Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Not Your Mama's Child Care: What We Expect to See in Day Care, and What We Should Look For

Child care for infants and toddlers shouldn't look like school.

Large numbers of American infants and toddlers are cared for outside their homes while their parents work full- or part-time. The parents of those babies probably attended day care or preschool when they were three to five years of age, but of parents who are 30 years old or more, few of them of them were in group care when they were infants (although they may have had a nanny, a baby-sitter, or a grandparent present when their parents worked). Of the grandparents of today's day-care babies, some may have attended nursery school, perhaps for a half-day two or three times a week; most were cared for by their mothers or grandmothers until old enough to go to school. (Oddly enough, a slightly older group may have attended the day care centers set up under the Lanham Act during World War II, a project intended to free mothers for war work in factories and other jobs done by "Rosie the Riveter".)

Because the social changes resulting in group care for infants and toddlers have come so rapidly, parents and grandparents don't necessarily have a sense of what child care might or should look like. Parents may expect infant care to look like the preschool activities that are a vague memory from their own child lives. Grandparents may think in terms of their recollections of kindergarten and first grade. In both cases, the adults are likely to think of group activities-- "circle time", reading or being read to as a group, art projects where each child had a smock and some fingerpaints. If they saw a group of babies being presented with some group activity, the adults' initial reaction might be that this is a very reasonable approach. If they watched longer, though, they might well catch on to the fact that doing things in groups does not suit infants and toddlers, and the babies may express loudly the fact that they don't care for things that might be quite welcome to older children. They might also notice that although babies learn fast, trying to instruct them directly is pretty much a waste of time--- and, like the man who tried to teach the pig to sing, we see that direct instruction annoys these pupils.

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As J.Ronald Lally recently pointed out in the publication Zero to Three ("The science and psychology of infant-toddler care: How an understanding of early learning has transformed child care". November, 2009, pp. 47-53), developmental science research has clarified some of the differences between younger and older preschoolers and has made it possible to design child care programs that are specialized and appropriate for infants, for toddlers, and for older and younger preschoolers. This suggests that whatever parents and grandparents expect to see in child care, they should see different things for different age groups.

Let's look at some of the issues that are most important for infants and toddlers. Practices associated with these issues are what parents and grandparents ought to be looking for in child care, but they are not always obvious at a glance. You can recognize "circle time" when you see it, but some of the factors that are important for infant-toddler development won't be evident until you ask some questions.

1. Primary or "assigned" care: Infants and toddlers should not be cared for as a group by caregivers who simply respond to whichever child is nearest and neediest. Instead, each child should have a particular caregiver who is responsible for that child and a small number of others. Caregiving needs to involve repeated contacts with a specific person, with the goal of developing good relationships and communicative abilities.

2. Small groups: To do a good job of primary care, caregivers need to work with a small number of children. But it's not enough simply to have a good ratio of children to caregivers. Good infant care requires small groups who spend their time together and with their assigned caregiver. So, for example, three small rooms, each with one adult and 3 or 4 young children, will work much better than a large room containing three adults and 9-12 children. Large groups are noisy, distracting for both adults and children, and possibly even unsafe for activities like crawling on the floor.

3. Continuity of care: Frequent changes of teachers are acceptable if not ideal for school-age children. For infants and toddlers, however, it is important to have ongoing care from a primary adult. In addition to day-to-day continuity, it is best if a caregiver stays with a small group of children as they go through the infant and toddler period up to age 3 years. This arrangement is still unusual in U.S. child care settings, which have "traditionally" considered adults as "infant teachers","toddler teachers", "2-year-old teachers",or "3-year-old teachers", just as we might expect an elementary-school teacher to specialize in 4th rather than 8th grade. (And, in my experience, many child care providers dislike the idea of staying with a small group, considering themselves to be experts on a particular small age range.)

4. Cultural continuity: Americans have historically thought of schools as part of the "melting pot" and as having responsibility for removing some cultural differences between children. If parents and grandparents think of infant-toddler care as "school", they may also want to minimize cultural differences. However, the special needs for continuity of infants and toddlers include continuity between home and child care languages, values, foods, manners, and customs. The need for cultural continuity does not mean that every child care center should be focused on a single cultural group, but instead that child care providers and administrators should think of cultural continuity as worth cultivating, as one of the unique characteristics of the individual child that need to be recognized and fostered.
So, you see, a child care center that includes primary care, continuity, and so on, won't look like the nursery school or kindergarten that adults may remember from their own childhoods. And adults may have to work hard to find out whether an infant care setting does have these characteristics.

Is it likely to be easy for parents and grandparents to find child care that includes all these desirable factors? No, probably not-- nor, fortunately, is a baby's development utterly compromised if everything isn't perfect. The child care field is in the process of changing in these directions, though, and encouragement by knowledgeable parents can help move this along.

Tomorrow I'll describe some other factors to look for when considering infant-toddler group care.









Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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