When my first child was born, I was 30. I was also married, had a master’s degree, and taught in a district that paid pretty well. During my pregnancy, I learned what to look for in high-quality child care and I thought I knew how to find it. What I didn’t know was that even though my husband and I both worked, we couldn’t afford quality child care.
We initially enrolled our daughter in a family child care home where she promptly flunked out because, catch this, she cried. We looked at other options, but nothing else was within our budget. Without an affordable option, we altered our schedules so one of us could always care for her.
I taught Monday-Friday, and on Friday afternoon, my husband dropped our daughter off at my school and then proceeded to work 32 hours between Friday evening and Sunday at midnight. We didn’t see him again until Monday morning when I woke him before I left for work. The hospital he worked for euphemistically called it, “the weekend alternative.”
In our case, it was the only alternative.
The Cost of High-Quality Child Care
My children are now adults, but families still struggle to find affordable, high-quality child care. A recent Time Magazine story, Crisis in Child Care, reports that the cost of care for a child under 5 doubled between 1997 and 2013. The federal government defines affordable care as care that costs no more than 7% of a family’s income.
According to the Center for American Progress, an average family spends 18% of their income on infant child care and 1% for toddler child care. Child care for preschool aged children is less expensive, but still out of reach for many families. In many states, the cost of child care is greater than tuition at a state college or university.
The exorbitant cost of child care, especially for infants and toddlers from birth to three, has led many families to use informal networks of family members, friends, and neighbors to patch together care for their children. Often referred to as family, friend, and neighbor care, these arrangements are unregulated and tend to be of lower quality than licensed, center-based care.
In other words, many families cannot begin to afford high-quality care for their young children and their children suffer as a result.
Why High-Quality Child Care is Important
Research has consistently demonstrated that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for development. During their first three years, children’s brains develop more than a million neural connections a second! However, in the absence of proper nurturing and stimulation, these connections will prune off as children get older.
This problem is confounded by the fact that 20% of American children live in poverty. According to 2018 data from the Kids Count Data Center, among children of color, it increases to 33%. The trauma of living in poverty can interfere with children’s ability to form positive, supportive relationships with adults and increases the odds that children will start school, be it preschool or kindergarten, well behind their more advantaged peers.
High-quality child care has the potential to help mitigate this trauma. One study demonstrated that children in child care classrooms with higher levels of Emotional Support (interactions that help teachers and children develop warm, supportive relationships) had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than children in classrooms with lower levels of Emotional Support (Hatfield, et al., 2013).
Other research shows that strong relationships with adults, the focus of the Emotional Support domain, help buffer the negative effects of living in poverty (Farrell & Simpson, 2017). Yet, due to the high cost of child care, many children are left in the care of some of our lowest paid and least qualified workers, who are often dealing with the stressors of poverty themselves.
A 2018 study conducted by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found that 86% of infant and toddler teachers make under $15 an hour – less than they can make at Walmart or McDonalds. Low wages lead to high turnover. High turnover prevents children from forming positive, supportive relationships with providers – the very things that can help buffer the negative effects of living in poverty.
Access to High-Quality Child Care
Ensuring that all children have access to high-quality child care is a complex undertaking that requires a commitment and shared vision from local, state, and federal agencies working across different sectors. None of us alone are in a position to solve this huge, multifaceted problem. However, all of us who work in early education should do what we can to ensure that all children (regardless of income) are cared for and taught by highly qualified professionals.
Years of research tells us that teacher-child interactions are key for enhancing children’s social-emotional and academic outcomes. That’s why we created the CLASS, a tool that focuses on the importance of these interactions. CLASS helps teachers become the best they can be in the classroom and helps organizations provide high-quality care in a multitude of settings and age levels.
Teachstone works every day to ensure that our most vulnerable children have access to high-quality, life-changing teachers. If you’d like to learn about how your organization can use CLASS to improve teacher-child interactions, register for our upcoming webinar, Getting Started with CLASS.
Farrell, A.K. & Simpson, J.A. (2017). Effects of relationships functioning of the biological experience of stress and physical health. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 49-53.
Hatfield, B. E., Hestenes, L. L., Kintner-Duffy, V. L., & O’Brien, M. (2013). Classroom Emotional Support predicts differences in preschool children's cortisol and alpha-amylase levels. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(2), 347-356.