Jul 24, 2014

Defining Quality in Child Care

Melissa Riegel-Garrett is a native of Waterbury, and a 1992 graduate of the University of Vermont with a B.S. in Education and Early Childhood Development. She has also received a M.S. in Education and Early Childhood Leadership from Bank Street College of Education in New York, NY. Melissa has been the Executive Director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children since 2006, and she teaches regularly at both Champlain College and the Community College of Vermont.

Defining “quality” child care and why it matters

At a Fourth of July barbecue this summer, I ran into a very pregnant mom in the buffet line. After learning she would return to work following maternity leave, I asked if she’d found a child care provider yet. I was not surprised when she replied she was on several waiting lists, but had not secured a spot. What did surprise me was when she shared she really didn’t care which program her child got into, as long as they had a spot by the time she returned to work. 

Research shows strong links between quality early care and healthy child development. This is because 80% of the brain is developed by age three, and science tells us that a child’s early experiences literally shape how the brain gets built. A strong mental foundation constructed in the early years increases the probability of positive outcomes in school, relationships and the workforce. A weak foundation increases the odds of later difficulties. This soon-to-be-mom will join the majority of Vermont parents who work outside of the home. In fact, 72% of Vermont's children under the age of 6 have all parents in the workforce—which means they're in care outside of the home for up to 40 hours a week. In a child care market with a shortage of available infant care, the stakes are high when it comes to ensuring that child care programs in Vermont are not only affordable and accessible, but also quality.

But what does “quality” mean when it comes to child care? While the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) identifies ten core standards of quality, they can be condensed into three main considerations:

  1. Quality programs provide a strong and responsive environment of relationships. It is literally the intentional “serve and return" nature of those relationships that builds healthy brain architecture. The important elements in an environment of relationships are:
         a. lower adult/child ratios
         b. training and education of the provider in child development
         c. consistent caregivers
  2. Quality programs buffer stressors in early childhood, including “toxic stress.” When children are confronted with extreme stressors like chronic neglect or abuse, without supportive relationships to help calm them, their stress response remains activated for a long time and toxic stress results. This can impair the development of brain connections, especially in the areas dedicated to more complex skills.
  3. Quality programs apply rigorous program evaluation based on research and science. They pay attention to what scientists call “effectiveness factors”—the “inputs” that often make the difference between programs that work and those that don’t work to support children’s healthy development.

My new friend from the barbecue asked how she could identify a quality program. The short answer is that there are National Accreditation and State-level quality rating systems that parents can look to as they select their child care program. NAEYC Accreditation for licensed child care centers and NAFCC Accreditation for registered child care homes are both reliable and valid systems that indicate a high-quality program for young children. In addition, Vermont has implemented a quality-rating system for its child care, preschool and afterschool programs called the STep Ahead Recognition System, or STARS. Programs that participate in STARS are going above and beyond state regulations to provide professional services that meet the needs of children and families. STARS can be a bridge to accreditation for providers as they take the opportunity to look at their programs objectively and use child care quality indicators to identify strengths and areas for improvement. Providers may apply for STARS recognition in five areas, and the higher number of stars a provider receives (1-5) the more criteria within each area that provider meets:

  • Compliance with state regulations;
  • Staff qualifications and training;
  • Interaction with and overall support of children, families, and communities;
  • How thoroughly providers assess what they do and plan for improvements; and
  • The strength of the program’s operating policies and business practices.

About a week after the barbecue, I received an email from the soon-to-be-mom. She had reviewed the providers she was on a wait list for, and only one of them was participating in STARS, and none of them were nationally accredited. Across the state, only half of licensed providers and only one-third of registered providers participate in the systems that indicate quality. While some who do not participate may in fact be running a quality program, many others face systemic challenges which limit their ability to provide quality child care. These include: low pay for the workforce, resulting in high staff turnover; insufficient training and education of the early childhood workforce; and inadequate facilities, due to a lack of funding for upgrades.

For Vermont to prosper in the future, all of our children must have the early experiences that support healthy intellectual, social and emotional development. We’re all in this together, and we must invest in what works.

Parent Perspectives:

My child's first child care was an in-home provider and I just knew when I walked into the space that it was the right place. My favorites elements were a cozy corner with a book shelf and a stage with scarfs tied above it hanging down. The teacher had wonderful energy and was so animated when she told me that they kids were into restaurants at the moment and that she was helping to facilitate their dramatic play and finding books about restaurants. It was intensely child directed in a way that I found really fun and important. 

I chose to seek child care outside of the home, and chose an enrichment center. We appreciated the light enrichment and education aspects which accompanied fun and play. Contact and interaction with other children was also important to us, as it relates to diversity and forming social skills. From a peace of mind aspect, I also like them being in the hands of a staff'of individuals, where there are more opportunities for "checks and balances" and oversight.

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