Promoting High Quality Care in the Early Years

BlogEarly ChildhoodMay 12 2011

Developmental science tells us that high-quality care may be especially beneficial to children in the first three years of life.  We all know quality care when we see it, right?  Or do we?  Is it that a lot of toys or materials are available for young children to explore? Or might it also be evident in the caregiver’s tone of voice, her responsiveness to a baby’s cues, the daily routines she uses to keep infants and toddlers safe and healthy, and the information she shares and discusses with the baby’s parents?

A new report by the National Women’s Law Center released in April found that many states are pursuing promising practices and developing infrastructure to promote the quality of care provided to infants and toddlers.  For example, about half of the states have developed Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), which are designed to assess, improve and communicate the quality of early childhood programs and care settings.

Last year, with funding from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, Child Trends and Mathematica Policy Research produced a compendium of 26 QRIS nationwide that provides descriptive profiles of QRIS and details about how each system is structured to promote high quality care settings. Nearly 90% of QRIS use an observational tool to measure program quality that assesses key features of the care setting for infants and toddlers including the availability of appropriate materials and safety practices as well as interactions between caregivers and children. However, other QRIS provisions targeting infants and toddlers  – such as specialized training for caregivers or policies that address caregiver continuity – are found in only a handful of QRIS, according to a review conducted by the National Infant and Toddler Child Care Initiative.

As new QRIS are designed and more mature QRIS are updated, the needs of infants and toddlers should be of high priority. Quality indicators that address specific provisions for infants and toddler can be reviewed, and new observational tools that focus on the aspects of program quality that are most central to young children’s development can be considered. For example, WestEd has developed an instrument that is designed to measure the quality of the interactions between caregivers and children. This measure is aligned with the Program for Infant/Toddler Caregivers (PITC), which provides mentoring and training to infant and toddler caregivers. Additionally, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) is an observational tool that focuses on teacher-child interactions in preschool and toddler classrooms. A version of the CLASS for use with infants is currently under development.

With the multiple budget challenges currently faced by state and local governments, it is particularly important that early care and education investments focus on quality improvements that can support the optimal development of young children. Strengthening child-caregiver interactions is a critical activity to prioritize as these investments are made.