Model standards chart a course for family child care

To ensure that even our youngest babies get an equal start in life, the AFT has joined the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, one of the nation’s leading voices on the early childhood education workforce, to update national work standards for early educators working in family child care.

an adult woman with three young children

These new standards, released Nov. 19 by the center and the AFT, can help child care professionals in home settings provide high-quality early learning under conditions that enable both children and their caregivers to thrive. They aim to start a conversation among early childhood educators and their communities about how the working conditions in family child care settings can be improved, from wages and paid sick leave to professional development.

Family child care professionals can use the model standards as an educational tool to express what they need to serve children and families better; as a self-assessment tool for evaluating their own workplace; as a planning tool for setting measurable goals; and as an advocacy tool for enlisting wider support.

The need to fund our future

The hope is that, in a field where many early educators are leaving the profession for better-paying jobs, these standards will help those who stay to support themselves and their families without having to take second jobs, depend on another wage earner or rely on other income. The current reality is a lack of resources in early childhood education and care. To make significant changes will require dedicated public funding.

AFT members are known as change agents and movement builders. That’s why we fight for safe and welcoming environments in our family child care settings, as well as the freedom to meet children’s needs and to live securely on our wages.

The essential problem is that early childhood education still is not viewed as education, says Peggy Haack, an early childhood educator and part of a team that led the yearlong update of standards. Asked if advocacy for early education is part of the national Red for Ed movement, she says: “Education has not been prioritized in our country. In that way, it’s part of the same movement. I don’t think that, as a society generally, we’ve looked at education as something that takes place from birth through life.”

A main thrust of the model standards is that early educators must earn family-supporting wages. While it may seem obvious that improving the child care environment requires investments in time, energy and money, not much has changed over the past few decades. Early childhood educators working in family child care may be able to make some improvements on their own, but any gains would be limited without substantial advances in provider income, benefits, professional development and public support.

In a lot of communities, Haack says, lack of options for early childhood education has entered a state of crisis. She cites Center for American Progress findings of child care “deserts,” with family child care unavailability being the most extreme. “Families are closing their businesses,” she says, “because they can’t make it work anymore.”

older person with young child

Practical tools provided

Among the new standards are a model contract, a framework for professional development, advice on establishing a high-quality learning and work environment, and suggestions for developing community resources.

For example, educators’ work hours must allow enough respite to maintain the energy and stamina to care for children, even if that requires the availability of substitute educators or assistants. Those working in family child care also need access to mental health consultants for addressing children’s more challenging behaviors and the impacts of trauma.

Professional development, a key part of the model standards, includes training in health and safety, such as safe practices for lifting children and heavy objects, because child care is known to pose occupational hazards like back and knee injuries. Training also should include management of infectious diseases, good nutrition and safe food-handling practices. The standards suggest annual self-assessments and peer support. And of course, the workplace must strive to ensure a safe space from immigration enforcement.

“These standards came from the field,” Haack says. “We really listened to people. We had family child care providers looking at them.”

Too often, early childhood educators are treated as replaceable instead of as the experienced and nurturing professionals they are.

“Are we just a service industry, or are we really contributing to the public good? Those of us who are doing the work know that we are contributing to the public good,” says Haack, formerly with the Center for the Child Care Workforce, which coordinated the national Worthy Wage campaign from 1992 to 2002. “Part of the solution is changing public policy, and part is finding resources in the community. This is our vision. We have to take steps toward getting there.”

[Annette Licitra]