We all want what is best for our children. We also know that the first years of a child’s life provide a critical foundation for a child’s long-term success and well-being. Not only is brain development most rapid and significant in the early years with an estimated 90% of growth achieved by age three, but the caregiver plays a pivotal role in fostering that development. Creating a nurturing environment that supports that growth is key.
If you’re considering a childcare facility, understanding the distinction between a day care center and a child development center is essential. The main goal of a day care is to keep a child safe and to meet the child’s basic needs. A high-quality child development center should go well beyond keeping your child safe and meeting basic needs. A high-quality center should provide a strong and developmentally appropriate early childhood education program implemented by well-trained and educated caregivers. These caregivers need to be well versed in how best to promote your child’s emotional, cognitive and social learning in a sensitive, attuned, understanding and responsive way with the support of a well-defined program informed by a demonstrated understanding of child development, early childhood education, and early brain development.
The importance of emotional, cognitive and social early learning
Any quality early childhood program must recognize how to effectively promote emotional, cognitive and social early learning. Children with poor social-emotional competence not only appear to have more difficulty transitioning to school, but they also are at increased risk for low academic achievement, emotional and behavioral problems, peer rejection, and school dropout. Moreover, children who learn social-emotional skills early in life tend to be more self-confident, trusting, empathic, intellectually inquisitive, competent in using language to communicate, and better capable of relating well with others. An effective early childhood education program should therefore not only promote your child’s overall development but also promote the development of foundational social, emotional and cognitive skills – such as the ability to self-regulate, persevere, positively respond in the face of frustration, constructively express and manage emotion, be empathic, relate to others, problem-solve, maintain strong and secure relationships, have perspective—all critical determinants of life-long success.
Why trained caregivers matter
Studies show that a sensitive, attuned and responsive caregiver is essential in a child’s early years, with neurosciences now clearly indicating that nurturing relationships in early childhood are essential for the development of brain pathways and neuroendocrine systems that are prerequisites for learning, effective brain development, social-emotional functioning and overall health. Also essential to the developing brain’s architecture is the quality, repetition, and consistency of the young child’s daily learning experiences in the context of emotional and social security provided by caregivers. Those learning experiences are best fostered by a caregiver who is knowledgeable and trained and by a curriculum and program informed by child development, early childhood education, and early brain development.
How to assess a child development center
Assessing whether the center you’re considering is simply a day care center or a high-quality child development center that will promote your child’s optimum growth requires that the school center does more than tick boxes to yes or no questions. Of course, low student-teacher ratios; an appropriate and stimulating environment and physical space; proper accreditation and licensing; and adherence to health, nutrition, and safety standards are all important for any childcare facility. But to find out whether the childcare center you’re visiting truly can support your child’s emotional, cognitive and social early learning, you need to go deeper. Tour the school. Ask questions. Don’t be satisfied with yes and no answers. Be sure the school can truly speak to the strengths of its program and its underpinnings and make sure it practices what it preaches. Below are some questions and observations to help you get to the root of whether the childcare center you’re considering truly offers a high-quality child development program:
- What early childhood education, qualifications, and ongoing training do the childcare givers/teachers have and receive? How specifically are they trained in emotional, cognitive and social early learning, teaching and children’s development?
- How do the childcare givers/teachers interact with the children? Observe whether the childcare givers interact with sensitivity, attunement, responsiveness, understanding and an ability to read the children’s emotional and behavioral cues?
- Assess the classrooms to ascertain whether there are a variety of developmentally-appropriate activities, toys, books and materials that are accessible and interwoven throughout the classroom and curriculum. Ask the tour to speak to those materials and the curriculum.
- Ascertain whether the classrooms are clean, well-organized and well-structured.
- Assess whether each classroom has designed with a range of developmentally appropriate and accessible child-focused areas based on age and needs. Ask the tour guide to speak to the classroom layout.
- Ask the tour guide to speak to how the program promotes children’s social, emotional and cognitive growth.
- Find out how play—including dramatic play, blocks, active outdoor play—is integrated into topics of study.
- Ask if there is a well-developed educational approach. Does that approach seem to be supported by a demonstrated understanding of child development, early childhood education, and early brain development?
- Do you see a detailed curriculum not only on display but also being practiced in the classroom?
- Look to see if children are encouraged to work alone as well as in small groups. Does there appear to be a clear focus on helping children to develop critical social-emotional skills, as well as cognitive ones?
- Can you see a daily schedule that provides a consistent routine for the children?
- Does the schedule allow for both active and quiet play?
- Determine if the schedule and center provide and encourage gross motor play, inside and outside.
- Ascertain if the center sets goals for children, as well as monitors and supports their individual needs and progress. How does the center do that?
- Determine if there is regular communication with families and if family involvement is actively encouraged and supported.
- Try to get a sense of whether the children in the classroom seem engaged, happy, and interested in what they are doing. Do you leave the center with a positive feeling?
No child care center will look or feel exactly the same. All high-quality programs, however, should be able to address these questions to your satisfaction. We all want what is best for our children. A child development center with a high-quality education program needs to be able to deliver on that promise.