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Ensuring Quality Early Childhood Care

December 02, 2008 By Alli Williams, Policy Research Associate

Family members, education professionals, and community agencies all play a role in nurturing our children from infancy until they are ready to enter kindergarten. Parents have a wide range of options when choosing an early learning environment that best meets their family's needs. With these choices, however, comes the challenge of regulating a wide range of providers in order to ensure that all Minnesota's children receive high quality care during developmentally critical early years.

The majority of Minnesotans turn to family and friends to provide care for children under 12 years old, according to a Wilder Research study published in 2005.  The next most common type of care is child care centers, followed by home based day care.  Within home day care there are two types of licensed providers: family day care is defined as serving no more than 10 children at a time, while a group family day care serves no more than 14 children at a time.

Center and home based child care providers are regulated by two separate frameworks.  Known as Minnesota Rules 2 and 3, they outline requirements for home and center based facilities, respectively.  The rules are formulated to address the each environment.  Differences in equipment guidelines, space regulations and administration are to be expected for programs ranging in size.

Rule 3 outlines minimum levels of education and experience for different categories of center based caregivers.  Teachers face the most stringent requirements, as they are the lead staffers for each age group.  A detailed matrix matches a potential teacher's education level with his/her experience and relevant higher education course credits.  Individuals without an advanced degree in early childhood or elementary education must document 4,160 hours as an assistant teacher as well as 24 applicable quarter credits.

In contrast, family day care providers face no education or experience requirements under Rule 2.  The only conditions necessary for licensure as a family provider are that the individual be an adult and in sound health.  Group family day care providers do face additional qualification standards, but none as strict as those applied to centers.  An individual can become a group day care provider after completing one year of compliance as a family day care provider.  One can also qualify according to education and experience, but requirements in these categories are significantly lower than for teachers and assistant teachers in center facilities. 

Betsy Pysick worked as a child care center teacher before starting her own group family day care.  She identified training as the most significant difference between the two models.  Besides initial education requirements, Pysick noted that the ongoing training required by center and in home providers varied dramatically.  While at the center, she was required to have 40 hours of in-service training each year, while as an in-home provider she was required fewer than 10 hours. 

"It becomes harder to implement a quality curriculum when you don't have the creative and energizing training opportunities," said Pysick. "The information is out there, but without the requirement it's hard to get busy people to connect to the resources."

According to the Hennepin County Social Services website, home providers must have eight hours of training per year.  This training can include business and food service training.  That means just two of the eight hours must be focused on child development topics.  Center based teachers are required to dedicate a certain percentage of their working hours to training and in-service.  A full time teacher with a bachelors or masters degree in early childhood education must spend 1%, or nearly 21 hours completing in-service training.  This training can include first aid and CPR training which can total 12 hours or more per year.

Another key difference between home and center based programs is the teacher-child ratio and the related age distribution.  Family and group family providers may care for children of varied ages in a single setting.  For example, a family day care provider licensed for 10 children can have a mixture of school agers, preschoolers, toddlers and infants.  The state puts restrictions on the number of infants and toddlers in such settings, because they require the most adult attention.

The advantage of mixed age groups can be both educational and economic.  Many parents and providers appreciate the opportunity for children to engage across age groups.  Supporters say this family model allows children to develop mentor relationships and learn to interact on multiple levels.  Advocates also argue that younger children benefit by exposure to advanced activities for older children.  For providers, the ability to accept children of varied ages makes financial sense, allowing them to take in more children at a time and serve entire families without adding staff.

Centers face an entirely different set of ratio regulations.  First, centers may never have more than a 36 month age range between children in one classroom.  If combining children of different age groups, centers must staff according to the ratios for the youngest child.  Staff to child ratios grow from 1:4 at the infant level to 1:7 with toddlers and 1:10 with preschoolers.  Therefore, if toddlers and preschoolers are combined, the center must have a 1:7 staff to child ratio, which is the toddler requirement, rather than a 1:10 preschool teacher to staff ratio.  Infants can only be combined with other age groups in child care centers during drop off and pick up times.

Proponents of the stricter age range requirements argue that it allows teachers to customize programming at each developmental stage.  The Minnesota Department of Education outlines developmentally appropriate indicators for children from birth to age five.  By separating children according to age group, teachers argue that they can focus their efforts on the social, emotional and cognitive needs of each particular group.  

Early education professionals acknowledge that many factors contribute to the quality of children's early learning experience.  Diverse care givers provide a wide array of resources to help children grow and learn.  Yet in assessing the factors that have a greatest impact on program success, researchers and educators continually return to training and group size as key indicators of quality.  Policy makers must be willing to apply this knowledge of program quality to improving our regulatory framework.  

Family and group home day care centers offer the intimate setting many parents desire.  By increasing requirements for training and education, home care providers across the state could more confidently address the growing concern over school readiness.  Any increase in care giver requirements must be accompanied by increased access to high quality staff training and ongoing professional development for home based providers.  Creating better mechanisms for training and regulating Minnesota's wide variety of child care professionals will help prepare all our children to be ready to learn.

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