By KENDRA HURLEY

In a bleak, windowless room at an otherwise cheerful Long Island City child care center, a group of over three dozen women cling to every word as Martha Becker, a mental health consultant, gives tips for managing young kids who act out. If a child loses control, Becker says, try saying, “I can’t let you hurt anyone,” instead of the rote “Don’t hit.” Being out of control is scary; using “I” tells a child you’ll help.

Then Becker pauses to let a woman beside her translate this into Spanish.

Instead of spending time on teaching Strategies Gold, it could be spent on: How are you going to teach the children to put their shoes on? How do you teach the children to clean up?

Aside from gender, Becker’s audience is a diverse bunch. Some are in their twenties; others their sixties. Some speak only English; others Spanish. One wears a hijab. All run small city-subsidized child care programs out of their homes. They are gathered today for a training organized by Catholic Charities, the network organization that monitors their programs. Though a number have never completed high school, no one seems to mind Becker’s distinctly lecture-intensive style of training. Nor are they distracted by the back and forth between two languages. They seem hungry for this information—a class of star pupils, raising hands, taking notes, asking questions, eager to swap stories about their kids.

But when the all-day training shifts to the next topic—how to write the weekly lesson plans newly required by the city—the mood in the room shifts as well. It moves from one of careful attention to frustrated endurance.

“Not everyone is doing the lesson plans,” says Enrico Rivera, assistant coordinator of family child care at Catholic Charities’ Queensbridge site. “Let’s be serious. It’s really difficult.”

He asks the women to take out one of their six binders, each stuffed with pages about how to document their work. “What we have to cover every single day—write this down, guys, we’re giving you the answer to the test—is social-emotional, language development, practical life, gross motor, fine motor,” he says. “What you do not have to do every day, but more like three times a week, or twice, is social studies, mathematics, arts.”

Pens dangle from limp fingers. Some women begin to look discouraged; others disconnected. Rivera explains that the center has come up with a new system for them, one that should make it easier to understand how lesson plans provide a “game plan” for the child observations they must also write. He then begins the arduous task of introducing the group to Catholic Charities’ latest attempt to make the requisite paperwork a little less foreboding.


‘IT’S A FANTASY’

When New York City instituted EarlyLearn, it began asking home-based providers to complete the same types of educational documentation required at fully staffed child care centers. They are to write child observations to be entered into a maze-like computerized system that, when done correctly, pinpoints student (or, in this case, baby and toddler) needs. They are expected to then use that knowledge, along with a curriculum, to create lesson plans addressing the particular needs of each child.

Nearly all agree that the goal behind these requirements is laudable: To transform home-based care from being primarily a loving or custodial arrangement to one that intentionally meets the developmental needs of very young kids, catches developmental delays early and lays a foundation for formal schooling. A provider who instinctively plays peek-a-boo with a baby, for instance, should understand how it supports the baby’s development.

 But the staff supporting home providers say the accompanying documentation is a tall order for a workforce that often doesn’t speak English or hold high school degrees.

Catholic Charities’ educational director Julia Payne says she spent the bulk of one summer whittling the “insurmountable” child observation template published by the educational publisher Pearson into checklists that caretakers can carry around and complete whether or not they read English well. “With help like that people said ‘Oh, ok, it’s not so impossible to do the assessment,’” says Payne.

But Catholic Charities is still struggling to help providers write lesson plans informed by those assessments. And staff at many other networks say that more than three years into EarlyLearn, a large chunk of family providers is still nowhere near where the city wants them to be, even after extensive training efforts. Most blame the paperwork—not the providers—describing it as unwieldy, intense, and insufficiently tailored to the realities of who the providers are.

“It is a fantasy,” says Sonia Vera, program director at the EarlyLearn network New Life Child Development Center. “It’s not real. We all know that.”

Vera, who trains support staff at other networks, says that a number of them have simply stopped expecting providers to complete the paperwork.


MISMATCHED EXPECTATIONS

Network staff say they see lessons reaching for the impossible - where infants are instructed on numbers, for instance, or toddlers are expected to sit still for long stories and activities.

 Much of the documentation demands that caretakers navigate a computer system, yet many providers have no experience with computers; the only curriculum earmarked for family child care comes in English, yet many providers speak and write in other languages; writing lesson plans is a skill learned in early education programs, yet many providers don’t have GEDs. And then there’s the time suck. “We have to cook. We shop for food. We take care of the children, and clean everything. And now, while we are sterilizing toys and preparing food for the next day, we have to do observations,” says Mariainez Quinones, a provider. “And we have our own families.”

