Photo of toddlers playing with a parachute during library time by flickr user ACPL, reprinted courtesy of Creative Commons License.
The early childhood community has long bemoaned that preparation programs for early childhood teachers do not include enough emphasis on infants and toddlers. A national survey in 2006 found that nearly half of early childhood education bachelor’s degree programs and a third of associate’s degree programs did not require any courses with a focus on infants and toddlers.
A recent policy brief provides recommendations for states and the federal government on how to fill these preparation gaps.
“Toward a Bright Future for Our Youngest Children: Building a Strong Infant-Toddler Workforce” is a new publication from the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families at Zero To Three, a non-profit organization that advocates for very young children. The report suggests that any workforce development policies should center on promoting collaboration among the multiple types of organizations and professionals that work with infants, toddlers and their families and should establish models of professional development. (Zero To Three held a webinar in late March to discuss the report and highlight initiatives in three states.)
Using the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) 2008 policy blueprint for state systems of professional development, the Zero To Three brief makes 10 recommendations for how federal and state policymakers can build a stronger infant and toddler workforce.
Here are five of the recommendations:
1. Promote infant-toddler coursework at all levels of higher education institutions and encourage the use of professional development models that show promise for improving practice.
The brief argues that states should encourage degree programs at all levels – A.A., B.A., M.A. and PhD – to offer coursework and field experiences directly related to what workers need to foster the development of infants and toddlers and support their families. Associate’s programs are more likely than bachelor’s programs to require at least one course that focuses on infants and toddlers, which can make it difficult for students to receive full-credit for some courses when they transfer to a university. (Often within universities only courses with the same title are accepted for full-credit, meaning they count toward the requirements for the bachelor’s degree program. The courses that don’t match are typically accepted as electives.) To mitigate this challenge facing students who opt to pursue additional education, the brief urges states to encourage agreements between two-year and four-year institutions that enable students to transfer early childhood courses for full-credit.
The brief also calls for the federal government to support research on and states to invest in professional development models and programs that show promise, including mentoring, coaching and clinical practice. Just like professional development for preK-12 teachers, the quality of professional development for individuals who care for infants and toddlers varies greatly. Professional development should be much more than “drive-by” single day workshops.
2. Ensure that all those who work with very young children have mastered a body of core knowledge and competencies specifically related to infants and toddlers.
The brief says that caregivers who work with infants and toddlers need a firm grasp of all the domains of development: social, emotional, intellectual, language and physical. Encouragingly, 36 states, maybe more, have developed early care and education “core knowledge and competencies,” which define what professionals should know and be able to do to work with young children under the age of 5, but they aren’t necessarily specific to infants and toddlers. The brief suggests that knowledge and competencies that focus on infants’ and toddlers’ needs should be integrated into existing professional development programs.
3. Encourage professional development programs to bring together adults working with infants and toddlers from different disciplines and in various programs to learn from each other.
The brief also points out that the infant and toddler workforce encompasses those who work as social workers, therapists, nurses, pediatricians, and family support workers. This workforce is found in a variety of settings such as home visiting programs, health clinics, and early intervention programs federally funded through IDEA, as well as home- and center-based childcare programs. States should create professional development systems that cut across all of these sectors.
4. Link the core knowledge and competencies needed by infant and toddler professionals with early learning guidelines, quality improvement initiatives, and other components of a comprehensive early childhood system.
As of 2010, just over 31 states have developed early learning guidelines for infants and toddlers. Those guidelines should be aligned with state standards for early childhood programs, as well as with the quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) that states are building to evaluate childcare and preschool centers. The standards and QRIS guidelines should, in turn, be aligned with the core knowledge and competencies that are required by people who work with infants and toddlers. All of these components, and others, should also be both vertically (between age groups) and horizontally (across systems serving the same age group) aligned to establish a truly comprehensive early childhood system.
According to Zero To Three, 22 states are implementing quality rating and improvement systems, but not all are including quality indicators for infants and toddlers. Additionally states have made progress toward providing information and training individuals who work with infants and toddlers about their guidelines, but the brief notes that few states have evaluated whether they are doing a good job implementing that training.
5. Increase investment in professional development systems that provide incentives for increased compensation, educational attainment and retention.
States typically underinvest in building a workforce for infant and toddler care. While states are slowly beginning to establish education requirements, compensation still lags behind. Across the country, infant and toddler caregivers with the same qualifications may receive different salaries and benefits depending on the setting in which they work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean wage for childcare professionals is only $9.73 per hour. Policymakers need to think about how to tie qualifications to compensation; otherwise, childcare workers – and other infant and toddler professionals – who attain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree will continue to leave the profession to seek out better paying jobs.
In its webinar, Zero To Three highlighted three state initiatives focused on developing the infant and toddler workforce: Maine, New Mexico and Los Angeles. You can hear more about them by watching the recording.
State and federal policymakers are increasingly talking about learning beginning at birth and they are starting to think about policies to ensure that children are in quality learning environments from a very young age. Research underscores this thinking, stressing that the quality of early childhood programs are linked to the knowledge skills of the providers who staff them. It is important that state and federal policymakers make core knowledge and competencies that infant and toddler professionals need, professional development and incentives (including scholarships, compensation and benefits) part of the policy discussions.
We here at Early Ed Watch think state’s workforce development efforts are important, especially those that provide scholarships to obtain additional education. States will also need to find ways to update their compensation systems to recognize professional credentials or identify high-quality caregivers through third-party observations of their daily work. Strong early learning systems rely on those who work with infants and toddlers in a professional capacity and who are more than just babysitters. As demands for accountability and qualifications grow, states should find ways to retain those individuals who work with infants and toddlers in a meaningful way—nurturing and enriching their development in all domains and providing support that their families need.