Announcer: Welcome to the First Things First podcast, with information and insight for parents of young children about child development, early learning, and health. First Things First partners with families and communities across Arizona to support the healthy development of young children from birth to age five. Learn more at FirstThingsFirst.org.
Chad: Well, hi. My name’s Chad, and I am a proud and exhausted father of three children, me and my wife – I should always include her, of course. She’s a big part of this. I’ve got a two year old daughter and a pair of ten month old twins. And today, I’m excited to be here with First Things First senior director of early learning Ginger Sandweg to discuss the importance of quality childcare for children age birth to five. And Ginger has been working in early childcare, early care and education, for over 20 years –
from a preschool teacher to a childcare center director, and most recently as a college instructor, teaching an early childhood administration class at Phoenix Community College. Perhaps more importantly, she’s been working with First Things First on their Quality First initiative since 2010. And with that, I want to thank you for joining us today, Ginger.
Ginger Sandweg: Yeah. Thanks, Chad. I’m glad to be here.
Chad: Great. So as I said, I’m a relatively new father, and trying to figure things out, and I had some questions. Someone like me, or me and my wife, what should we be looking for in a quality child care setting?
Ginger Sandweg: So there’s a lot of important things to look for in a quality childcare setting, and we know that’s important. Quality is important for children to learn and grow.
There’s a couple of things that I think are most important to look for, and one is the interactions between the adults in the program and the children.
We know that when adults are sitting in close proximity to children, when they’re at their level, when they’re interacting with children, that children have a better sense of safety and security and better able to feel trust in the environment with those adults. So that’s an important thing to look for. Are the teachers really close and engaged with the children?
And secondly, in terms of interactions between adults and children, are those adults interacting in ways where children can respond and participate in a conversation? Not things like what color is your shirt, or what – where – do you see a block? Point to a block. But more things like, hey, tell me, have you ever felt like the character in the book that we just read? Or tell me what happened last night. So that children really have an opportunity to have some long conversations with their caregivers.
And then another important thing to look for in quality is really the environment. Do children have large blocks of time to get involved in the activities that the teachers have set up for them?
A lot of parents will go in and say, well, it looks like they’re just playing all day. That doesn’t look like they’re being educated. Well, that’s how children learn, when they have an opportunity to be engaged in the materials and have conversations about what they’re doing with the caregivers.
Chad: So it’s more of applying more critical thinking and reasoning with them, rather than just answering a multiple choice question, in other words?
Ginger Sandweg: That is exactly right. We do want that critical thinking engagement.
Chad: Is there a licensing process, or are there some sort of inspections that these places have to go through?
Ginger Sandweg: So the State of Arizona does have licensing standards for programs that serve young children, birth to age five. And those licensing standards are written by the Department of Health Services in Arizona, and they’re standards that give programs requirements that they need to adhere to, to provide some basic health and safety standards. So things like staff qualifications, things like teacher training, those kinds of things are what are required in the licensing regulations.
And every year, a child care program is required to have a licensing visit. So a surveyor from the state comes out, goes into the program, walks through the program, looks through all of the standards to make sure that a program is adhering to standards. And then they post their findings on the Department of Health Services’ website. So there’s a specific Bureau of Childcare Licensure website where a parent can go to and they can look for all of the licensing visits and the reports from those licensing visits to see what kinds of things that the licensing surveyor found at that site.
There’s also on that website an opportunity for a parent to make any complaints or reports about a specific site, too. So licensing does look at those basic health and safety standards for all child care programs across Arizona.
Chad: What about the folks that are going to be working in these centers?
Do they have any sort of specific training that would be applicable to children this young, at this age?
Ginger Sandweg: Yeah. So most importantly, all staff who work at child care facilities should have a valid fingerprint clearance card. So this card really ensures that the adults who are working with those children don’t have a criminal past that would prohibit them from working with young children.
Programs are required to have at least one staff person at all times on the premises that is CPR and first aid trained, so that there is somebody who can take are of an emergency, should one arise. Tuberculosis testing is required for all teachers who work with young children, to make sure that the staff are free of this communicable disease. And then staff are also required to have some specific pre-service training. So within the first ten days of them being hired on at a child care program, they have to have training about the health and safety standards, like meal preparation and service, like how do we help children use the toilet here?
