August 08, 2007

Study points to need for more child care funding

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Some say problems can't be solved by throwing money at them, but when it comes to providing good child care, that approach might work best.

"What became clear in our focus groups was how intricately money was tied to most other aspects of quality," says an article published in the spring issue of the journal "Early Education and Development."

Based on research by Stacy D. Thompson of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Amanda W. Harrist of Oklahoma State University and Deborah J. Norris of the University of Oklahoma, the article focused on defining what made child care good and what could improve it. The trio analyzed information from 11 focus groups — mostly female, mostly white — collected during two-hour sessions in Tulsa, Okla. Focus group members included caregivers, parents, child care center owners and directors, policy makers and social service professionals.

"Most of the studies in this area have focused on the question from the perspective of child development experts," said Thompson, an assistant professor the College of Education and Human Services' Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

"Researchers may talk to parents every now and then, but seldom do they do more than that. We wanted more.

"We also used focus groups rather than conducting a large survey because we could ask more questions and pull out more information. Also, the participants tend to play off each other's responses so you get more than you do with single interviews. I don't think the data would have been as rich if we had done it any other way."

Certain quality indicators cropped up repeatedly in every group. Communication, rapport, caregiver traits and behaviors, staffing patterns, and resources play a vital part in making child care more than mere babysitting, participants agreed. The visibility and involvement of all concerned parties, both within the center and in the community, played strong supporting roles in most groups, as did professionalism. The researchers termed the indicators in the first group "key components;" those in the second became "recurrent themes."

Other child-care studies generally have found that caregiver traits and behaviors along with staffing patterns go hand in hand with quality. These components would include such factors as nurturing, sensitivity, appropriate lesson plans, training, adult-child ratios and compliance with health and safety guidelines. The fact that this study focused on people with very different perspectives yet still arrived at the same point underscores its validity, Thompson said.

"It's not just the child development experts saying this — it's all the other groups involved in child care, too," she noted.

Lack of resources acts as a brake on quality, but a good director or owner can partially offset that limitation.

"Directors and owners are key, and we didn't expect that," Thompson said.

"They're the ones who can seek out the resources, they're the link between the center and the community. If they're good, the program will be better.

"One of the things we point out is that creative directors can often get corporation or community sponsors. They can get donations of things like extra supplies, which helps a lot."

Still, there's no getting around the bottom line: You get what you pay for. The researchers note in their article that many of the problems their focus group members had would ease, if not disappear, with sufficient funding. Adult-child ratios, turnover, morale, programming, compliance with regulations and, most importantly, caregivers themselves all would respond to more money.

"We want people to be very nurturing, but we don't pay enough to automatically get those people," Thompson said, noting some people may work in child care because they don't want to work at a fast food restaurant.

Additional money can't come from parents — they already stretch to pay what they do, making child care, in Thompson's words, "a luxury available only to those children whose parents both work.

"It's been said before, but we need more investment from government. Child care is not babysitting."

Thompson, herself a child development expert, noted that stimulating environments early on translate later into better thinking and language skills, higher reading and math scores, and for low-income children, greater self-esteem, higher motivation and an easier time in school.

"Providing for a child in that early part of life is critical," Thompson stressed.

To help that happen, state and federal legislators need to see child care as a public good.

"Our data suggest that child care quality will be facilitated if policy makers make some attitudinal changes, for example making child care in early childhood as high a priority as K-12 education, viewing quality child care as a financial investment in the state/country and viewing child care as a profession," the researchers conclude.