Martin R. Textor
Studies from the United States have shown that child care institutions differ very much with respect to quality of care. For example, the Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study Team (1995) has studied 400 randomly selected child care centres in California, Colorado, Connecticut, and North Carolina. According to the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) 10% of the preschool classes were rated of poor quality, 66% of mediocre quality, and 24% of good quality. And according to the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale 40% of infant classrooms were of poor, 52% of mediocre, and only 8% of good quality.
These research results have also shown that each institution is exceptional - as each of the individuals living and working in it. This means that what goes on is determined by the teachers to a very large extent. They have much more influence on the quality of children's learning than the government, for example. Teachers are mainly responsible for the profile of their centre, the conditions for learning in their classrooms, the quality of the teacher-child relationship, and their educational work. If they want to improve their situation, they can refer to many research results and recommendations of professional organisations.
In this article some criteria of good child care are presented which were found by researchers. It is also discussed whether they are shared by teachers and parents. It is expected that there will be some differences in emphasis. The same may be true with respect to the attitudes of children. Thus Katz (1992) stipulates: "A child who enjoys a wide variety of play materials, television/video shows and outdoor play equipment at home, as well as frequent trips to playgrounds, may find the same preschool boring that another, less-privileged child finds engaging" (p. 70). However, according to my knowledge no researcher has asked children so far what they consider to be "good quality" care.
Characteristics of High Quality Child Care
(1) Number of Children in Class: In the United States, for example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Child Welfare League of America, and the Federal Interagency Day Care Requirements (cp., Hayes/ Palmer/ Zaslow, 1990) recommend a group size of a maximum of 6 to 8 infants or of 6 to 12 one- and two-year-olds or 14 to 20 three-year-olds or 16 to 20 four- or five-year-olds. In other words: The teacher-child ratio should be a maximum of 1:4 for children under two years of age, of 1:6 for two-year-olds or of 1:10 for older preschool children.
Research results support these positions (e.g., Clarke-Stewart, in press; Dunn, 1993; Hayes/ Palmer/ Zaslow, 1990). They show that in too large groups the quality of interactions between children declines and that their development is less positive. For very young children it turned out to be better when they were cared for in a small group with one teacher than in a larger group with two teachers: In the first case the child's need for a person to attach to was satisfied in a better way (Pramling, in press).
(2) The Classroom: According to several studies the size of the room is not of great importance as long as it is not very overcrowded - which certainly has negative effects (Clarke-Stewart, in press). The same is true with respect to the amount of play materials. More important is that the room is furnished according to children's needs and that play materials are of high quality (Hayes/ Palmer/ Zaslow, 1990; Laevers, in press). Children developed better in rooms which had play corners fitting their interests and where the play materials were age-appropriate as well as stimulating. For example, if there was a box with many clothes and items for role-playing, longer and more complex role-playing was observed.
(3) Teachers' Behavior: Many researchers and child care specialists (e.g., Braun 1993; Clarke-Stewart in press; Marsh, 1995; Tietze et al., 1996) report, that in high quality child care institutions the teachers know each child well (including his/her family situation). There is great continuity in the teacher-child relationship. The teachers orientate themselves to the child's needs and interests, developmental level, experience, feeling, thinking, and behavior. Thus they observe him/her deliberately, listen to him/her well, and are sensitive. Then they make special offers to him/her which correspond to his/her developmental needs. They feel responsible for his/her welfare and learning, further his/her autonomy and responsibility.
In high quality child care institutions there are often yearly and/or weekly plans (Hayes/ Palmer/ Zaslow, 1990). In their curriculum all educational goals are considered, and the activities offered are varied with many opportunities for learning. There is a certain structure of the day with enough time both for free play and teacher-guided activities. During free play, on the one hand, children can satisfy individual needs and interests, can explore things on their own, and can play alone or together with other children. They can also talk to the teachers individually or in small groups - amount and quality of these interactions were found to be very important for their development (Clarke-Stewart, in press; Podmore, 1994). On the other hand, children participate in teacher-guided activities, which should not be too difficult or too easy. In high quality institutions, these activities adress all senses and areas of development. Thus they further cognitive, emotional, motoric, social, and other competencies as well as creativity, communication skills, etc. (Braun, 1993; Howes/ Phillipps/ Whitebook, 1992; Podmore, 1994).
Both during free play and teacher-guided activities curiosity, the urge to explore, and learning by finding out for oneself are furthered (Laevers, in press; Pramling, in press). The children begin to understand the world via observation, experience, and acting. Much of the work of good teachers is observing the children in order to be able to give feedback, to help if aid is needed, and to give new ideas to children who are bored. They let children verbalize their observations and experiences and reflect on them. By questions they lead them to a deeper understanding of the observed phenomena and contribute lacking informations.
Moreover, social development is deemed to be very important by good teachers. They reinforce positive behaviors and further cooperation between children, non-aggressive forms of conflict-solving, and the social integration of outsiders. Part of educating them for life in a democracy is seen in giving children many opportunities for determining what they want to do, what rules they want to follow, how they will deal with interpersonal problems, etc. Hayes, Palmer, and Zaslow (1990) add: "Child care also can provide an important opportunity to affirm children's cultural group identity by incorporating materials affirming children's cultural groups into program curricula, by promoting parent-caregiver collaboration, and by building on rather than negating culturally based patterns of learning and interaction" (p. 127).