And what are our diapering procedures? What are our hand washing procedures? What are our emergency procedures? They also have to have training about mandated reporting, because childcare providers are required by law to report if they suspect any instance of child abuse.
They also within those first ten days of pre-service have to have some classroom management training, such as how do I write a lesson plan, what’s our behavior guidance policies in this program, and information about the specific children that they’re going to be caring for in their classroom.
And then lastly, staff are required by licensing to have at least 18 hours of in service or ongoing training throughout the year. So every year, they have to have those 18 hours of training.
Chad: Is there a minimum teacher to child ratio, or a maximum, or is there any sort of standard that’s set either by the organization or by law or what have you?
Ginger Sandweg: There are.
My rule of thumb is when looking at teacher/child ratios, while we do have some minimum requirements, and I’ll get to those, one of the things that’s really important for parents to really look for is can the teachers meet the individual needs of the children? And if you can see that children are getting some individual attention, that children aren’t waiting around for getting their teacher’s attention, that that’s an important thing to see, that children are able to be attended to or have their individual needs met.
Here in Arizona, we have specific licensing standards that are the bare minimum. So they range from one adult to five for infants, so you can be one adult in a classroom with five infants. Those are our state licensing standards. All the way up to 20 children for one adult for 5 year olds. So these are pre-kindergarten, before they go to kindergarten at 5, 1 to 20.
There are some best practice standards out there, though. There’s a publication called Caring for Our Children, and it’s a national publication that looks at best practices in health and safety standards. And they’re really looking at a range of one to three for infants, so you can see that’s way lower than what we require here in Arizona. And then one to eight for five year olds. So that’s significantly lower than the 20 here in our licensing standards.
Chad: So in looking at different child care centers, and being a novice, a question I know that me and my wife have had when choosing a childcare center, besides the obvious things like geography and cost, how do we know which setting or which center is right for us and for our kids? How do we determine that?
Ginger Sandweg: Yes. One of the things that is on the First Things First Quality First website is a quality checklist for families. So it’s something that you can download and print off and take with you to really look at the different childcare programs that you’re interested in.
I think it’s really important for families to go and actually visit the site. If you can bring your child on that visit, I think that’s even better, because sometimes children will show signs even at young ages that they are interested in that environment. They might start pointing to things, if they’re young, infants and toddlers, like showing their parents, look at that, look at that, as they’re touring a center, or some older children, you know, threes, fours, and fives, might also be able to tell you after the visit what they liked about the program, what they didn’t like about the program.
But the checklist really gives you some specific things to look for, like the things we’ve talked about, the ratios, asking about the staff qualifications, who’s going to be working with my child, what kinds of behavior policies do you have? And then it gives you some specific things to look for in terms of are there different materials in the environment that I should be looking for. So this checklist is a really helpful checklist for families to be able to use and look.
Chad: What kind of information, and will these child care providers want that information about our kids, or how – you know, how do they get to know our kids or learn more about them?
Ginger Sandweg: Right. Well, programs are required through the licensing requirements to have some specific emergency information about the children in their care. So they’re required to get immunization information, additional contact information, so if something were to happen at the program, and they weren’t able to get a hold of the family, they have another phone call or another person to contact. So all of that, medical history, those kinds of things are required for the program to ask.
What we would hope, and in quality programs, they’re going to ask you about other things. They’re going to ask you about – tell us about your guidance styles at home. What kinds of things work for your children? What do you know that your child is interested in?
What are some things that we might be able to do? What are some things that you would like your child to work on while they’re here in our program? What would you like to see them do by the end of the year or the end of a couple of months? So they’ll be asking those kinds of questions at a quality program to really get to know your child, so that when they join the classroom, they’ll be able to meet their needs.
And not only just at the beginning of enrolling your child into a program, but this should be an ongoing dialogue between families and child care providers. So every day, there should be some exchange of information. What happened at home that the child care provider might need to know about my child, and then what happened at school that the family might want to know that’s interesting about what their child learned or did today, or the friends that they played with? That dialogue is really important to continue throughout the time the child’s in the program.
Chad: Yeah, that would make a lot of sense, even as young as our kids are. I’ve seen them change so much in such a short amount of time, and it seems like every day there’s some new thing there, which is fascinating to me.
So what types of things take place in these child care centers that better prepare them for getting into the real world, if you will, of kindergarten?
