Early Childhood Education

Child Care

 

Child care is a broad term that encompasses services that protect the health, safety, and well-being of children who require custodial care by adults other than their own parents for a temporary period of time. Child care can provide a number of important services, including the provision of nurturance and learning opportunities for children, support for employed parents, respite care in child welfare cases, access to supplemental services (e.g., vision and hearing screening, developmental testing, feeding programs), and parent support and literacy programs (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000; National Research Council, 2001).

The most common understanding of child care is one of community-based child care in which a child development program is provided for infants or children, away from home, for less than twenty-four hours per day for each infant or child. Child care is typically a full-working day service that provides supervision, nurturance, and learning opportunities to children of job-holding parents, or parents who attend school or job training. Child care is delivered in the private nonprofit, private for-profit, and public sectors in programs known as child-care centers, child development centers, family child-care homes, or infant care centers. The prevailing definition of child-care does not include public or private elementary or secondary schools engaged in legally required educational and related functions. For children with extremely unstable family circumstances, states have developed institutional child-care services that provide a safe and nurturing environment for children in residential facilities, day treatment centers, and child placement agencies.

While child care is increasingly seen as an important component of a broader system of early care and education that includes half-day prekindergarten, part-day Head Start, and half-day kindergarten, there are important distinctions between current U.S. interpretations of child care and these “early education” programs. In particular, child care is explicitly intended to support working parents and, therefore, is offered for extended hours during the day. Even though the term “day care” is frequently used interchangeably with “child care,” it is an inadequate synonym. Day care is increasingly regarded as an inappropriate term not only because child-care services are often provided during evening hours and overnight to meet the needs of parents who work nontraditional and shifting hours, but also because children are cared for, not days.

 

Child Care Delivery

During the 1990s, federal child-care assistance programs began to focus on parents as consumers. As a result, an increasing amount of child-care subsidy funding is now provided in the form of vouchers that parents may use to secure child care in a range of legal settings. Administering programs in this manner allows parents increased choice.

Child-care providers can be broadly classified as being relatives or nonrelatives of children. Relatives include mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives such as aunts, uncles, and cousins. Relative care is often referred to as kith and kin care. Nonrelatives include in-home babysitters, neighbors, friends, and other nonrelatives providing care either in the child’s or the provider’s home, in addition to family child-care providers who are nonrelatives who care for one or more unrelated children in the provider’s home. An organized child-care facility is a child-care center, nursery school, or preschool. Child-care facilities can be public, private, religious, secular, home-based, or center-based.

 

Quality of Child Care

In general, both parents and researchers agree that there are three broad categories of variables they want to see in a high-quality child-care program: (1) a sensitive and nurturing child-provider relationship; (2) manageable and monitored structural features of care (e.g., child to staff ratios, group size); and (3) supportive financing, regulatory, and staff development contexts (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000). Research has shown that these interrelated areas have a significant impact on the outcomes for young children in child care. In general, young children whose caregivers are attentive, supportive, provide ample verbal and cognitive stimulation, and who are sensitive and responsive are more developmentally advanced than children who do not have caregivers with these attributes (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2005).

Child care as a profession, though, is unstable. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, turnover rates among them (including those who move from one child-care program to another as well as those who leave the field altogether) range from 25 to 40 percent annually across the nation, among the highest of any profession. Exacerbating this are the low wages and minimal employment benefits offered to child-care workers (see, e.g., Center for the Child Care Workforce, 2004).

Child care is administered at both the federal and state levels primarily through departments of human or social services. States set minimum requirements for child-care programs to protect children from injury, unsafe buildings and equipment, fire, and infectious disease. All states regulate child-care centers and some family child-care homes through a licensing or registration procedure, although some centers and many homes are exempt from regulation. Exemptions vary based on what a state decides to regulate. For example, some states do not regulate part-day programs or programs associated with religious organizations. There is, however, general agreement in most states that they do not license the following situations as family child care:

• parents caring for their own children;

• relatives caring for only related children;

• foster parents caring only for foster children;

• care provided only while parents are on the premises; and

• care that is not regularly scheduled or is offered for only a few hours a week. (Morgan et al., 2001)

Beyond basic health and safety requirements, child-care rules and regulations also define a baseline of minimum quality that varies from state to state. The primary structural aspects of child care that are regulated by states’ licensing rules are child to staff ratios, maximum group sizes, and staff qualifications and ongoing training.

