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Child Care


Amy Harris-Solomon

Amy Harris-Solomon


Child care is a broad term used to describe any number of arrangements or settings where the primary responsibility is caring for young children. There are as many different settings as there are definitions of quality in child care. The number of young children under the age of five who are cared for during part of the day by adults other than their custodial parents has increased dramatically since 1980, due in large part to an increase in mothers joining the workforce.

According to the 2002 Quality Counts survey conducted by Education Week, approximately six out of every ten children, or almost 12 million children, age five and younger, are being jointly cared for by parents and early childhood educators, relatives, or other child-care providers.

While many parents may prefer to stay home with their infants or young children, this is not a financial option for most. The United States, unlike many other nations, does not have a paid parental leave plan for employees after the birth of a baby. This forces many families to return to work immediately and necessitates the need for weighing child-care options. Parents are forced to make child-care choices based on family financial resources, the availability or location of child care, hours of operation, or other factors not necessarily associated with quality. It is not uncommon to hear of a mother calling child-care centers to get on waiting lists before calling family members to share the joyful news that she is expecting. Waiting lists for quality programs can be years long, and some families may never gain entry despite all their prior planning. Many parents pay application fees at multiple centers in hopes of getting in somewhere. This can be costly, with application fees ranging from $25 to $150 or more annually.

Types Of Care

There are several types of child care available to families of young children, and there are quality indicators associated with each. In-home care is one type of arrangement that allows the child or children to remain in their home environment. In this model of care, the provider either comes to the home or lives part-or full-time in the family's home. Frequently, a relative is the person providing the care, and in this situation it is not required that a child-care license be obtained. Families with low to moderate income levels often choose in-home care, with grandparents caring for multiple children of varying ages at one time.

Higher-income families may have the option of hiring an au pair or a nanny to provide in-home care. While there are no licensing requirements for being an au pair or a nanny, there are interview processes and agencies that can assist with this process. Typically, au pairs or nannies provide more than routine child care, often assisting with daily household activities, including running errands, shopping, doing laundry, fixing meals, and cleaning house.

The care of the child or children is the responsibility of the provider in much the same way as that of a parent. Quality-of-care indicators might include a child's overall development, health, and happiness, as defined and measured by the parent and provider. There are no overall standards related to fee structure, roles, and responsibilities, especially in the case of relative caregivers. Payment for services is dependant on factors such as whether the person providing care is receiving room and board and/or other benefits, and whether the person is a family member doing child care as a favor or as a family obligation.

Family day homes offer group care to young children in another person's home. This is often a choice families make based on either the desire to keep their child in a more typical family-friendly environment (compared to a child-care center), or on finances, since a family day home may not be as costly as a center-based program. The adult-to-child ratio may be the same, but the environment more closely resembles that of a family's home.

Each state has standards for family day homes and regulations regarding licensing. Unlike in-home care, which allows an unlimited number of related children, family care requires licensing if children from more than one family are present. Individual states set their own system for monitoring these day homes, and assessment scales are available for measuring quality of care and facilities. One commonly used tool is the Family Day Care Rating Scale, devised by Thelma Harms and Richard Clifford in 1989. This rating scale assesses the quality of care related to organization of space, interactions between adults and children (as well as adults with other adults, such as other professionals or parents), schedules for young children's activities, and provisions for children and adults.

Child-care centers offer another option for working parents or primary caregivers of young children. There is great disparity in child-care centers, ranging from where they are located to the fees they charge. Centers may be located in churches, at universities, in corporate settings, or in independent child-care buildings. These settings may be in urban, suburban, or rural communities. Fees are based on sliding scales determined by a family's income, and scholarships may be available if a family meets certain income criteria established by the agency providing care. Requirements vary from center to center in regard to the qualifications of staff and the program director.

Choosing Child Care

One of the greatest ways that centers differ is in their philosophies of child care. Many child-care centers follow what is considered developmentally appropriate practice for young children, or best practices, as established by the organizations and professionals in the field of early childhood, while some centers do not. While licensing standards are required for child-care centers, these standards are often minimal, and are generally focused on health and safety issues rather than good-quality practices with young children. These are only a few of the challenges a family encounters when seeking child-care services outside the home.

Families will weigh all the options for care when considering what works best for their individual child, children, or family. Every family seeking child care has its own unique set of circumstances and needs, priorities, and concerns regarding its children. Quality child care that is available everywhere and is standardly priced would serve a larger community, rather than being a luxury for only those who can afford it. Money does not necessarily translate into quality care. There are several high priced centers or child-care providers that provide less than high quality services for young children. So how does one determine quality standards of care when family situations are so unique, and when there is such disparity in need?

