Daycare Woes

The last time my friend Kate complained about all of the substandard daycares she visits in her role as a developmental interventionist in our state’s early intervention program, I asked her to put fingers to the keyboard and record some of her observations and unfortunately, complaints. What you’ll read below is a contrast between theory, or how early childhood education should look, and reality, how she very often finds many daycare centers to be. While we are both sympathetic to the plight of working mothers since we both are and have been working mothers ourselves for a long time (Her children are even older than mine!), we are both routinely shocked at how little some parents seem to know (or care) about the place they choose to entrust with the physical, social, and educational well-being of their children. If you spent more time planning your vacation last year or shopping for clothes online than you did?researching your childcare options, beware! You need to read (and heed!) the advice in this article! Laura

Daycare Woes

by Kate Hensler, DI, RN, M.Ed.

My work as a “Developmental Interventionist” allows me the opportunity to visit a variety of daycares. If a child I see for therapy regularly attends a daycare, then I regularly attend that daycare (like it or not)! I have my masters in Early Childhood Education and work with young children (0-3) who have developmental delays. My personal definition of a “DI” is someone who works on cognitive, communication, and social skills with individual children. These critical areas of development have been my primary focus both as a therapist and as a returning student pursuing a related master’s degree. What follows is a collection of observations, thoughts, and conclusions about daycares. Finally a soap box on which to vent that may actually help one of the many little forgotten ones.

As a graduate student, I dutifully studied the various highly regarded approaches to early childhood education. From Maria Montessori to Reggio Emilia, the founding fathers in early childhood ed, had a number of common themes that united them. These same themes are also embraced in every state’s current early childhood education standards.

So clearly, not only the founding father’s of early childhood education but today’s movers and shakers seem to be very clear on what an enriching/healthy environment for young children should look like. Just to be clear, Early Childhood Education Standards, is not to be confused with a State License, awarded to the neighborhood daycare. State licensure relates to the actual structure and to the number of bodies that can be housed in the daycare facility relative to the number of adults, whereas early childhood standards relate to what an enriching environment for very young children looks like-or put more appropriately “what happens there”.

I welcome the opportunity to reflect on what the experts see as ideal environments for very young children compared and contrasted to what I actually see in practice. My primary focus for this somewhat public venting session will be, as it is in my practice, fostering development in cognitive, communication, and social skills.

Cognitive Development: The ideal early childhood education environment that fosters cognitive development in young children is one that is rich in color and texture. It is one that encourages young children to look, touch, smell, hear and manipulate a wide variety of objects. These objects could take the form of actual toys, the lower tech the better, to objects of nature, e.g., from pine cones to water and sand. Even very young children should be encouraged to be actively involved in the daily routine. Number concepts can be worked into a child distributing napkins and sorting concepts go naturally with returning items of nature to their storage bins.

Learning takes place naturally, as the teachers or caregivers mingle amongst the young children. They suggest, model or enhance the activities that the children are naturally interested in with much of the child’s day devoted to child directed activities. Needless to say, this would be an impossible feat if one adult is charged with meeting the needs of ten children and her room is equipped with a few broken toys complete with bits and pieces that should have been discarded long ago.

Cognitive development in many daycares takes place with the children either seated on the floor or at a table. The caregiver holds up a picture, often times of a letter, and yells out, “What’s this?” There is often one child who is able to respond, the other nine children sit there with a look on their faces that reads, “Why are you yelling at me?” or “You talkin’ to me?”

Young children do not respond well to this drill sergeant (didactic) approach. Being drilled on the alphabet or the names of shapes does not encourage the natural exploration that is necessary for young children to truly learn. The necessary hands-on approach is referred to the Constructivist approach by experts. Most young children have little or no interest in letters, shapes and the like, and this is completely normal. On the other hand, most young children delight in looking, touching, smelling, listening to and manipulating a wide variety of objects, whether those objects are plastic farm animals or beans that can be poured or sifted. Sensory rich experiences are integral to true early learning.

Developing Communication: There is considerable research that supports the positive effects of using child-directed speech with young children. The research concludes that low socioeconomic status (SES) mothers are found to talk less and use less varied vocabulary during interaction with their children than high-SES mothers. These differences in words spoken to children during short interactions add up to substantial cumulative differences in the communicative experiences of children during early childhood. Researchers estimated that children from the high-SES families they observed heard approximately 11,000 utterances in a day, compared to 700 utterances for the children from low-SES families.

Not only do high-SES parents talk more with their children, the nature of that talk is different from that of low-SES parents. High-SES parents are more likely to engage their children in conversation using more varied vocabulary and to offer more positive feedback and affirmation. Low-SES parents are more likely to verbally prohibit and discourage their children’s behavior. At the risk of sounding judgmental, please ask yourselves, which category do most daycare workers fall into?

All too often, I witness little or no “verbal interaction” between daycare workers and the young children they care for. The language that many daycare workers use can be summed up like this, “Stop climbing on the table” or “Sit down and listen”, etc. No attempt is made to join the children in their play or activities. Modeling new words, helping to add meaning to words, or expanding on the child’s emerging language skills is addressed solely at the table with the picture of the triangle!

In their defense, the lone daycare worker taking care of ten two-year-olds is generally quite busy just changing diapers, wiping noses, or refereeing developing fights over scant toys. Even if she recognized the lack of proper language stimulation in her “classroom”, she couldn’t possibly effectively meet the needs of each child. I have often wanted to ask mothers who leave their children in these environments what they would charge to be locked in a room all day with ten two-year olds. No daycare in the country pays enough for me to sign up for this job, and I truly adore working with young children!

Social Development: Researchers have determined that young children often experience an increase in their stress hormone levels (cortisol) as a result of being in a daycare, particularly low quality daycares. Cortisol is known as the “fight or flight” hormone. Increased cortisol levels are associated with decreased immunity to illnesses and with mental health issues.

My personal observation is that many daycares are very loud, chaotic, and aggressive places. The workers rarely if ever hold or physically comfort the children, even the young toddlers. Workers frequently express concern that the children will become “spoiled” as a result of this “coddling.” Children often times flock to me as I make a habit of getting on their level. They pet me or scamper to my lap regardless if they have seen me before or not!? Some of the children that I must leave in the daycare room cling to my legs and cry.

The physical environment of the daycare classroom also plays a part in the social-emotional effect on the child. An acceptable classroom should have ample room for the children to wander and explore. It should include a “soft space” equipped with a large rug and pillows, with relaxing music provided, so that children can choose to rest and relax at their leisure. It is also important that young children have an area in their rooms that allows for physical movement and activity when a child feels a need for this. If your child’s classroom is lacking these areas, it is doubtful that her social-emotional needs can be adequately met as tired or over-stimulated children frequently resort to emotional melt downs or physical aggression.

Research regarding daycares in the United States concludes that approximately 75% of all daycares in this country are less than high quality centers. My experience in the trenches tells me, this number is generous! Taking “care” of a young child’s emotional needs is not accomplished by simply changing his diaper. Young children must experience the calming effect of a loving touch or the assuring twinkle in their caretaker’s eye on a consistent basis in order to develop to their fullest potential.

I do recognize that many Americans feel that they have no choice but to leave their children in daycares. I simply ask that you spend some time in your child’s classroom, at least a full morning or afternoon. Americans are very busy people but surely one morning or afternoon is not too much to devote to insuring the well being of your child. This should give you a pretty realistic idea of what it is like to really spend five long days a week there. If the center does not allow this sort of “visit” find a better one! If you find yourself coming up with a reason to get out of there earlier than you planned to- –Don’t even consider leaving your child there!

Please don’t let your child become one of the many forgotten?ones.

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