Early educators working in schools, child care centers and family child care homes across the nation do the important work of facilitating learning and development of young children, yet they face persistently low wages and work environments which lack the benefits and supports afforded teachers of older children, as our work at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment has documented. Early educators are currently among the lowest-paid workers in the country, even though the work they do is crucial for children, families and businesses. As a result of their low pay and status, early educators face economic stress, and the early childhood field suffers from high turnover and difficulty retaining and recruiting the skilled, experienced workforce necessary to help children learn.
In its report to the Administration and Legislature, Vermont’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care emphasized the fact that high-quality child care is expensive for both parents and providers. In Vermont, too many families are living paycheck-to-paycheck while the average child care provider makes less than a livable wage.
These child care challenges are a problem statewide and, although what follows are just two perspectives—that of Tracy Patnoe, owner and director of Mud City Kids Child Care Center in Morrisville, VT; and Stephanie Tetreault, mother of two boys enrolled in Mud City Kids—they represent the stories of thousands upon thousands of Vermonters who struggle every day to ensure that all Vermont children have a strong start.
I opened my very own registered family child care program in February 2001 after discovering that my 2 ½ year old daughter had been receiving substandard care. Though this decision turned my life upside down, I haven't regretted it for one single second. In 15+ years, I have provided a safe and healthy learning environment not only for my own children, but also for nearly 100 of Vermont's children, giving families peace of mind as they head to work each day.
I have truly enjoyed watching the children grow and develop into confident, loving, young people. My biggest joy has been to see the wonder in their eyes as they master a new skill or task-to see everything come together and the pride they feel when they kick a ball, write their name and even tie their shoes. The milestones continually present themselves and their mastery is a gift.
Unfortunately, throughout my time in the child care field I have heard so many heartbreaking stories about the challenges families face every day. Parents are struggling to meet schedules, health needs and also the financial constraints of day-to-day life, including the insurmountable expense of quality child care. And then, regardless of funds, many families are unable to find child care from the limited number of programs available to them. This forces families to make tough decisions - decisions they never thought they would have to make. Sadly, Vermont's early childhood system does not meet or measure up to Vermont's workforce needs - leaving a significant deficit at the expense of our children.
One key to supporting the healthy development of children is to provide them with a safe and healthy environment in which to grow. Nutritious meals feed the brain the fuel necessary to learn while good health and safety practices help to prevent the toxic stress that can stunt a child’s development.
There are a number of ways a program can promote the health and safety of its children in order to strengthen brain development and build a solid foundation for future success in life.
At the heart of building strong, meaningful, trusting relationships with our children is the ability to effectively communicate, and for our youngest children not yet capable of the spoken word, sign language is a powerful way to deepen their relationship with their parents, grandparents and caregivers.
We use natural gestures daily to quickly convey a feeling or idea, such as nodding or shaking our heads to mean “yes” or “no.” Lots of us have silently wiped our forehead or pretended to use a fan during hot summer days. Many natural gestures are easily understood worldwide, helping people communicate when they do not speak the same language. Babies also use their own gestures before speaking, which their caregivers learn to interpret, and to respond to.
Sign language is a manual, nonverbal method of communication understood in many parts of the world. It uses specific hand motions, gestures and facial expressions and has a structure—called a grammar—that allows ideas to be expressed in more than one word. These motions—called signs—can be combined to form sentences and full conversations. There are many formal sign systems in the world but American Sign Language (ASL) is usually what is referred to when we talk about using signs with young children.
Two questions that parents frequently ask are:
- How do I know how my child is growing and developing?
- What can I do to support them?
Early care and education providers often have the same questions. When we’re looking at children’s development, a team approach is best, with the parents and provider working together. Assessment is one way to work together toward ensuring children’s skills are on track and their development is supported.
Assessment in the broadest sense is looking at children’s skills through a particular lens, but as parents and providers we need to think deeper about the purpose of the tool. Are we looking specifically at a child’s skills because we have developmental concerns or to have concrete information as we share information and design curriculum? Are we participating in universal developmental screening? Each of these questions requires a different lens.
As an early educator and a mother of an observant and curious 8-month-old, I know the first five years are the most crucial to a child’s healthy development. And as I prepare to send my child to child care this fall, I also know the critical role early childhood teachers play in helping to ensure all of Vermont’s children are given the chance to reach their full potential in life. Children who are given quality early experiences have healthier relationships with their classmates and friends and develop better language, math and social skills. Teachers help to foster these outcomes.
Young children need a curriculum that encourages all aspects of child development—social, emotional, physical, language and cognition—in a variety of ways. They need a curriculum that is appropriate for their age, challenges them to think in new ways, enables the mind to create meaning, sparks interest and encourages experimentation and exploration.