April 14, 2017 | Discussion Paper

Policy makers, government agencies, and community organizations seeking to improve health outcomes in vulnerable populations are paying increased attention to family engagement and health literacy as key elements of a population health approach. To capitalize on the promise of prevention and create a culture of health, families need a supportive environment that enables them to make informed health decisions and lifestyle choices. Low health literacy is associated with poor health outcomes and is considered a social determinant of health. To create a culture of health, families with young children need to be engaged as partners and advocates for their children. Family engagement is critical not only to maximizing a child’s academic success but also to fostering positive health outcomes. To accomplish this, sustainable health literacy and family engagement strategies need to be integrated into the core of organizations working to improve health.

The new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and U.S. Department of Education (DOE) policy statement on family engagement presents 10 principles of effective family engagement that were assembled from an extensive review of the literature. The HHS National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy advocates embedding the principles of health literacy across the educational system and throughout an organization. In 2016, the Office of Head Start published new program performance standards and for the first time included improving family health literacy. The question is how both these concepts can be practically implemented across existing programs, institutions and organizations.

In this paper we present a case study of our work as part of the Health Care Institute (HCI). HCI has used a systems approach to successfully improve health literacy over the past 14 years in culturally diverse, vulnerable communities, particularly within Head Start.




Suggested Citation

Sivanand, B., A. Herman, C. Teutsch, and S. Teutsch. 2017. Building Health Literacy and Family Engagement in Head Start Communities: A Case Study. NAM Perspectives. Discussion Paper, National Academy of Medicine, Washington, DC. doi: 10.31478/201704c


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily of the authors’ organizations, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies). The paper is intended to help inform and stimulate discussion. It is not a report of the NAM or the National Academies. Copyright by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.