Ginger Sandweg: Right. Right. So remember when I talked about it looks like play? What you will see in a classroom, though, when children are playing, you will see specific interest areas, so an art area, a book area, an area for housekeeping or – they call it dramatic play, an area for music and movement, an area with blocks, an area for children to do messy activities. You’ll see a variety of different activities available for children.
And one of the things that is important about that kind of a setup is that children have the opportunity to choose where they want to go, to choose the activities they want to do, and that really helps children become prepared for what we know the rigor of kindergarten, when they can make choices, when –
they can get engaged in an activity and follow through with making something or doing something that they had planned. That’s really important.
So also early care and education programs, because of this whole play-based setting, really give children an opportunity to practice self-regulation or being able to control their impulses, so that when they get to kindergarten, they’re not sitting and poking their neighbor all day or disrupting the classroom, but they do have the opportunity to practice that self-regulation and controlling their impulses in this early childhood program.
Chad: Going forward, after they’ve been there for some time, do most of these centers have like a scheduled parent/teacher sort of summit, meeting, to talk about progress or problems? Or is just sort of on a day to day basis? Or is there some sort of structure there?
Ginger Sandweg: Quality programs will have a formal time set aside to schedule with parents to talk about the children’s’ progress over time.
One of the things that I think is important about early care and education programs is that they are looking for children’s progress over time. They’re doing this on a daily basis. They look and observe the children, and then that informs their curriculum. So if they notice children are struggling in a particular area, like fine motor, where they can’t hold a pencil yet or control that pencil yet, they set up opportunities for a child to do Play-Doh. And so they can squish Play-Doh through their fingers and really build up the muscles in their fingers to be able to later hold a pencil.
So teachers are looking and observing what children are doing. They’re writing those things down. They’re documenting those things. And then they’re putting that into their lesson plan, so that they can support children. And then they have those conferences with families to say, here’s what I’ve observed about your child in all of the areas of development.
So not just what do they know, the cognitive pieces, but how are they doing in self-regulation? What are they doing in language and literacy? How are they developing in their social/emotional skills and their interactions with their peers? How are they developing physically, with not just fine motor skills, but large motor, jumping and running, and those kinds of things?
So they are documenting all of that over the course of time, and typically have times scheduled with families to go over that, usually about twice a year, is what a quality program schedules time with families.
Chad: So is the idea then that this information shared with the parents, so that the parent would hopefully continue down that path? If the child had a problem with motor skills, or with drawing, or those things, that they could – that parents could focus on that when they were at home with the kids, and sort of take that homework home, if you will?
Ginger Sandweg: Right. Absolutely. That’s definitely one thing that families and childcare providers can talk about, is how do I support my child at home through these parent/teacher conferences.
But also, I think child care providers get to learn from families about here’s what I’ve observed them doing at home. So it’s not just about me as the teacher saying this is what I can see the child is able to do, but the family is able to say here’s some progress I’ve seen over time that the teacher might not have seen in the classroom, because there’s 20 other children in the classroom.
Ginger Sandweg: So it’s a really good opportunity for families and teachers to connect, and for families to, again, reiterate that point of here’s the things that I’d like to see my child be able to do, and how do we progress through that together?
Chad: Yeah, and I’ve heard over and over in our conversation here about quality child care centers. To differentiate between those two, is that – someone would go to your website? Is there a list there that is sort of like the endorsed child care centers from First Things First that would be sort of a guide for parents?
Ginger Sandweg: Right.
So we do have a quality improvement and rating system here in Arizona that First Things First administers. What that means is that we go into child care programs and look for specific quality standards that we have set. We assess them on those standards, and then we calculate a rating, much like the school districts do with their A, B, C, D, F ratings. We do that for childcare programs.
Now it’s important to note that this is a voluntary program, and there’s a limited number of enrollment. At this point, we have about a little less than 50 percent of child care programs participating in Quality First. So if you go to our website, you will be able to see a listing of all the programs that are participating in Quality First, and if they have a rating, you’ll be able to see that rating.
Chad: Well, terrific. Again, thank you to Ginger from First Things First.
Ginger Sandweg: Sure.
Chad: I’ve learned a lot. I hope our listeners have. Thank you for listening.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to the First Things First podcast. For more information, tips, and resources to help you support the healthy development of your baby, toddler, or preschooler, visit us online at FirstThingsFirst.org.
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