Indicators Of Quality Care

The importance of the first three years of life in a child's development is clear. Brain research from the last decade of the twentieth century shows that children are learning from the moment of birth, and that the early years provide the essential building blocks for later learning. It is imperative that these early experiences are of high quality, and that children are given every opportunity to succeed. Early childhood specialists, organizations, and researchers have focused much attention on what constitutes quality care for infants and young children.

Defining high quality care is challenging, though there is a general consensus among early-childhood professional organizations and child-care licensing agencies regarding the categories to be included when evaluating quality. There are a multitude of child-care checklists available to assist families in seeking quality-care choices, as well as a multitude of provider checklists to assess the quality within their own programs.

The following issues may be considered when assessing quality of care: (1) the physical setting or environment; (2) learning activities or daily routines; (3) interactions; (4) staff, including ratios of adults to children, qualifications, and training; (5) health and safety issues; and (6) parental involvement. Quality is addressed here as it may be measured in a child-care center, as opposed to in-home or family group child-care settings.

Physical environment. The physical environment should be appealing, bright, and cheerful for young children. There should be plenty of space for children to move around, and areas should be designed to separate quiet play from active play, including in outdoor play areas. Inadequate space for the number of children creates difficulties for following the routines or does not allow enough open space for play. Child-care regulations stipulate the minimum space allowable based on the number of children enrolled. Space should be suitable for the activity or materials to be used. For example, if children are playing in a dramatic play center, there should be ample space available to carry out the activities or routines of the center, such as pretend shopping with counter space for a toy register, groceries on shelves, and room to move around and pretend shop without children bumping into each other. If space is not available to freely move about, the environment is not properly arranged to allow children to express themselves and play safely. It is important for materials to be available on a child's level, to promote independence in play. A variety of learning centers (i.e., home living, manipulative play, block area, book corner, and other age-appropriate centers) offer children opportunities to engage in a wide range of learning opportunities.

Daily activities and routines. Children learn to predict what comes next through consistent routines. Daily activities that allow children to be engaged in meaningful activities and to have some control over their environment will foster a child's choice-making and problem-solving skills. Adults should actively arrange the environment to allow for independence in young children, and activities should be designed to stimulate children in all areas of development, including social, emotional, physical, adaptive, cognitive, and communication domains.

Activities and routines must be appropriate for the age and developmental levels of the children being cared for, and individual needs of children should be considered in program and planning decisions. High quality child-care centers will employ adults that are respectful of children's interests and supportive, as well as actively involved in helping children resolve conflicts and problems without utilizing punitive behavior strategies.

Interactions. Positive interactions–those that indicate a healthy respect for children and adults–are another indicator of high quality in child care. Adults in a high-quality program listen to and talk to young children and their families. They are available and responsive to the children's wants and needs, and understand the importance of development and how it impacts children at different stages. It is important that they genuinely like young children and strive to help them learn skills such as cooperative play and to foster positive peer interactions. They also understand how relationships develop, and take responsibility for the part they play in making positive partnerships with families of children in their care.

Staff qualifications, training, adult-to-child ratios. State child-care licensing agencies offer minimum guidelines regarding appropriate ratios of child-care providers to children. National licensing organizations, such as the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and professional organizations, such as Zero to Three, are generally more conservative in the numbers they recommend as best practice for group size and adult-to-child ratios, and offer good rationales for using smaller numbers. High-quality relationships between teachers and young children have been directly linked to better classroom social and thinking skills in subsequent grades.

The Cost, Quality, and Outcome research project, conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, the University of California, and Yale University, produced an executive summary in June 1999 that evaluated the effects of child care on a child's later performance in school. The overall results indicate that: (1) the quality of child care is an important element for preparing young children for school readiness; (2) high-quality care early in life continues to have an impact on children as they move on in school; (3) children who are traditionally considered at risk for developmental delays due to low income or other environments show more positive gains from quality child-care experiences than other children; and (4) early relationships with teachers continue to influence children's social development as they move through elementary school.

Programs vary in the qualifications required for employing staff. Child-care providers have a variety of experiences and training related to working with young children. Quality indicators include individualized training or staff development for caregivers, support available for in-service training, benefits packages that support employees, CPR and first aid training requirements, formal and informal observations of adult caregivers, and caregivers knowledgeable in child development, both typical and atypical.

