Quality Matters in Early Childhood Education

By Amy Bornemeier, Associate Vice President of Early Childhood Programs

You’ve probably heard that high-quality early care and education opportunities are key to laying the foundation for success in school and later in life. Research indicates that the most critical period of brain development is between birth and age three, and the strength and resiliency of children’s developing neural connections depends on the quality of their early experiences and environments.

Clearly, quality matters. But what exactly is quality? How is quality measured?

There are nationally-recognized stamps of approval for quality early care and education programs, such as licensed and accredited. It seems there’s a different definition and set of indicators for each early childhood initiative out there.  For each of these initiative’s indicators there are sub-indicators, adding up to hundreds, even thousands of different ways to measure quality.   

Nebraska Child Care Licensing has Regulations.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children has Accredited Program Standards.

Head Start has Performance Standards.

Sixpence has Quality Criteria. 

The Nebraska Department of Education has Rule 11.

First Five Nebraska has summarized what parents should look for in a quality environment.

And now there’s a new initiative called Nebraska Step Up to Quality, which supports  providers in progressing through a 5-step quality rating and improvement system. The final standards and criteria are still “under construction,” and will be launched July 1, 2014. (For more information, contact eleanor.j.shirley@nebraska.gov.)

Can we simplify this a little?

Nebraska communities have been asked to assess the availability and accessibility of quality child care in order to develop collaborative plans to address their needs. These are the indicators of quality child care have been provided to assist them in that process:

  • Well-educated, well-trained, experienced attentive, responsive and engaged caregivers
    • Caregivers show affection, make eye contact, and speak directly to children with an encouraging tone
    • Children are soothed and supported when frustrated or challenged, helping them identify their feelings
    • Caregivers and families exchange information about the child’s development and learning progress
  • A safe, healthy and child-friendly environment
    • Sufficient and age-appropriate materials and toys are accessible, organized, and inviting
    • Safe, outdoor play spaces invite exploration and nurture curiosity
    • TV and video are not used to occupy children
    • Strict health and sanitation policies, including: an emergency plan, including staff trained in pediatric first aid and CPR; a handbook or written policies for parents, and healthy meals and snacks
  • Stimulating activities and appropriately structured routines
    • Caregivers thoughtfully organize age-appropriate experiences throughout the day that incorporate language, math, science, art, music, movement, and dramatic play
    • Imagination and creativity are nurtured
    • Children learn to positively interact through positive guidance and discipline practices
    • Opportunities for children to interact in small groups and to play independently
    • A balance of active and quiet activities
  • High child-to-caregiver ratios and small group sizes:
    • Infants: no more than 8 with at least 2 teaching staff always present
    • Toddlers: no more than 12 with at least 2 teaching staff always present
    • Preschoolers: no more than 20 with at least 2 teaching staff always present
  • Comprehensive supports for children and families such as health and nutrition, parent education and referral services
  • A state child care license

(source: Community Early Childhood System of Care (ECSOC) Self-Assessment)

This list is neither comprehensive, nor is it a recipe for success — having all of the ingredients doesn’t mean you will get a perfect outcome. What seems to be important is that whatever early care and education experience you choose, it is a good fit for your child and your family. It should reflect your values and you should feel comfortable in your choice. Like beauty, the definition of quality can be in the eye of the beholder.

These guidelines can be helpful in determining if a given center is living up to state standards, but ultimately, the best quality early care option is the one that works for your family.

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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Posted in Early Childhood
One comment on “Quality Matters in Early Childhood Education
  1. bmedinger says:

    Love this. Thanks for the great info.!

    Betty Medinger, LCSW

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