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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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In general, here are suggestions of things you will want to see and hear as you tour home or center-based programs.
Positive tones and attitudes
Examples of empathy and conversation about emotions
You may wish to avoid programs where you hear:
Even/especially in response to “negative” behaviors
An excess of background noise
Restrictive and directive language
Warm, responsive relationships
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
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 email@example.com .
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