Growing numbers of working mothers, dual-earner families and single-earner families continue to increase the need for high quality, affordable child care. According to the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, in March 2016, six out of every ten mothers of children under age 3 were in the labor force. Seven out of every ten mothers of children age 3 to 5 were in the labor force. Children are entering child care settings at earlier ages than ever before.
As we learn more about brain development and how crucial the early years are to later learning, we know we must add a focus to who is caring for our young children. These first years are a very important and pivotal time for a developing brain. This intense period of brain growth and synapse building happens only once in a lifetime and we have a brief but golden opportunity to help our children stimulate the formation of their growing brains. Patterns for much of their future learning are established during this time.
And yet the more we learn, it seems we are no closer to providing the children or their caregivers with that which they need and deserve.
First, our children need a quality care environment with trained, skilled and nurturing caregivers. Respect for children demands that we pay attention to their abilities and provide meaningful, relevant and interesting ways for them to expand their understandings. Nurturing relationships require adults to be as responsive to children’s social-emotional needs as to their intellectual demands. Intellectual development and social-emotional development are inseparable.
As important is what we provide our Early Childhood Education teachers and caregivers. First, we must offer them a living wage. There were 2.6 million persons employed in these occupations in 2016. Child care workers in private household, who work full-time, had median weekly earnings of $211; early childhood teaching assistants had median weekly earnings of $275 and pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers had median weekly earnings of $440. These low salaries coupled with a lack of benefits contribute to a high turnover rate of child care providers. How can we attract young professionals into the field if they know what awaits them is a job with low pay, no benefits and not much respect?
Without qualified, trained, respected caregivers, how can we provide our young children all that they need for optimal brain development?
We know that childhood experiences form the child. According to Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, “Humanity is created in childhood.” In a recent article he states, “An appreciation of biological relativity and the crucial organizing power of childhood experience have never been more important.”
Children are born with brains that require wiring. Caregivers with an understanding of the neurological foundation of learning enables them to support young children’s individual learning styles and support appropriate care and education practices. They are able to address the total developmental needs of young children. Growth towards a healthy brain involves: responsive nurturing, avoidance of stress, a secure emotional relationship and educated caregivers.
This is why early childhood teachers and care providers deserve our respect and attention. In today’s ever changing society, many children are cared for and educated by multiple adults in numerous settings. The choices we make will have a profound impact on our future as a society. Policy makers must discuss how society will support systems to protect, nurture, educate and enrich our children. We must make it a priority to find ways to provide a living wage for early childhood teachers as a means to address the teacher shortage. The time is now.