What Is High-Quality Child Care? (page 2)
Quality of care is not related to where the care is offered but to how it is offered. It is difficult to provide high-quality care in an environment that is dirty, the equipment is in poor repair, toys are scarce, and space is cramped. But poor quality care can be—and too often is—delivered in beautifully designed settings with all the toys and materials your child could wish for.
Defining High-Quality Child Care
Our definition of quality mixes what researchers, child care providers, and other parents have learned together with a solid dose of common sense, drawn from our many years of personal and professional experience in both child development and child care. Searching for the best way to explain the meaning of quality, we found ourselves coming back to four basic words and phrases: caring, tuned in, respectful, and safe and secure.
Caring and Tuned In
These two qualities work together. A caring and tuned-in provider is one who
- listens to and is aware of the child’s communications, both verbal and nonverbal.
- watches for clues to how the child feels and picks up on those clues as she interacts with the child.
- attends to the children all the time and does not spend time chatting with other adults.
The tuned-in, caring provider is not afraid to show physical and verbal affection but is not overly effusive. She can simultaneously hold one child in her arms, listen carefully to a second who is tugging at her sleeve with a question, and watch a third struggle to accomplish a task, ready to assist if the child gets too frustrated. This person does not need to say she likes children because her feelings are clear. Her warmth is obvious, and she spends most of her time directly interacting with the children.
Many adults do not respect young children. They are not particularly interested in children, and this attitude shows in their tendency to ignore children. Unfortunately, some people who work in the child care profession fit into this category.
The traditional assumption has been that all women love children and that all have a natural ability to be good child care providers. Both assumptions are myths. Many women and men who love children do not have the patience or the skills to be great early childhood teachers and caregivers.
The capacity really to listen to very young children and to understand the ideas they are trying to express is central to showing respect for them. Listening and responding sensitively shows real consideration for the feelings and needs of the child. Children feel valued when they receive such undivided attention.
A respectful caregiver values children’s ideas, is considerate of their feelings, and demonstrates high regard for them through her warm and affectionate manner. Teachers and caregivers who can appreciate children in these ways often show the same respect toward the parents and co-workers they interact with.
Safe and Secure
Everyone agrees that safety and security are the foundations of high-quality care. Your child has to be safe (physically) as well as feel safe (emotionally), both with the caregiver or teacher and in the child care environment.
All rooms must be clean and uncluttered and free of hazards such as uncovered electrical outlets and poisonous chemicals. Furniture, materials, and toys should be age-appropriate. For example, the toys within reach of infants and toddlers, who put everything in their mouths, need to be large enough so that the children cannot choke on them.
The outdoor environment must be inviting and secure— safe, easily accessible, with age-appropriate outdoor equipment and lots of space for running and other large motor activities.
The play area should be free of broken toys and hazardous trash. In some neighborhoods this requires great vigilance on the part of the staff because bottles, old newspapers, and other debris are tossed into the yard at night. The play area must be enclosed, either by a fence or a natural border. The outdoor space should be designed so that the supervising teacher or caregiver can observe all the children at all times to be sure they are safe.
Emotional safety is more difficult to evaluate during a short visit. Emotionally safe children dare to explore and try out new things. They are spontaneously affectionate with their caregivers and each other. If they have done something they were not sure they were allowed to do, they don’t hesitate to admit it and accept the consequences. These are ways children show trust and confidence that their caregivers or teachers are really concerned about them and will help them through the day in a caring, affectionate fashion.
Any discussion of safety must include the issue of child abuse and maltreatment. A few highly publicized cases of suspected child abuse in child care settings have inflamed public opinion. Actually, children are comparatively safe in child care settings. Parents and other relatives are responsible for about 90 percent of child maltreatment incidents, other caregivers for only about 1 percent. The best way to protect your child is to make unannounced visits to the program he or she attends. A high-quality group program will encourage you to visit unannounced at any time. Even if you decide to have a caregiver come to your home, it is wise to drop in unannounced occasionally to indicate how important your child’s care and welfare are to you. All care should be monitored. In addition, you need to tune in to your child’s feelings and moods on the way to and from the child care setting so you can be as aware as possible of how emotionally safe your child feels there.
Staff Qualifications and Practices
Although the qualifications and practices of child care staff are important for all age groups, they are particularly important for the care of infants. Your infant needs lots of love and attention in order to develop optimally. Consistency and emotional support are essential, along with good physical care and a safe, healthy environment. Before you even visit the infant room for the first time to observe the caregivers in action, spend some time with the director learning about the staff’s educational backgrounds and how long they have been working there. The director can also tell you whether they have been attending workshops or other continuing education opportunities to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. Ideally, a caregiver should have a combination of a solid educational background in early childhood and some practical experience in working with young children. Providers who work with infants also need specialized knowledge of infant development, health, and nutrition.
