The Flipside: An Alternative View of Caregiving

In talking about childcare, and in particular childcare settings for the youngest children, it is very common for people to lament what parents are “missing” during the hours their child is away from them. They talk about the milestones that may be achieved during childcare hours: rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking, first words. A common question amongst professionals in the field is, Do you tell the parents? if a child takes their first steps under your watch? Will this crush parents completely, this reminder that their child is in fact growing and changing in myriad ways every day, every hour, every minute?

This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that childcare professionals have taken on the “burden” of “raising” other people’s children. That children in care spend more time with adults other than their own parents and that this is a tragedy for both children and parents. Those children remain suspended in care settings waiting for the return of their parents so they can resume living their real lives in a family unit.

There is the unscientific thinking that this is the reason for all the ills of society -- that this generation of children supposedly raised by adults outside their own family unit is particularly disrespectful and troubled. That parents are not truly “parents” if their child is apart from them during a work week.

 

As early childhood professionals, we propose a view from a different angle.

 

We are passionate about our work with children and families. We wake up in the morning excited to get to work: to see our young friends, to implement a piece of curriculum that we’re particularly curious about, to spend time doing what we love. To do this work, we send our own children off to school or camp. We leave our partners and pets. We take a break from the other loves in our lives to pursue our career and our passion. It does not seem outside the realm of possibility, then, that the families in our program have a passion for their own work. That perhaps even a mom or a dad would have an interest outside of their love and devotion to their child. That perhaps this is not a flaw in the circle of family life, but a possibility for enrichment.

Imagine, if you will, the possibility that parents can be parents as well as taking on any number of other roles. That many parents are better parents when they are working parents because the best parents are whole humans, with a wide, rich life.

 

Over time, the lives of many people in our society have become increasingly insular. Some lament the loss of true neighborhoods, where children flowed from house to house as they roamed freely in their play. Where adults called to one another over fences and knew the routines and habits of those on their street. Where friendships between families who had little in common other than proximity and lifestyle would last decades.

“It takes a village,” we say, but where do we find this true sense of community today? We propose the notion that high-quality childcare programs are instrumental in supporting the kind of village that values both children and parents. That in valuing and respecting parents as whole people, we must also make space to respect the work and interests they pursue outside of their family. We acknowledge that it is healthy for parents to work, to exercise, to socialize, and to be apart from their children for periods of time. We open ourselves up to the idea that perhaps it is healthy too for young children to know that they live in a world of caring -- where they can be loved and attended to by their moms, their dads, their grandparents, and also their extended community of caregivers and peers. That they can be seen and known by so many.

Erikson’s first stage of psychosocial development is described as “trust versus mistrust.” Infants must learn that the world around them is safe. That their needs will be met. That they can explore without fear or danger more and more as they grow. It seems to us that introducing caregivers and helpers all around them creates an image for the child of a world that is warm, responsive, and reliable.

 

Even in the best of times, caregivers and parents can feel that they are somehow at odds. There are underlying feelings of guilt, feelings of resentment, and an ongoing competition of sorts with the children in the middle. We must strive to set this aside and see one another as allies in collectively raising resilient children.

Imagine the healthy society that thrives when adults can dedicate themselves to their work without concern for their child, knowing that they are safe and cared for. Where children can grow up seeing the adults around them modeling balanced work ethics -- that hard work and love of family are not mutually exclusive things. Imagine the confidence that children can develop when their families are not under the stress of guilt and resentment.

A universal truth is that parents know things about their child that no one else can see or know in that way. High-quality caregivers have a relationship with each child in their care that is also unique, and within that relationship, the child is seen and known in a distinct way. Each child lives many roles, as does each adult.

 

Adopting a positive view of an extended circle of caregiving means also adopting a view of children as individuals with lives worthy of respect. It means embracing the idea that children are only as fully known to us as any other whole person. This means that children, even very young children, have their private thoughts and passions and motivations and relationships unknowable from the outside. A child can be at home with their family and can also be at home in the world. That this is, in fact, a wonderful thing. This is not other people “raising” your child, but instead a network of caregiving that has countless benefits for all involved.

Do parents sometimes sit at work and think of what they are “missing” when their infant is in childcare? Of course they do. Because while working, parents are still parents. In the kind of world that we strive to create, however, caregivers and parents are connected and mutually respected for their unique roles. Children grow to understand that their parents carry a picture of them in their minds (and hearts), while they each go about their work. Caregivers and parents alike acknowledge that when a child does something for the “first time” in their eyes, it is just that -- the first time we each are fortunate enough to witness the magic of human development.