(4) Cooperation with Parents: High quality child care is also characterized by frequent contacts, intensive communication, and a good cooperation between teachers and parents (Braun, 1993; Marsh, 1995; Podmore, 1993, 1994). As the influence of the family on the child is very great, teachers talk a lot with parents about the child's learning at home and in the classroom. They further child-oriented attitudes and age-appropriate parental behaviors. Moreover, they motivate parents to play and to interact more with their children. Thus they try to influence the children's development indirectly by improving their families' child-rearing. In general, good teachers aim at a partnership between family and kindergarten in educating the child. They inform parents about the goals of their centre, the curriculum, and their educational work. Moreover, they are open for any relevant information about the child and his/her family shared by the parents.
(5) Teacher's Qualifications: All of this requires a very high qualification of teachers (Hayes/ Palmer/ Zaslow, 1990). American studies show that a professional training on a middle level is best (Clarke-Stewart, in press). Thus teachers with higher degrees, for example, were often found to be too academically oriented, to stress school methods and cognitive learning too much, and to neglect social development. The quality of work also deteriorated when teachers had more than ten years of practical experience.
High quality child care institutions are also characterized by little fluctuation of teachers and a good team (Marsh, 1995). The teachers identify with the goals of early childhood education and with the curriculum, know their tasks, plan their daily work and special events together, use special competencies of individual colleagues, have a positive attitude towards their work, and aim at improving it. They feel well in their team as well as in their class and are satisfied by their job (Hayes/ Palmer/ Zaslow, 1990; Marsh, 1995).
Moreover, high quality child care institutions have a good director who knows how to guide and motivate people (Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study Team, 1995; Marsh, 1995). He/she has good management and social skills. The director selects new teachers who are qualified and fit into the team. He/she acknowledges the teachers' work, helps and counsels them, is open for their ideas, and reinforces good work. Moreover, the director emphasizes high standards of preschool education (accredition) and promotes formal parent involvement as well as parent-staff communication (Endsley/ Minish/ Zhou, 1993).
Opinions of Teachers and Parents
The aforementioned findings of researchers and child care specialists are widely shared by teachers and parents all over the world. For example, Blenkin and her colleagues (1995) have interviewed 548 heads of child care institutions for under-eight-year-old children in England and Wales. The directors deemed the following factors to be supportive for the development of an appropriate curriculum for young children:
1. qualities of staff - 74.2%
2. effective partnership with parents - 72.1%
3. provision of an effective environment for learning - 63.2%
4. high ratio of staff to children - 43.4%
5. high quality resources for early learning - 32.8%
6. range of experience of staff - 27.8%
7. qualifications of staff - 25.6%
8. provisions for staff development - 25.3%
9. adequate number of resources for early learning - 25.2%
10. assessment of children - 24.7%
11. keeping records of children's learning - 22.5%
12. management structure of the institution/group - 19.1%
13. an adequate physical environment for learning - 13.6%
14. a supportive social environment - 13.4%
15. evaluating provision - 11.1%
16. length of experience of staff - 7.2%
As very important factors that are influential in the professional development of practitioners working with children were deemed to be (in this sequence): knowledge of child development, ability to assess individual child, organisational skills, partnership with parents, openness to change, meticulous planning, regular staff meetings, understanding of educational issues, knowledge of school subjects, feedback from staff appraisal, school based in-service training, and others.
Fthenakis et al. (1996) asked 328 kindergarten teachers in the German state of Bavaria about the criteria for high quality educational work. They named:
1. size of the group (class) - 82.1%
2. professional and personal competence of teachers - 68.3%
3. atmosphere in the kindergarten - 52.6%
4. enough time for preparing and reflecting educational work - 50.9%
5. cooperation with parents - 48.3%
6. differentiation of activities according to children's
developmental stage - 35.2%
7. much time for self-initiated mutual free play of children - 32.4%
8. educational concept of the kindergarten - 29.3%
9. physical conditions (rooms, outdoors) - 25.7%
10. democratic decision-making in the team - 20.7%
11. teacher-child ratio - 16.1%
12. professional and personal competence of the director - 14.2%
13. amount of play materials - 7.7%
14. sensitivity of staff for multicultural issues - 4.6%
15. networking with other child- and family-related institutions - 0.9%
In New Zealand 223 parents were interviewed by Farquhar (1991) with respect to criteria for center quality. From the 56 criteria listed parents deemed the following 12 to be most important:
1. staff are responsive to children - 3,96
2. staff are warm and caring people - 3.92
3. staff show children they care about them - 3.88
4a. staff work together as a team - 3.85
4b. children supervised at all times - 3.85
6. toys and equipment safe/maintained - 3.83
7. clean building, facilities, toys - 3.80
8. developmentally appropriate activities - 3.79
9. stimulating/interesting play activities - 3.77
10. home like pleasant atmosphere - 3.76
11a. personal hygiene emphasised/taught - 3.75
11b. group size is not too big - 3.75
Farquhar also asked the same questions to 32 teachers and 47 experts. The answers were similar but some criteria were stressed more or less by the three groups. Also if one looks at the aforementioned British and German data, differences in emphasis are evident. However, all these studies show that professionals as well as parents have a sound understanding of what high quality in child care means - an understanding which is similar to what researchers found and child care specialists believe.
Research also shows that even if there are small classes, a good teacher-child ratio, a large room and lots of play materials - there are still "good" and "bad" child care institutions (Hayes/ Palmer/ Zaslow, 1990). This again shows the importance of the teachers, of how they work and treat the children. Giving the teachers the time to reflect upon their work and to seek for ways to improve it, is therefore of great importance. The teachers have their fate (and that of their students) in their own hands.
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