Date of Award

Winter 2002

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Thomas Schram


This is a field study of families and home visitors in Early Head Start. Its purpose is to understand the social context of infants born into poverty and to understand the home visiting relationship when families receive intervention services from home visitors who are socially and economically different. Two questions were posed: First, how do socially and economically diverse families perceive infant well-being? Second, what is the experience of families who participate in Early Head Start? The study used interviews, participant observation, and cultural interpretation to understand the perspective of participant families.

The study provided evidence that economically and socially diverse families who accessed social services often became enmeshed in a system of social "supports" that made it impossible for them to make economic progress. Many of the families participated in Early Head Start out of a desire to provide opportunities for their children that they would otherwise not have, such as socialization and education.

Home visitors in this Early Head Start program had the desire to help families. They seemed to work at helping families make "progress" by a process of "nudging." "Nudging" occurred in various settings in different aspects of the home visitor-family relationship. Home visitors would "nudge" families on a personal level to take steps to improve their circumstances, such as getting an education or a job. "Nudging" was also embedded in the program through a manner of documenting outcomes for families and rewarding families for program participation.

The methods and the strategies used in the study revealed the experience of families in their everyday lives, including their participation in Early Head Start. The study did not reveal parent understandings of infant well-being, which may be attributed to the middle-class cultural assumption that families have a notion of well-being. It became evident that parents desired competence, caring relationships, control, and change; however, stress and chaos in their lives may have prevented them from having a sense of well-being for their infants.