We propose thinking of what an honor it is to be a part of this thriving network that surrounds healthy children.

Birding with Nature's Explorers

We shared on our News page that we were recently selected to receive a grant from the Conejo Valley Audubon Society. The grant will be applied to adding more plants to our outdoor space that will attract and support our local birds, butterflies, and bees. Birding is a favorite daily activity here at Nature's Explorers, so we thought we would take some time to delve a bit deeper into what this means for our students and community.

When you visit a high-quality early childhood classroom, you should be able to observe a reflection of the community that shares that space - their passions and interests. Not only those of the children. You should get a sense of the caregivers and teachers as well. When you visit our space, you may notice a pair of binoculars on the windowsill. A collection of field guides. Several bird feeders. Some preserved specimens, including butterflies and bird nests. These are all items added to the classroom by Anne and Jenn that reflect our own passion for the local flora and fauna. You'll hear both adults and children talking about what species we observe and what individuals we recognize, including two of our favorite neighborhood friends: Russell and Sheryl crow. For our own interest, we maintain a list of the species of birds, butterflies, and bugs that we have spotted in our outdoor classroom. On weekends, you'll find Jenn birdwatching for fun.

We've yet to meet a child who is not interested in short observations of the birds and other wildlife that visit our outdoor space. Our two-year-olds know the names of several species including finches, crows, and doves. They know what different species may be interested in eating (the scrub jays prefer the peanuts, for example, while the finches like the seeds) and just how close we can get to them - ever so quietly - before they'll fly away. They know the sound that finches make, versus the calls of the doves or crows. In this collection of knowledge, they're fine-tuning their development of attention maintenance, memory, and listening skills! They are developing the essential qualities of empathy and perspective taking, as they try to understand why the birds may do what they do. They're developing their visual acuity as they scour the bushes for the camouflaged sparrows. These things taken in conjunction may lower their risk of ADHD and other disorders associated with the surplus of sedentary screen time the youngest generation is prone to.

In addition, our students are creating a sense of personal identity and wider community through this shared interest. They're growing to be stewards of our planet in their caring for and understanding of local wildlife. We could not be more proud of their knowledge of what they can do to support local wildlife already, like refilling our birdbath and throwing their banana peels into our compost instead of the trash. These are topics that we discuss daily as they are part of our everyday routines.

Even our infants share in these activities! Each afternoon, while the older children are napping, one of our infants loves to rest on her back on the front patio, beneath our olive tree. She turns her head as the sound of birdsong travels from one point to another. The flurry of feathers when a finch lights on a nearby bush captures her attention. We whisper, "There's the goldfinch! It's smaller than the house finch. And look at that flash of yellow." Does she understand these details? Not yet. But she certainly will in time. Her developing brain is bathed in natural stimulation and assimilation of information. She often reaches out to grasp our hands and shrieks in delight as the birds surprise her with their movements and sounds.

As the Audubon Society says, Birding's for the Kids! It's easy to get started, even if you don't know much about the birds around you yet. You'll learn! 

Mindfulness and Parenting

This year, we were fortunate enough to attend the annual conference of Zero to Three in San Diego. What an amazing opportunity for learning! Over the course of the conference, we attended workshops on topics like infant mental health, toddler emotions, immigrant and refugee children, and using learning stories for documentation and assessment. Spending time with 3,500 like-minded professionals was pretty fantastic. Where else but at this conference can you walk down a hotel corridor and overhear things like, "That's the brain's temporal lobe ..." or, "When we do yoga in the classroom..." 

Being able to enjoy some San Diego sunshine and Mexican food was definitely the icing on the cake.

One of the topics that we spent some time learning about was the use of mindfulness practices in parent coaching and support, and this is something that we're eager to reflect on and strategize on incorporating into our own practices. We attended a workshop entitled "Safe, Secure, and Loved," which was led by Barbara Burns, a developmental psychologist at Santa Clara University. Burns and her students partnered with the community to implement a program aimed at strengthening self-regulation skills in families. Their goals include building emotional resilience in children through their parents. 

Burns and her team are not the only ones studying and incorporating the use of mindfulness in parenting.  Mari Rossi, who teaches mindfulness parenting courses, says that research shows that using mindful parenting techniques is not only beneficial to the parent-child relationship but also has a positive impact on both the parent and the child individually. Our experience has shown that parents and teachers all speak of being "present" with young children and enjoying the magical moments that make a life ("the days are long but the years are short"), but it's important to understand that true mindfulness is an ongoing practice. In the workshop that we attended, Burns and her co-presenters Roberto Gil and Maria Gallardo talked about making these practices a part of familiar everyday routines in the family home. This is when practice becomes meaningful and, over time, second-nature.