Health and safety. High-quality health and safety practices require ongoing evaluation and assessment. It is important to keep a facility or environment clean and free of hazards. Materials should be routinely cleaned and checked for safety. Safety precautions must be established, and policies regarding medication, hand washing, diapering or potty training, and storing cleaning materials out of reach must be adhered to. High-quality programs have emergency plans in place for any medical emergency, weather-related emergency, or unplanned for situations. Parents should be informed and knowledgeable about these plans.

Parent involvement. Parents are a child's first teachers, and generally, parents know their children best. High quality programs recognize the value of including parents, who are made to feel welcome and are encouraged to be involved on whatever level they are comfortable. Parents give input to the child-care program, and they are allowed to visit whenever they choose. Positive relationships between caregivers and parents are an indicator of quality in child care. Communication is open, respectful, and nondiscriminative. Parents feel comfortable sharing information because they understand they are in a partnership with the provider. Additionally, parents are linked to other service providers or programs in the community that may benefit their family.

A 1994 Carnegie Corporation report refers to the problems of the nation's youngest children and their families as "the quiet crisis." The report states that approximately half of America's young children start life at a disadvantage due to risk factors that include substandard child care. In the early twenty-first century, the well-being of many children is still in jeopardy due to inadequate child care.


BREDEKAMP, SUE. 1988. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children From Birth Through Age 8, expanded edition. Washington, DC: National Association of Education of Young Children.

FRANK PORTER GRAHAM CHILD DEVELOPMENT CENTER. 1999. The Children of the Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study Go to School. Executive Summary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center.

HARMS, THELMA, and CLIFFORD, RICHARD. 1989. Family Day Care Rating Scale. New York: Teachers College Press.

LALLY, J. RONALD; GRIFFIN, ABBEY; FENICHEL, EMILY; SEGAL, MARILYN; SZANTON, ELEANOR; and WEISSBOURD, BERNICE. 1995. Caring for Infants and Toddlers in Groups: Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.

QUALITY COUNTS. 2002. "In Early Childhood Education Care: Quality Counts." Education Week 17:8–9.


CARNEGIE CORPORATION OF NEW YORK. 1994. "The Quiet Crisis." <www.carnegie.org/starting_points/startpt1.html>


The need for child care in the United States increased dramatically in the last two decades of the twentieth century–a direct result of a large increase in the percentage of mothers in the workforce. In 1965 only 17 percent of mothers who had children under the age of one were in the labor force. By 1991, however, 53 percent of this group were working outside the home.

The Quality Counts 2002 report, published in Education Week, estimated that 11.9 million children, or six in ten children under the age of five, were enrolled in some form of child care during the previous year. In the United States, families are not offered extensive parental leave following the birth of a child, and often, due to financial constraints, mothers or both parents must return to work soon after a new baby is born, generally within six to eight weeks. More than half of all mothers return to work within the first year after a baby's birth.

The Cost Of Care

Many of the families who need child care also require some financial assistance. Child care comes in many forms, and there is not a standard arrangement or fee based on the age of a child or a family's circumstance. The cost of care may be associated with the type of care provided, such as infant care, toddler care, preschool care, or care for children who have special needs or those who are considered at risk due to environmental or other factors.

Infant care and toddler care are usually more expensive than care for a preschooler or a school-age child, due to the number of adults required per child. In general, younger children require more adults to provide care. Rates may also vary from provider to provider based on location (rural or urban), reputation, hours of operation, population served, and requirements for teachers. However, there is no way to equate the quality of care a child receives with the costs associated with that care.

The expenses of child care can impact a budget significantly, regardless of who is paying for the service. A 1994 Carnegie Corporation report states that $120 billion to $240 billion are spent annually on goods and services devoted to the care and education of young children. The average cost for care for one child can range from $40 to $200 per week, not counting application fees, activity fees, transportation fees, late pickup fees, care for special holidays, or days a program is closed and alternate care must be arranged.

The Carnegie Corporation report further states that families who have incomes below $15,000 annually spend 23 percent of their income on child care, while families who have incomes of around $50,000 spend approximately 6 percent of their income on care. It is obvious that the lower-income family is affected more significantly when funding child care. In the United States, nearly one-quarter of the families who have children under the age of three live in poverty, and many are single-parent families. For these families, quality child care at an affordable cost is difficult to find.

The burden of the costs of child care is primarily the responsibility of families. Overall, families pay approximately 60 percent of child care, with the government paying 39 percent and the private sector 1 percent, according to statistics from the Quality Counts 2002 report.

