July 20, 2016

To Improve Family Child Care Offer More Coaching

By Kendra Hurley
Home-based family child care is the most common option for babies and toddlers from low-income families. It’s typically offered in a provider’s own home, often in her living room. While study after study has found its quality, on average, to be wanting, until recently there has been scant evidence about how best to raise that quality.

Research into improving early education has instead largely focused on “center-based care” in school-like group settings. As a result, most efforts to improve home-based child care take what works in centers and, after some tweaking, transfers it to home environments, even though they’re very different creatures.

The Center for New York City Affairs recently investigated New York City’s nearly four-year-old “EarlyLearnNYC” reforms of city-contracted home-based programs. We found those programs encumbered by well-intentioned but misguided requirements. 

EarlyLearn asks family child care providers to behave like degreed preschool teachers at fully-staffed child care centers. They’re expected, for example, to use a standardized curriculum and write lesson plans and child observations. We found these requirements unrealistic for a large portion of the providers, especially the many who have don’t have high school degrees and who speak or write in languages other than English. Moreover, they put significant demands on the time and energy of caregivers already doubling as bookkeepers, cooks, janitors and more.
While the hopes behind these requirements are laudable—to help home programs better support children’s development and prepare them for school— too often they backfire. Providers sometimes respond by overdoing overtly “educational” pursuits, leading to developmentally inappropriate activities such as trying to teach an 18-month-old to identify numbers or insist that toddlers sit still while lengthy storybooks are read to them. This undermines the unpressured, homelike environment that can make family child care particularly well-suited for very young children.
So what was working to improve the programs? Clearly, the use of “network” organizations to support home-based programs is a great strength of EarlyLearn, and is a practice that research has linked to higher-quality programs. And again and again we heard that EarlyLearn “home visits” from the support staff of these networks, which allow professionals to observe and work one-on-one with providers, hold great potential. Such home visiting staff told us these visits allow them to deliver individualized attention and instruction to a diverse workforce. They also bring support and camaraderie to a group of caregivers that are infamously isolated and overextended, sometimes working alone or with one other assistant for minimal pay.
Emerging research echoes this finding and suggests that to improve family child care, we should borrow less from the early education field, and more from the home-visiting field, which includes well-researched programs like Nurse Family Partnership. The crux of the work involves creating change through trusting, supportive relationships with a child’s caregiver and these practices, so effective with parents, are being adopted for child care providers.
For example, when the Cornell Early Childhood Program developed one of the first programs tailored for home-based providers, frequent, ongoing one-on-one trainings with home visitors were at its heart. Also significant: the home visitors followed a curriculum that originated in the home visiting field and was adapted for family child care. The program’s evaluation found that participating providers showed significant quality improvement and also improved in health and safety measures.
A study in Chicago also found links between the nature of home visits and improved quality in licensed home programs. Visits that focused on health and safety, for instance, were not affiliated with higher quality. But frequent, regular visits that focused on the children and provider and that gave the provider a chance to voice concerns were associated with higher quality.
Such findings could have big implications here in New York City, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has just beefed up health and safety measures designed to crack down on rule-violating home daycares. It suggests that punitive measures alone will not provide kids with better care, and that support and, in particular, home visits, should be explored as a way to improve home programs.

And instead of layering more and more expectations on the City’s over 1,700 EarlyLearn family child care providers, more mileage could be had by improving the training and recruiting of the professionals who support and visit them.

Juliet Bromer of the Erikson Institute’s Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy, who was the lead researcher of the Chicago study, says that home visitors need to recognize and appreciate the strengths inherent in home-based care. “If they are walking in the home with one picture of quality that looks like a center-based model,” she says, “that’s where we get resistance and lack of respect and trust.”  
Kendra Hurley is a senior editor at the Center for New York City Affairs and author of “Bringing It All Home,” the Center’s recently published report on family child care.