Mother Theresa famously said, "If you want to change the world, go home and love your family." It is within the context of family and home that young children will optimally begin to develop the skills required for emotional resiliency. From the stories of success shared in this workshop, we learned that adopting mindfulness habits can help parents to feel empowered, engaged, and successful in their parenting practices. 

Some of the skills that Burns and her team said are of most value included the practice of dropping "the anchor of resilience." This is another way of saying, "be present," or, "slow your roll." It's a way of reminding yourself that the best starting point in a moment of stress or upset is always finding (and being) where you are. Close your eyes to center yourself. Take some deep breaths. Learn to do these kinds of calming things before reacting to a situation. That is, when your toddler is having a tantrum, take a moment to check in with yourself before you respond. You may want to take a moment to identify what it is you're feeling: angry, scared, embarrassed, etc. Just as on an airplane parents are advised to situate their own mask before assisting a child, parents must be aware of their own feelings before helping a child to regulate theirs. 

Burns and her team talked about encouraging parents to embrace an attitude of self-compassion. That is: be kind. Forgive yourself for mistakes. Understand that mistakes are a way of learning and a path forward. When you're able to stop judging yourself so harshly, you will find that the ripple effect of compassion will extend to your wider community. What a wonderful thing to model for your children!

Our favorite thing that was spoken of in this workshop was the way that, in this experimental model, parents were able to gather together to learn these new skills of mindfulness and to share their experiences with one another. We are reflecting on how we can provide a similar space for families that we work with, or others in our community. As we move into 2018, we will be sharing more about what this might look like for our program. We welcome all suggestions and feedback!

Quality Care

This past week, I had the opportunity to engage with the families at The Butterfly Center at Horizon Hills to talk about what quality child care looks like and how to go about finding it. Special thanks to Brenda Hunter and Rina Yardeny for facilitating these conversations and to the families who shared their stories and questions with me.

. . .

Within the field of child development, care, and education, the word “quality” is used quite a bit but often without clear or consistent meaning. In research over the years, we have learned that positive outcomes from “high-quality” early care and education programs can be lasting, but replicating the examples of quality can be a tricky business.

In her book, The Importance of Being Little, author Erika Christakis explains: “[T]he vast majority of young children need to know and be known. For this to happen, they need a learning habitat that allows them to have a relationship with someone who truly understands them.”

Families must remember that regardless of the kind of care being sought, it will be the start of a meaningful relationship for their young child and themselves. They should follow their hearts and instincts accordingly.

. . .

Each community is unique and the factors that impact the growth and development of young children are many and varied. When parents undertake the search for childcare, it’s important that they have done a little research in advance. Things that they will want to have clear in their minds include:

  • What days and hours they will need care for

  • What geographical radius they’re prepared to look within

  • Market analysis of the area (what to expect for average rates)

  • Questions to ask potential caregivers

The questions will vary based on the kind of care being sought and we will go more in-depth on that further down.

. . .

Parents will want to start the search for care well before they will be needing it (in general, months ahead) and it’s advisable to visit many different places and different types of programs to find the right fit for their family. Start the search early not only because it will take time to find an opening that is compatible with the family but also because it’s best to allow plenty of time and not rush a decision or “settle” for something less than optimal.

Seeking the right fit can be an overwhelming task, especially when families are juggling care of their child(ren), jobs, and everyday chores. It’s important to know that you’re not alone! Call on your community -- ask friends, family, and neighbors for suggestions and guidance. Word-of-mouth can be the best tool in finding what will work for you. It is suggested that you do not rely on one source of information, but seek several. For example, a friend may endorse a program. You may find the program’s Yelp reviews. And you may also ask a neighbor (or, online: nextdoor.com) for what they know about it.

Families are advised to get on a waiting list if possible for a program that is full. Things change all the time -- other families will drop from the waitlist, families will relocate or leave programs for many reasons. You never know when a spot will unexpectedly become available and if you feel that it could be a match for you, there is no harm in joining the wait or interest list.

When seeking care, some of the options available include hiring a private nanny, joining a family childcare home, or placing the child in a center-based program. Each of these options comes with pros and cons. All parents wonder which choice will be best for their child and all parents will question or second guess their choices along the way.

. . .

Here in the state of California, family childcare homes and center-based programs are required to be Licensed and their Licensing records are public information through the transparency web site: http://www.cdss.ca.gov/inforesources/Community-Care-Licensing/Facility-Search-Welcome . The inspection and citation records for each program are available.

Things to know regarding Licensing:

  • Licensing is the minimum quality standard for programs.

