Contrary to what was once standard belief, infancy is the start of learning — not kindergarten. High quality child care for children ages birth to three years old makes a major difference in a child’s future outcomes
For child care practitioners, that’s no small task to undertake. Especially in an area of education as ever-evolving as early learning.
So it’s vital to ask: What are the indicators of high quality child care as we move into 2023?
When building and growing your early learning organization or child care center, there are many considerations to take into account.
Some baseline fundamentals of child care will always be unchanging, like a hygienic and safe classroom. But in 2023, new fundamentals — such as teacher-child interactions and family engagement — are key characteristics of high quality child care.
In this article, we’ll cover the ways to acknowledge, understand, define and identify quality child care in today’s early childhood landscape.
To really understand the components of a high quality child care program, it’s important to first acknowledge the challenges involved in both finding and providing it.
After all, if quality child care were straightforward, easy, and accessible, it wouldn’t be such a pervasive topic with modern parents and practitioners. Here are two of the key issues parents and the child care community are facing.
Parents are spending at least $8,000 per year, per child on child care. It’s a hefty price tag, and one that too often results in one parent opting to stay home rather than sacrifice the majority of their paycheck to child care.
If they are fortunate enough to afford a high quality child care, the organization parents choose must value both their children and their money.
A child care desert is an area where the demand for licensed child care centers cannot keep up with the amount of children requiring care. Often these child care deserts are located in middle-income areas, rural areas, and areas with a large Latinx population.
It can mean that parents and guardians may need to look far and wide to find any child care options, let alone high quality choices.
When they finally manage to find a school or center, it’s vital their kids receive high quality care.
The first three years of a child’s life are critical in their development.
During this time, children make attachments to others within and beyond their immediate family. They are learning how to trust and express their needs. Attentive caregivers form a crucial foundation for later social, emotional, and cognitive development.
Babies are born with all the brain cells they’ll have for their entire life. Through play, environments, language, and people, those neurons become activated.
This applies to language as well. Children acquire language through direct exposure to speech, learning as newborns that a cry can communicate their needs and acclimating to the sound of their caregiver’s voice.
Quality child care is also critical for Black and Hispanic students from marginalized communities. Effective early childhood education closes the documented achievement gap and paves the way for greater access to resources.
The first three years of a child’s life shapes the way they move through the world for the rest of their life.
If that doesn’t reflect why quality child care is vital to our society, we don’t know what will.
How can you find high quality child care if you don’t know what it is?
In the world of early education, “high quality” can be a designated label acquired through a measurement system. But it’s a bit complicated.
In the US, there is no single rubric for defining high quality child care, and the results aren’t always indicative of student experience.
For example, the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) is a widely-used evaluation method in the US. With QRIS, a child care center can volunteer to be evaluated. The system assigns a child care or early education center a label on a scale of 1 (meeting minimum standards) to 5 (a top provider) based on various categories.
However, these systems are not flawless. Research shows that higher ratings don’t always equal better student outcomes.
With that in mind, there are some core fundamentals that exemplify high quality child care. Being able to identify these qualities can help you define and provide high quality child care no matter how things shift and change at the industry level.
The right early childhood teacher makes a world of difference between a quality child care experience and a negative one.
A high quality teacher is warm, has a passion for learning, and is creative and imaginative. These qualities reveal themselves when they engage with children and form attachments.
Of course, teachers in child care settings must also be qualified. A degree in early childhood education means a teacher has been trained in curriculum and instruction, child psychology and development, and effective teaching methods. They will have studied theoretically and practically to earn their degree and enter the classroom.
However, teachers without a four-year degree should not be counted out (especially when the cost of a bachelor’s degree can be extremely prohibitive). Keep in mind that in-class experience and continued training can supplement and enhance a teacher’s practice with students.
High quality child care center teachers will also be representative of the students. When children have caregivers who are representative of themselves and their families, they are able to form meaningful attachments to role models as they develop.
Both the physical environment and learning atmosphere of a child care center can make or break the child care experience.
Start with some basic necessities that must be present in a child care environment:
When the basic necessities are met, consider the next tiers of an impactful child care center:
Low child to teacher ratios are great indicators of quality. When teachers are able to focus on a smaller group of children, this leads to more individualized attention for students.
A developmentally appropriate classroom setup and curriculum also has a major impact on the child care center experience. Is the space structured to allow for safe and engaging play? Does the curriculum foster curiosity, exploration, and positive interactions among students?
Concepts like social emotional learning (SEL) are prevalent right now for a reason. SEL leads to more motivated, happier, and higher-performing students. When the learning atmosphere is one that encapsulates cognitive, social, and emotional growth opportunities, you’ll know children are experiencing high quality child care.
At the end of the day, a child care center is a business, so business management skills are a must.
Leadership heavily influences the quality of a child care center because it shapes the overall experience for everyone involved.
When a child care center has clear compensation plans for teachers, it shows that it values the work teachers do and demonstrates a commitment to retaining staff members. And of course, low staff turnover equals consistent care for young children.
Likewise, child care centers that provide professional development opportunities are investing in the futures of their teachers and their students. These centers care about keeping their practices relevant and in tune with the needs of modern families.
Finally, leaders of high quality child care centers are often early childhood advocates in their organizations and communities. They have a strong and clear vision for their child care center and know how to keep the vision at the core of what they do.
Efficient processes are a must in high quality child care. Remember, a child care center is a business. What can you do to make it the best it can be from an operational standpoint?
In recent years, center administrators have come to realize just how crucial parent involvement is. Whether it’s regular emails and updates or secure messaging via your child care management system, it’s important for providers to keep parents informed and updated on what’s happening inside the classroom.
But streamlined operations are a major benefit for your staff too. Today’s teachers are overwhelmed with responsibilities. A high quality child care center is one that actively works to reduce that burden by streamlining admin work, curriculum updates, calendars, and other important tasks so that teachers and staff can spend more time with the children in their care.
Ease of operations across your child care center (or centers) is a mark of high quality child care because it means that daily operational demands won’t get in the way of a child’s future outcomes.
Family engagement is incredibly important to a modern high quality child care center. Not only does it benefit the child’s experience, it enriches everyone’s involvement in the child’s development.
Family engagement may look different depending on your community. Here are some ideas to consider:
Once you know the real challenges, definition and core components of high quality child care today, you’ll be better equipped to offer it at your school or center.
Here’s a quick recap on everything we’ve covered:
Acknowledge the challenges families face regarding child care.
Understand why high quality, instead of just baseline, child care matters. Let these factors motivate you and your staff to nurture a high quality center.
Define what high quality means for your organization.
Identify the five essential characteristics of high quality child care that you need to create a better preschool, and make your plan to execute it.
Finally, remember that the power to change lives really is in your hands as a child care provider. When you offer high quality care, you impact the future of your students and the communities they become a part of.