The first thing to look for in an infant care provider is the way she interacts with the babies. Does she respect each infant as a unique person, seeming to understand that each baby is different from the others? One infant may need to be held quietly, while another really likes to be bounced around, and a third might not want to be touched much at all. Does she take time to observe the infants and take her cues from what she sees, or does she follow her own adult routines without regard for how the baby is feeling? Is the care provider in tune with the babies’ rhythms? For instance, does she listen to a baby vocalizing, respond with a sound or a word, and then wait for the baby to coo or chuckle again? Does she interact with the quiet babies as well as the more noisy, attentionseeking ones?
You should never hear a caregiver call a baby “bad” because of its behavior. Very young children cannot understand the difference between right and wrong or how their behavior affects the adults around them. Therefore, they do not act bad on purpose. There may be times when we wish they would stop doing something, like crying or tossing food on the floor. But babies are not doing these things with us in mind, and they do not understand that they are wrong.
Caregivers of infants must spend a lot of time on routine things like feeding, diapering, and putting babies to sleep. They should also read to the infants, play games like peek-a-boo and “This Little Piggy,” exercise each child’s arms and legs, sing, hand toys and receive toys back, and simply hold children in their laps and converse with them (not just talk to them). The caregivers should encourage older babies to move around by organizing the space so that they can safely pull themselves to their feet and walk around holding on to furniture and larger pieces of equipment. Different toys need to be added as the babies grow older—toys that link cause and effect (like jack-in-the-box) and small baskets with a few blocks or other items that the children can dump out and then refill (over and over again). Mobile infants like push-and-pull toys, balls, and large wooden trucks and cars. A child care center that provides this range of toys is well prepared to promote the optimal development of your child. When you observe staff in the infant room, you should also look for some basic care routines. Caregivers should hold the babies and talk softly to them as they give them their bottles. Infants should not be sitting in high chairs drinking from bottles that caregivers prop on pillows. Babies should also be talked to while their diapers are being changed, as they are rocked to sleep (a lullaby or soft humming would be appropriate), and when they are lying on the floor on a blanket, exploring a rattle.
Caregivers should be dressed in comfortable, easy-to wash clothes so they find it easy to spend time on the floor with the babies and won’t worry about drooling or overflow as they burp them over their shoulders or carry them in their arms. Check to see that the caregiver washes her hands and cleans the changing table after each diaper change. High chairs, toys, and other equipment also need to be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Remember, risk of infection is a significant concern with center-based infant care. One way to reduce that risk is through scrupulous hand washing and frequent cleaning of everything in the room.
At first, it may be difficult to tell the difference between one caregiving style and another. As you spend time watching adults with young children, you will begin to see who is comfortable with and knowledgeable about them and who isn’t. Careful observation does take time, however. Plan to set aside at least two hours the first time you visit a center just to observe the work of the caregivers who would be responsible for your child.
A caregiver of toddlers has to be an exceptional person because the toddler time is such a special period in a child’s life. Toddlers want to be “big” and independent, but they easily crumble and fall apart, needing your love and comfort. This is the time of biting and temper tantrums, the age when “mine” and “no” are the two most prominent words in the child’s vocabulary. Toddlers have very little control over their emotions and actions. They try very hard to follow your wishes and instructions but are often frustrated when they fall short of even their own expectations.
Toddlers are growing rapidly in every way. Their bodies are learning to do many new things, like running, hopping, and throwing. Their language development is amazing. New words are being added every day. Yet at the same time they often cannot find the words they need in an emotional moment— suddenly you hear a scream and realize a child has used teeth instead of words to make her point.
As they grow and learn, toddlers test everyone and everything. Teachers of toddlers have to know all this and more to be good caregivers. They have to understand and appreciate that every child goes through this stage. They also need to be able to pick their battles because toddlers will test most of what you and they do. The solution is not to respond to every challenge but to guide the child firmly in the right direction, toward increased self-control, competence, and self-sufficiency.
To learn more about the teachers of toddlers in a center you must watch them at work. It is a good idea to observe a teacher for at least two hours, longer if possible. You should ask the director about the caregivers’ educational background and experience. Ideally you want them to have both experience and some theoretical knowledge about toddlers. If they have not had specific education or training related to working with children under age three, ask the director whether there is interest in continuing education and what plans are under way to make this possible.
Reprinted with the permission of Cornell University. © 2008 Cornell University