Early Learning Child Care Trends in 2021

Child reading book
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the right care from birth through childhood optimizes an individual’s health and overall success in life. Is it any wonder that child care can be daunting for parents to navigate?

We asked several experts to help explain the nuances and trends of modern child care to make this vital subject less overwhelming and more empowering for parents.


The Cost of Child Care


Berna Artis, board president of the District of Columbia Association for the Education of Young Children, notes that many parents are forced to make their child care decisions based on cost. “High-quality education is expensive … we want educated professionals who know child development, who know the science of it …. For that, we need a highly qualified workforce in this profession.”

Tyrone Scott II, director of government and external affairs at First Up, an organization that champions high-quality early care in Southeastern Pennsylvania, points out the high-cost threshold. Sometimes two semesters of college can be less expensive than today’s child care expenses. In another example of how the current child care landscape fails to be equitable, Artis notes that the vital child care providers are one of the groups of professionals in the United States who make the least amount of money.

The cost of high-quality care is a cost that, Artis argues, can’t be passed on to families through tuition. She emphasizes advocating for public funding streams supporting early education expenses to allow more families to benefit from more high-quality programs.

Currently, low-income households may qualify for subsidized child care through their city’s or state’s early childhood services or Head Start programs across the nation.


An Emphasis on Early Learning


“With each passing year, there is more and more data to support the fact that the first five years of a child’s life are crucial to their physical, emotional and social development,” says Douglas Lent, communications director of Maryland Family Network, an organization that champions the interests of young children and their learning environments.

“These little brains are developing at an alarming rate—1 million new neural connections form every second,” Lent adds.

Adults in children’s lives are “always teaching them,” he says, whether they’re aware of it or not. While parents are a child’s best and most important teachers, many parents can’t be with their child 24 hours a day. This reality, he notes, explains how the idea of child care has transitioned into early learning.

“As brain research became more available … child care providers wanted to use that (research) to improve the traditional care that was being given,” Scott explains. “We also saw the advent of pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs around this time,” which, when studied, showed many gains.

Although child care started as work support—and many families still use it for this purpose—providers saw the value in using this time to focus on children’s development, Scott notes. “Practitioners moved from the old philosophy of ‘watching’ children to engaging and teaching them.”

According to Artis, “We really need to focus on social and emotional development. If a child cannot regulate his or her feelings and cannot sit still and pay attention, academics will suffer naturally.”

As such, early learning programs should be warm, nurturing and conducive to play. She explains, “Children learn everything through exploration and play because that’s in their nature.”


Child Care as Infrastructure


Modern child care is not limited to one specific format.

“What’s great about the early education system is that there is room for everyone. Each family has to make the choice of what is best for them,” says Scott. “While most people think of child care as a Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. service, there are providers who serve families overnight, on part-time bases and even with emergency drop-off services.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools went remote, many child care organizations adjusted to take in more school-aged children for full day care to accommodate the needs of families, he adds.

At the same time, Lent says, the pandemic hit many child care providers hard. When many parents kept children home, organizations found themselves losing tuition. They also found themselves having to spend additional money on revising their health and safety procedures.

“We have seen many, many programs struggle during the pandemic. Some have closed their doors for good …. If more child care providers close their doors, there simply won’t be enough care to support the rest of the workforce,” Lent explains. This impact, he emphasizes, is why it is vital that policymakers see child care as infrastructure and support providers, parents and employers with solutions.


A Focus on Philosophy and Approach


With this background information in mind, how can parents find the right option for their family’s needs?

Artis recommends that parents first look at the philosophy and approach of the child care program in question. “Is it research and evidence-based? Then the next would be the curriculum. Is it responsive to children’s needs, or is it just one size fits all?” she asks.

Artis also suggests that parents look for inviting environments—at the least a good mixture of instructors’ experience and educational backgrounds, the ability for children to play outdoors, a constructive approach to discipline and guidance and diversity in all ways.

Scott shares a promising development. Many states now have a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) that helps you recognize the level of care your child will receive. “The national standard of high-quality early education is still accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children,” he says.

In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lent encourages parents not to be afraid to ask child care providers questions such as, “what are your sanitizing, drop-off and pickup, masking and vaccination policies?”


Advocacy and Action


“I think the big takeaway for parents,” Scott says, “is that we, as Americans, recognize the importance of high-quality early learning for our children. This (realization) is leading to many more states and local municipalities investing more in early learning. Fifteen years ago, I do not think a major city would have had families fighting for a sweetened beverage tax to pay for high-quality pre-kindergarten. We are moving to a system where the people caring for your infant are not just loving people, but highly trained professionals.”

And, if we continue to advocate for these ideas, our future generations will be better for it.


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