Childcare workers need these three skills more than a college degree

Caring for young children is hard work, but it’s not rocket science. Unfortunately, no one has told that to the folks running the public preschool programs in Washington, DC. The District bureaucrats just mandated that by 2020 lead teachers must earn an associate degree, child-care center directors must get a bachelor’s degree and home-care providers and assistant teachers need to qualify for a CDA (Child Development Associate) Credential.

In their reasoning, DC’s authorities cited a National Academies report stating that the country needs a workforce “unified by the foundation of the science of child development.” In other words, now that we know a lot more about what goes on in kids’ brains, we should apply that knowledge when taking care of children in their early years.

Fair enough. But this “new” knowledge largely reflects the way we cared for kids long before most people considered going to college at all.

For one, it says teachers need to talk to kids and listen to them. A 2011 study in the journal Child Development found teachers’ use of strong vocabulary in spontaneous conversation is the best predictor of reading comprehension in fourth grade. As early-childhood expert Erika Christakis wrote in The Atlantic a couple years ago, “Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have.”

Research also suggests that time spent in unstructured play is important for physical and emotional development. It actually changes the neurons at the front end of the brain, giving children the ability to regulate emotions, make plans for the future and solve problems, according to Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “Without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he told NPR recently.

It’s not just unstructured play but also outdoor time that can aid in physical and emotional development. Children who played outside for an hour a day had a significantly lower body mass index than those who didn’t. A recent report from the Institute for European Environmental Policy found that people living close to nature are not only less likely to be obese and inactive, they are also less likely to be dependent on anti-depressants. Other research shows that nature provides a laboratory for kids, enabling them to make observations about their environment and allowing their brains to recharge.

So the question is this: Do you need a college degree to spend time having spontaneous conversations with kids, playing with them outside, encouraging them to build with blocks, etc.? Obviously not. But you’d be surprised by the number of child-care workers who can’t or won’t do these things.

Many child-care workers are looking at their phones instead of paying attention to children. Or they are talking to other adults. When they do communicate with children, they are using baby talk instead of engaging the kids in real conversation. They are happy to give out hugs and have children sit on their laps — nothing wrong with that — but their interactions seem more focused on the cuteness of their charges than really playing with children on their level.

In the past decade I have hired four nannies, multiple evening baby sitters and sent my kids to three different preschools where I’ve watched around two dozen teachers and probably another dozen camp counselors interact with my children when they were under the age of 5. I’ve also watched a lot of other children’s caregivers.

The best ones, the most inspiring ones and the most trustworthy ones are not necessarily the ones with the most time spent in school. They are the ones who genuinely seem to enjoy doing the things that kids want to do (getting down on the floor, going outside no matter the weather) and who would gladly drop any conversation with an adult to speak with a child.

Some have pointed out that this new rule will make child care more expensive for parents in Washington, as parents and taxpayers will be forced to subsidize this extra course work. But what’s worse, the cost will go up without improving the quality of child care.

In the world of private child care, middle- and upper-class moms do not require their nannies or home-based day-care providers to have advanced degrees. What we value most is recommendations from other parents. Do these child care workers know where the nearby parks are? Will they play in the snow? When they go to the library, do they stick the kids on computers or actually pick out books and read them? Do they let kids choose the activities even if they might make a mess? Will they engage in extended periods of imaginary play?

As parents know, this can be exhausting work (even if it’s often fun). And, no matter what government bureaucrats tell you, spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in a classroom is not going to make anyone any good at it.

 

 

 

 

 

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