With both changes to the welfare system and changing patterns of workforce participation of women, there has been a growing demand for child care and an increased recognition of the need for more funding for child-care services. Taking account of the entire child-care industry, families pay approximately 60 percent of total estimated annual expenditures for child care in the United States. Government (federal, state, and local) pays most of the balance (39%) through directly subsidizing all or part of child-care tuition fees or through tax credits. The private business and philanthropic sectors contribute less than 1 percent.

Many families are limited in what they can afford to pay, although they often spend a significant portion of their income on child care. According to Census Bureau figures, low-income families spend approximately 18 percent of their income on child care, compared with nonpoor families who spend 7 percent. Child-care affordability is a serious consideration for both parents and policymakers.

 

Child-care Policy History

On the basis of the values of industry, independence, religious freedom and toleration, and the belief that the family has primary responsibility for nurturing and educating children, social services in the United States were primarily designed to serve as institutions of last resort when personal and family supports failed. Child care is no different; its history is one of social welfare and services to the poor. While the dominant form of care and education for young children has traditionally been care by parents, out-of home care was first established in the early nineteenth century with the establishment of charitable infant and nursery schools to serve children of the indigent, providing what their parents could not or did not. Child care received heightened federal attention and funding during national times of crisis such as the Great Depression when large numbers of American families faced poverty, and World War II when increasing numbers of mothers were required to enter the workforce (Michel, 1996).

During the 1960s, child care became linked to welfare reform when Congress decided to help welfare mothers into the workforce by supporting targeted child care through block grants to states. A coalition of feminists, labor, and children’s professionals supported an effort to federally legislate universal child-care provisions in 1971 with the Comprehensive Child Development Act. President Nixon vetoed the Act and, today, the United States remains as one of the few advanced industrial societies that lacks a comprehensive government-supported system of child care (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2001).

Within the context of welfare reform, the federal Family Support Act of 1988 required welfare recipients to work or participate in federally funded job training programs and states were to guarantee child-care services. Fewer than half of the states ultimately complied and advocates seized the opportunity to reopen a national debate about child care. As a result, in 1990, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) was signed into federal law, providing funding to states to provide child-care services primarily to low-income families. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 blended CCDBG with other funding streams, creating the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). CCDF is the major source of federal funding available to states, territories, and tribes to assist low-income families, families receiving temporary public assistance, and those transitioning from public assistance in obtaining child care so they can work or attend training/education.

 

Child Care Today

While the policy history of child care is dominated by a social welfare perspective, demographic changes in American family life since the 1950s have made child care an important issue for more than just low-income families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2004, nearly 62 percent of mothers with children under the age of six and 53 percent of mothers of children younger than a year old were in the labor force. Whether these mothers need to work—because they are heads of households or single parents—or whether these mothers want to work, they are in the workforce and they often require child care. Child care has become an important issue for families of all economic levels and social sectors of the United States.

Furthermore, child care is no longer viewed simply as a support for working families, but increasingly as a means to provide children with early learning opportunities. In any high-quality early learning setting (e.g., child care, prekindergarten, Head Start), care and education are delivered hand-in-hand, meeting the developmental and experiential needs of young children. Child care is one means not only for providing children with a safe environment, but also for nurturing children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. See also Child Care Subsidies and Tax Provisions; Preschool/Prekindergartern Programs.

Further Readings: Center for the Child Care Workforce (2004). Current data on the salaries and benefits of the U.S. early childhood education workforce. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation; Michel, Sonya (1996). Children's interests/mothers' rights: The shaping of American child care policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Morgan, Gwen, Kim Elliott, Christine Beaudette, and Sheri Azer (2001). Non-licensed forms of child care in homes: Issues and recommendations for state support. National Child Care Information Center. Available online athttp://www.nccic.org/pubs/nonlic-wheelock.html; National Research Council (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. B. T. Bowman, M. S. Donovan, and M. S. Burns, eds. Commission on behavioral and social sciences and education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science ofearly childhood development. In J. P. Shonkoff and D. A. Phillips, eds. Committee on integrating the science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, eds. (2005). Child care and child development: Results from the NICHD study of early child care and youth development. New York: Guilford; Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (2001). Starting strong: Early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD.

Kristie Kauerz