  • Behind every citation is a story. It’s best to ask follow-up questions of a program if you are interested in learning more about past problems. What you’re looking for is honesty, transparency, and evidence that whatever happened, the program created and executed a plan to correct it.

  • Home and center-based programs are required to post their License number and to make all families aware of their rights as per Licensing, as well as how to contact Licensing.

Licensing sets limitations in regards to the staff: child ratios. Again, Licensing is the minimum standard. Their ratio for infant care in center-based programs is one caregiver per four infants, with “infants” defined as children under the age of two. With a “toddler option” License, the ratio for toddlers is one caregiver per six children. At the preschool level, the ratio becomes one caregiver per twelve children (and in some programs, this will apply to all students over the age of two, which will mean one caregiver per twelve two-year-olds). Please note that in the state of California state-funded preschools, which provide services to lower-income families and at-risk children, are obligated to maintain preschool ratios of one teacher per eight students.

In home-based Family Childcare programs, the ratio is determined by two factors:

  • Whether the home has a “small” or “large” License

  • How many children of each age are enrolled in the program

. . .

Research and common sense both show that the quality of care rises as the ratio diminishes. Another topic to consider in the numbers game is how many children will be sharing one space. Licensing determines how many children are allowed in a classroom based on square footage. In some programs with large spaces, there can be as many as twelve infants in one shared space. Consider the acoustics.

. . .

In general, here are suggestions of things you will want to see and hear as you tour home or center-based programs.

Listen for:

  • Positive tones and attitudes

  • Rich language

  • Examples of empathy and conversation about emotions

  • Singing/reading/rhymes

You may wish to avoid programs where you hear:

  • Negativity

    • Even/especially in response to “negative” behaviors

  • An excess of background noise

  • Restrictive and directive language

Look for:

  • Warm, responsive relationships

  • Authentic interactions

  • Access to an outdoor play space

  • Access to “real” things -- grass, leaves, trees, plants, and indoor materials from nature

  • Cleanliness and examples of how it is maintained (for example, a basket where mouthed toys are placed to be cleaned each day)

You may wish to avoid programs where you see:

  • An excess of plastic

  • An excess of screen media

  • Overstimulating environments

Families are urged to seek environments that make them feel relaxed and comfortable. In choosing a place for your child, you are choosing a home away from home. The more comfortable you feel the more comfortable your child will feel as you transition them in.

. . .

Research has seemed to indicate that teacher qualifications are not the top predictor of positive outcomes for young children, although there is indisputable value in a combination of training and experience. Families are strongly encouraged to ask about the certifications of staff as well as the ongoing development of staff. Anecdotally, we would suggest that families seek teachers and caregivers who are enthusiastic lifelong learners! In quality care, there will be evidence of reflective practice -- caregivers and teachers ought to seek to become experts on the children in their care and should create environments that make evident the interests, needs, and passions of those unique children.

In the state of California, families may wish to seek caregivers (whether in homes or centers; whether teachers or nannies) who hold child development permits from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, as this indicates their commitment to maintaining their professional growth.

. . .

A note on relationships: research has repeatedly demonstrated that strong, positive, reciprocal relationships are crucial in the early years. We cannot emphasize enough that relationships are at the center of all learning. Within this understanding, there are special considerations when we think about what true quality of care looks like. Children should be seen, heard, and respected as individuals within any group. Their feelings should be validated. Their concerns should be heard. It is imperative that within the early care setting, they feel safe and loved. Families should always seek the caregiver who lights up upon seeing their child. Optimally, caregivers should be with a child for extended periods of time -- years. In some of the finest examples of quality care in the world, teachers actually move with their students and invest tremendously in understanding and connecting with the families in their care. While it may not always be realistic to find these things in a program, it is possible and it is an ideal that we should strive for. At minimum, however, children should have relationships that they value and that they can thrive within.

. . .

Thanks to our community, we have gathered some questions and points to consider that families may wish to make use of during the interview process, whether talking to home childcare providers, centers, or nannies. Please use the comment space below to share what you would add to this list!

  • How long have you (teacher/caregiver) been here/been in the field?

  • What credentials and certifications do you hold?

  • Please share what a typical day looks like.

  • How do you support the development of empathy in children?

  • What do you do when multiple infants are crying at once?

  • Describe a typical nap routine.

  • Describe a typical feeding routine.

  • How do you handle discipline?

  • What does your biting [substitute other typical behavior]  policy look like?

  • Tell me about your illness policy.

  • Please give me some examples of how the children learn through play.

  • Tell me about how you communicate with parents throughout the day.

  • Am I welcome to stop by?