Effects Of Quality Child Care

There is ample research available in the field of early childhood education and child development that supports the importance of enriching and stimulating early experiences in promoting healthy development. The first three years of life are considered crucial, with brain development occurring most rapidly during this period. Parents are often left scrambling to make decisions on what environment is best for their child, and struggling to meet the high price of programs that claim to support these positive early developmental experiences. While there are a growing number of pre–K programs for preschoolers paid for by state dollars, most of the costs are funded by parents. It is not uncommon for a more elite academic preschool to cost between $3,000 and $10,000 annually.

Research from the Carolina Abecedarian Project underlines the need for high-quality preschool experiences for young children from low-income environments. Of the 100 children studied, half attended preschool and half did not. The children were studied until they reached the age of twenty-one. The children who attended preschool from infancy to age five scored higher on reading measures at age eight, and consistently until age twenty-one, than those children who did not attend preschool. The summary from a 1999 cost, quality, and outcome study conducted by researchers from four major universities confirms the benefits of high-quality early child care for children. In this study, high quality child care was directly linked to later school performance and success in social development throughout the early school years, especially for low-income children.

Funding Options

With more emphasis on quality child-care experiences coupled with the growing need for child care due to the increase in working mothers, options for funding child care are expanding, and creative ways to support the growing need are being explored. The Quality Counts 2002 report discusses how states are seeking new sources of funding for child-care initiatives, including taxing beer and cigarettes or utilizing proceeds from state lotteries.

Some businesses offer employees a form of corporate child care or a flexible work plan to accommodate child-care issues. Benefits are being extended for fathers of newborns, so leave is not exclusively for mothers. This allows families more flexibility in how they coordinate the first few months after a baby is born. Corporations are discovering that on-site child care gives employees peace of mind, allowing for more satisfaction in the work environment and more long-term retention of employees.

In 1996 welfare reform legislation was passed, providing almost $3 billion annually in the form of block grants to the states for low-income families. This money is designed to provide some financial support to single parents in the welfare-to-work program. Single parents (generally mothers) who are enrolled in a full-time work or school program are eligible to apply for these funds to help supplement their income for child-care costs.

Federal welfare funds distributed through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) exceeded $4 billion in 2001. Additionally, $5 billion was utilized for child-care assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 2000. As stated in the Quality Counts 2002 report, the subsidy from the federal welfare monies has had the biggest impact in the growth of state programs. Other programs supported through the federal government include Head Start, Title I, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These programs offer financial assistance for child care to children from low-income homes or to children who have special needs.

Many states are offering state-funded preschool programs in the early twenty-first century. While these programs are not accessible to every child, they are targeting the population that is most in need of state-funded school-based programs. Some states are moving toward the concept of universal pre-school. Every state provides at least some funding for kindergarten.

States struggle to piece together systems of funding that will at least support the neediest populations–those who would not be able to afford pre-school experiences without subsidies. Individual programs scramble to compete for available funding sources, often supplementing the cost of child care through grants from agencies (such as United Way), private corporations, or foundations.

Some agencies, due to budgetary constraints, are not capable of offering sliding fee scales or accepting state child-care certificates or scholarships for children who meet income eligibility. Many agencies work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to procure reimbursement for children who meet income eligibility for free or reduced meals. At best, this is a patchwork system for parents, providers, government, and unfortunately all too often, for the children.

The benefits of high-quality care have been proven. In analyzing the system of child care and the funding associated with it, there is a need to further equate quality with expectations for qualified persons caring for young children. People who work in this field in the early twenty-first century are compensated at rates equivalent to people who work in fast-food restaurants and other nonprofessional positions. Teachers are responsible for helping shape the future and enhancing a child's early development. The quality of the environments young children are placed in, and the quality of the people caring for them, can influence their future. If quality is equated to dollars, quality care will only be accessible to the wealthy. Because child care is not locally accessible to all, some children will not receive the advantage of high-quality care. Families and other stakeholders that understand both the need and value of high-quality care will seek these programs for their children.


CARNEGIE CORPORATION OF NEW YORK. 1994. "The Quiet Crisis." <www.carnegie.org/starting_points/startpt1.html>

CARNEGIE CORPORATION OF NEW YORK. 2002. "Guarantee Quality Child Care Choices." <www.carnegie.org/starting_points/startpt1.html>

EDUCATION WEEK. 2002. "Quality Counts 2002 Executive Summary–In Early Childhood Education Care: Quality Counts." Education Week 17:8–9. <www.edweek.org/sreports/qc02/>

WELFARE INFORMATION NETWORK. 1998. "Financial Resources for Child Care." <www.welfareinfo.org/Issuechild.htm>


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)