Network staff say that when they send the paperwork to ACS, they rarely receive feedback, fueling the sense that it is purposeless.

Lesson plans—something that Rivera says teachers with master’s degrees sometime struggle with—are a particularly thorny topic. Unlike center-based teachers, home-based providers look after kids as young as a few months old to as old as 3—a vast gulf, as anyone who has parented young kids knows well. This means their lesson plans must account not only for the oldest child in the room, but also for the baby who can’t yet crawl.

“They want us to do the lesson plan and use the curriculum,” says Janice Mitchell, a family child care provider of 16 years. “They don’t understand when you’re in a family setting you work with different ages. Infants are not doing the same thing as 2-year olds!”

Network staff say they see lessons reaching for the impossible—where infants are instructed on numbers, for instance, or toddlers are expected to sit still for long stories and activities. Some worry this may have the opposite effect intended—forcing kids to endure activities that are developmentally in appropriate.

The networks continue to devote large chunks of the providers’ six mandatory professional development days each year teaching the ins and outs of the requisite paperwork, but say it’s still not enough and sacrifices time that could be better used.

“Instead of spending time on Teaching Strategies Gold [the software program for assessing children] it could be spent on: How are you going to teach the children to put their shoes on? How do you teach the children to clean up? How are you going to learn through play?” says Vera. “Instead, we spend a lot of hours on something they don’t really understand.”

Some have progressed, but there are those who don’t know how to turn the computers on, and they’ve been here two years. And they’re good providers.

 The Catholic Charities training provided a stark example of this: At one point, staff and providers spent several minutes deliberating whether presenting a toddler with different textured fabrics should be categorized as a “science” activity or “life & sensorial.” A few women flipped through their notebooks, searching pages explaining the different domains of learning. But the answer remained elusive, and staff seemed uncertain too. Finally, one staff member decided: “If you are teaching fabrics that have different grades, that’s science. But if you’re teaching ‘this is soft, this is hard,’ you are teaching life and sensorial.”

Obediently, the providers wrote this down.

A while later a provider raised her hand to ask if she must fill out the infant section of her weekly lesson plan even though she had no infants. “No,” Enrico Rivera said resolutely. But the question hung in the air. It underscored just how arbitrary it all felt.

Later that same week, on a cold and blustery winter evening, nine rain-drenched Brooklyn providers gathered in the New Life child care center for a workshop on navigating Teaching Strategies Gold. All were there of their own volition—the workshop was voluntary—but seemed eager to get the information and move on quickly. Perched on toddler-size chairs, some kept their coats on and clutched purses in their laps.

In Spanish, the teacher tried hard to explain how observations for Teaching Strategies Gold should differ from their usual interactions with children. In observations, she said, you hang back. You don’t ask questions; you don’t interact. You just watch.

Of course, this isn’t how you should normally interact with children day to day, she was compelled to tell the class, in case there was any confusion. Normally you want to interact with them often, ask questions. After all, it’s hard to know what a child is thinking and feeling without those questions. For instance, if you ask a toddler to draw a face and they draw a circle with only eyes and a mouth, why didn’t they draw the nose?

Because they aren’t following directions? one woman offered.

No, the teacher said. Because that’s how they see the world! They don’t see the eyebrows and ears and nose unless you point them out.

In another universe, she would have lingered on this point much longer. She may have stressed how talking with kids and asking them questions is paramount to quality care. In another, alternate, more perfect world, she would have also been able to talk about child development, and why it’s not realistic to expect toddlers to draw a perfect face.

But this was after-hours triage, a last-ditch attempt to give providers needing extra help a quick-and-dirty on paperwork. The child care center would be locking up in less than an hour. The providers needed to return to their own families. One was squeezing this workshop between closing the family child care program where she works as an assistant and wishing her 2-year-old son happy birthday before tucking him into bed. So the teacher moved on, returning her attention to the Teaching Strategies Gold checklist onscreen.

And was it helping? Were her providers getting it? “Some have progressed, but there are those who don’t know how to turn the computers on, and they’ve been here two years,” she says, then adds, “and they’re good providers.”