  • Please talk to me about the difference between schedules and routines.

  • What is your favorite age and why?

  • Please describe how you plan transitions for the children.

  • What happens when my child’s primary caregiver is sick or on vacation?

  • How do you implement continuity of care?

  • Tell me about your community.

  • Tell me about the things you do to foster a sense of belonging.

  • How do you support children in problem-solving?

  • How much time will my child spend outside each day? Where?

  • Talk to me about the program mission and philosophy.

  • Talk to me about your philosophy towards working with children and families.

. . .

One huge elephant-in-the-room topic when it comes to childcare is accountability. In the beginning of all of these relationships, families must essentially entrust a stranger with their child. This is no small thing. The weight of responsibility on caregivers is immense. There must always be a conversation about accountability and how it is established and maintained.

. . .

One of our goals in beginning the Nature’s Explorers Childcare program was to create a community of learning and support for children, families, and our fellow professionals. We are enthusiastic lifelong learners and we love rich discussions about topics like these. While in some areas there are very clear “right” and “wrong” ways to do things, there are other elements of care and programming that come down to personal philosophies and priorities. What is the perfect fit for one family may not appeal to another. That’s why it’s wonderful that our Conejo Valley community has so many diverse childcare options.

You’re always more than welcome to continue the conversation with us directly. You can email natureplaythousandoaks@gmail.com .

. . .

Links:

The Early Childhood Care and Education Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities

Community Care Licensing’s Parents Guide to Choosing Childcare

Childcare Aware: 5 Steps to Choosing Childcare

Quality Childcare Checklist

Resilience

The other night, we attended a training that focused on raising resilient children. This is a timeless topic but seems particularly relevant these days due to events in the world that make us feel particularly overwhelmed or even defeated. Young children are especially adept at reading between the lines and tuning into the emotions of those around them, but they are not ready to understand and manage these big feelings without appropriate support.

We learned about the building blocks of resiliency. Why do some people develop resilience while others fail to? It's in large part due to the environment they're in and the examples modeled by significant adults (parents, grandparents, siblings, and caregivers).

Even if you feel that *you* were not raised to be resilient, we know that we can rewire our brains for more positive patterns. Encourage positive thinking in yourself and use positive self-talk with children. For example, "Ugh, I am so frustrated that this isn't working! I'm going to try it another way. I know if I keep trying, I'll figure this out."

It's important that we talk about ALL feelings, validating them and offering support. We need to remember that what children are feeling is *real* -- just because it may not be something that we would cry about, from our adult perspective, does not mean that their feelings are less valid. The reality that many of us have trouble facing is that we're intimidated by children's large and unbridled expressions of raw emotion! It can help to recognize that children's feelings are not ours to "manage". They are whole human beings quite separate from us and it's enough to be there beside them. "I hear you. I'm here with you. You feel so upset right now. It's going to get better."

The number one thing we can do to help children grow to be emotionally healthy adults with great coping skills is to talk often about all emotions. Help them recognize feelings in themselves and others. Share your feelings, share books and stories about times when different emotions were experienced and how things worked out in the end ("I was SO nervous! My tummy felt funny and my hands were shaking, but I did it anyway and then I felt so proud!"), and support children in feeling like empowered problem-solvers.

This is how we change the world!

Loose Parts Play

At Nature's Explorers, we provide many opportunities for children to engage in what has come to be known as "loose parts play." This is open-ended play with a variety of natural and synthetic materials. This kind of play allows for children to construct their own learning, with support and limited guidance from adults. It was architect Simon Nicholson who first seems to have formally presented this idea of play, although children have been engaging with materials in this way throughout human history. (More on Mr. Nicholson's theory: https://louisapenfold.com/2016/05/23/simon-nicholson-on-the-theory-of-loose-parts/ .)

You find many examples of intentionally creating loose parts play for young children in Reggio-influenced programs and in RIE, which are two ways of thinking about work with young children that we are influenced by as educators. In the more recent AnjiPlay movement emerging from China (http://www.anjiplay.com/home/), you will find fantastic examples of large loose parts play that involves gross motor development and risk-taking, along with creativity and socio-emotional skills like cooperation and conflict negotiation.

As adults, it's fascinating to watch what children will do with the loose parts in the environment. In our program, some of the parts have been selected and thoughtfully presented by the teachers. Others have been sourced by the children themselves. This basket of rocks, for example, was collected by two toddlers working both together and separately over a period of days. These rocks have represented "porridge" in their sociodramatic play, have represented bugs, have been compared to balls, and were today gathered up and given away as "money." 

We're inspired every day by the limitless potential of their imaginations!

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