Features of Quality Child Care (page 2)
Despite the great diversity in child-care arrangements and the wide variations in state regulations governing center-based and family child-care homes, there is much agreement among professionals on the characteristics of quality child care needed to provide the safe, healthy, and nurturing environments that parents want and children deserve.
High-quality care is the result of a combination of a healthy and safe environment together with educational and social stimulation appropriate to the age and development of the children being served (Fraenkel, 2003). These features of quality child care include both structural elements relating to the physical environment and staffing requirement and process elements relating to curricular practices, caregiver qualities, and parental involvement (Wortham, 2006).
The structural elements of a child-care environment establish the foundation for optimal process conditions. Characteristics of the child-care space, for example, are structural elements. The square footage required for each child, the amount and kind of outdoor space, the requirements for furniture, sinks, toilets, windows, flooring material, and myriad other details related to the classroom, kitchen facilities, bathrooms, and diaper-changing areas are included in this category. The adult–child ratio, amount of initial and continuing staff training required, plus the salaries, benefits, and working requirements for staff are all structural elements of child care.
The individual licensing requirements of each state sets minimum expectations for many of the structural elements, and a center or family child-care home can get licensed by meeting these requirements. Unfortunately, these minimum standards do not necessarily lead to a quality program, and professional organizations and individuals have established optimal structural elements that can have a large impact on program quality. For example, although the state may only require one adult for every eight two-year-olds and have no limit on the number in the total group, recommendations from the Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education at Wheelock College recommends a ratio of four children to one adult, with a maximum group size of 12 (Children’s Defense Fund, 2001). High adult–child ratios are considered one of the strongest structural elements in supporting the intellectual and social development of children in child care and are important indicators of quality.
Quality programs also set up inviting environments with an abundance of appropriate resources (furniture, equipment, materials, and toys), often far above the minimum requirements. The requirements for staff education and continued training are also above minimum requirements in quality centers.
Process quality refers to the experiences children have in child care and include such aspects as adult–child interactions, children’s exposure to and involvement with learning materials, and parent– caregiver relationships. These are critical components that directly affect children’s behavior and learning experiences in the child-care setting.
The most important process element in quality child care is the human relationships between the teaching staff and children and their families (Uttal, 2002). Teachers who interact with children in a nurturing manner help to create attachments between themselves and the children, the foundation for further social development. As they engage children in conversation, ask questions, and respond to them when they speak, they are helping children acquire cognitive and language skills (National Institute for Child Health and Human Development [NICHD] Early Child Care Research Network, 1997). Not only do teachers need to be knowledgeable about the developmental characteristics of the children they serve, understand how to provide enriching experiences for them, and be able to communicate effectively with the children’s parents about their shared concerns, but they must also be warm and nurturing people.
Ideally, those who care for young children will consider themselves professionals and have an educational background in child development and curriculum. Continuing professional education by attending conferences, participating in workshops, reading professional literature, and sharing ideas and information with colleagues are all indications of professional behavior. Partaking in activities like these builds commitment to the field, satisfaction with the work, and a greater sensitivity to the needs of children.
Unfortunately, the low wages associated with working with children in child-care settings has had a very negative effect on the quality of teachers (Harrington, 2000). Nonprofessional entry-level salaries are rarely higher than minimum wage, particularly at national for-profit chains. Starting salaries for child-care center teachers with college degrees was approximately $15,000 to $16,000 in the late 1990s, less than half of what many entry-level public-school teachers receive. Low wages have kept the educational level of caregivers from rising and has spawned an annual turnover rate of about 30%. Programs that manage to retain their caregivers are generally of higher quality than those that have a high turnover.
Given the importance of the early years for children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development, another mark of a quality program is the curriculum. Curriculum in child care is generally understood as an approach toward learning that includes both planned and spontaneous educational experiences that occur within a predictable daily routine. Time is designated for outdoor and indoor play. Large group gatherings are used for stories, music, movement, and more, and for routines like eating, toileting, and resting. A well-planned curriculum will meet the needs of the children enrolled by considering their age, developmental levels, interests, special needs, and cultural backgrounds.
A quality curriculum in a program serving infants and toddlers requires that teachers be especially responsive to the rapid growth and change that is occurring during these years. Wortham (2006) summarized characteristics of effective teachers for this age group; they must be able to
- Understand and appreciate children’s unique temperaments and developmental stages.
- Meet children’s needs for care while encouraging increasing independence.
- Frequently initiate physical, social, and verbal interactions.
- Be responsive to children’s physical, social, and verbal behavior as much as possible.
- Be consistent and predictable.
- Plan experiences and interactions appropriate to the children’s level of functioning.
Play and routine caregiving activities are the fundamentals of the curriculum with this age group. A quality caregiver follows the lead of the children in determining when they sleep, eat, and need to be changed. Between these times, they interact with the infants and toddlers in an environment that has been set up to enhance their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Children’s cultures and families are represented in various ways, highlighting child care as an extension of the home.
As children reach age two and move into the preschool years, the curriculum changes to meet their developing needs. The daily schedule includes opportunities for children to work individually and in small groups most of the time, with some short periods of whole-group gatherings for stories and music. The room is arranged in activity areas, such as blocks, dramatic play, art, science, math, computer, language, and others. Each area is well stocked with interesting materials, which allows the children to make choices about what to do when they are there. Indoor and outdoor play is respected as the best way for children to learn, and teachers facilitate their play to enhance the social, physical, and cognitive benefits for development (Wortham, 2006).
The curriculum in the quality before- and after-school age program tends to be more informal than those for younger children and will vary greatly, depending on the needs and interests of the group. Centers or family child-care homes of high quality provide many toys and materials appropriate to the children’s ages and interests, and lots of free time for children to participate in self-directed activities. In a center, the room is set up in activity areas with space set aside for computer use and homework and other areas devoted to construction, games, music, art, and other interests. The best programs for this age group are seen by the children as clubs where individual interests can be pursued. Generally, the time before school is low-key, with breakfast available and time to participate in individual and small-group projects. After-school usually begins with a period of vigorous outdoor play and is followed by snacks, some time for homework, and individually chosen activities. Allowing children as much choice as possible and providing lots of opportunity for socializing and pursuing interests are hallmarks of the most successful programs for school-age children.
Full days in school-age care that occur during inclement weather, school holidays, and summers are characterized by a camplike atmosphere. School-age children are developing many interests, and the more the program can support the children’s choices, the more eagerly the children participate. In the highest quality programs, child-care staff and the children’s school teachers confer regularly and communicate issues of mutual concern.
Although quality child care programs may have somewhat different philosophical orientations, all will offer a curriculum that extends the cognitive and socialization processes that have begun in the children’s families. For many children, child care is where they first learn to interact with children and adults outside their families, and this marks the beginning of community socialization.
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