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Quality Programs for Infants and Toddlers: A View from the Door for Parents
By Kay Albrecht, Ph.D., and Linda G. Miller, Ed.D.

As parents, you spend a great deal of time and energy searching for and confirming your choice of child care and early education settings for your children. But how do you know if you've found the right place. You look into classroom doors or windows searching for information about the settings you are considering or you evaluate how the day has gone for your infant or toddler. What should you expect to see? What are the indicators that matter during this snapshot view? Here are some of the things that can confirm for both parents and teachers of young children that the right things are happening in the infant and toddler classroom.

Continuity of Teachers and Children in the Group
Familiar faces are crucial to high-quality care and early education for infants and toddlers. Continuity allows for predictability and stability. These facilitate children's adjustment to new settings and make the separation and reunion process pleasant in familiar surroundings. Continuity over time is also important. Keeping teachers and children together for longer periods of time (at least one year) allows teachers of infants and toddlers to create an experience that is compatible with the family experience.

A Sense of Peace and Tranquility
One of the most frightening aspects of out of home care for parents of infants and toddlers is the valid concern that children's emotional needs will not be met. Parents often fear that their child will need attention and not get it, not because the teachers aren't sincere and capable of providing such care, but because of the demands of having infants and toddlers in groups. This fear is magnified by the separation and reunion process. During the infant and toddler years, crying and resistance often (and quite normally) accompany the separations and reunions. As parents, you may leave a crying child at the beginning of the day and return to a crying child at the end of the day - fueling fears that the time in the middle couldn't have been very pleasant either. So, classrooms for infants and toddlers need to have a sense that the underlying timbre of the classroom is calm and stable. Crying children need a prompt response - at least a verbal connection ("I'm on my way as soon as I finish changing this diaper") - if not a physical one. Actions speak as loud as words do. Excellent teachers not only respond to distress, but they anticipate needs so the distress can be lessened or avoided altogether.

A Balance of New and Familiar in a Clean Environment
Because infants and toddlers spend a great deal of time on the floor exploring with their hands and mouths, the environment must be clean and have a fresh smell.
In addition to being clean, the classroom must also be predictable. Children need to be able to find things where they left them the last time they were at school. They also need novel and interesting things to do, objects to touch, places to be, things to dump and sort through, and things to be discovered by uncovering or unwrapping. Parents should also look for ample, well-arranged space. Overcrowding may be a problem with infant and toddler care because the room can be filled up with cribs and other furniture. Infants and toddlers need plenty of space - enough to always have another area to move or be moved to for exploration. Very young children need places for different visual and tactile stimulation and a place to get away from stimulation and excitement when it all gets to be too much.

Engagement Between Children and Teachers
One of the most critical components of high-quality care and early education for infants and toddlers is the interactive environment. Parents need to see teachers where children are, and children where teachers are. Sometimes this means physical engagement like being together on the floor or sharing a book in a comfortable rocking chair, and sometimes it means emotional engagement during routine activities like diapering and eating. You should also see teachers respond quickly to cries, look where the children look and comment on what is seen, check in to see if help is needed, talk often to children in ways that lead them to believe the teacher means what he or she says. Alice Honig of Syracuse University says to look for the light in children's eyes as a good cue that emotional contact is present.
Another sign of a high-quality infant or toddler program is teachers spending time observing children. Careful observation is the source of recognition of developmental progress and the way to discover emergent skills and interests. It also ensures that teachers register and make changes as children change so that boredom does not set in.

Change in Pace Across the Day
Because infants and toddlers in full day care and early education can spend a majority of their day in care which is out of the home, pace changes are crucial, both for children and the adults who care for them. Parents can look for changes in positions for young infants, as well as indications that all children get opportunities to go outside, to sign and respond to music, and to experience changes in the learning environment (e.g., closing and opening window blinds). Additionally, parents need to see the pace pick up and become energetic and active and then quiet down to become intimate and soothing.

Help with Social Problem Solving
Children under three in out of home care are not yet able to interact for long periods of time in groups without facilitation and support. Parents should look for teachers to be helping children be together. In the beginning this looks a lot like protection from other children - keeping fingers out of mouths, helping children crawl around rather than over, supporting side by side play, and giving infants and toddlers opportunities to look at and watch other children doing interesting things. Later on, it includes facilitating emerging social skills like sharing resources, taking turns, and using words to communicate needs and wants.

Parents as an Integral Part of the Learning Environment
The belief that parents are a child's first and most important teachers is the basis for good parent-teacher relationships. When parents are included as an essential part of the child's school experience, teachers, parents, and children all benefit and grow.

Kay Albrecht, Ph.D., is the former director of Hearts Home Early Learning Center, a nationally accredited early childhood program in Houston, TX. She is a senior partner in Innovations in Early Childhood Education. Her consulting specialties include director and teacher training and curriculum development. Her latest books, Innovations: The Complete Infant and Toddler Curriculum and Innovations: The Complete Toddler Curriculum, co-authored with Linda Miller, Ed.D., are available from Gryphon House (800-638-0928).

Linda G. Miller, Ed.D., has 26 years of experience in the field of education as a classroom teacher, supervisor, federal projects administrator, and curriculum developer. Her latest books, Innovations: The Complete Infant and Toddler Curriculum and Innovations: The Complete Toddler Curriculum, co-authored with Kay Albrecht, Ph.D., are available from Gryphon House (800-638-0928).

Quality Programs for Infants and Toddlers: A Yes/No Checklist Continuity of Teachers and

Children in the Group

1.       Most teachers and children are present in the classroom.

2.       Children and teachers are kept together for at least one year before moving on to a new group.

3.       All children are welcomed by name into the classroom.

 

A Sense of Peace and Tranquility

1.       Noise and activity levels are comfortable. Neither crying children nor adult voices dominate.

2.       Infants and toddlers are able to play and work without being disrupted by the general noise or activity level of the room.

3.       The level of noise and activity does not prevent children from remaining on their own schedules-sleeping when they are tired, eating when they are hungry, etc.

 

A Balance of New and Familiar in a Safe, Clean Environment

1.       The classroom is clean and odor free.

2.       There is a place for each child to put his or her things.

3.       Teachers provide constant, careful supervision. If the teacher can't help a child immediately, she communicates with both verbal and non-verbal signals.

4.       The room is furnished with numerous appropriate toys and materials.

5.       Teachers and children wash hands often and well.

6.       All toys and surfaces are disinfected properly.

 

Engagement Between Children and Teachers

1.       Teacher shows an awareness of each child's temperament and stage of development.

2.       Teachers invest in quality time with each child during both routine and stimulation activities.

3.       Teachers routinely talk with children and interact in other ways like with songs, rhymes, and fingerplays.

4.       Teachers are near where children are. They hold them, play with them, and talk with them often.

 

Change in Pace Across the Day

1.       Teachers are aware of and prepare for children's individual schedules.

2.       Children have daily opportunities to choose among various activities and materials.

3.       Children have a variety of opportunities to play on the floor both inside and outdoors.

 

Help with Social Problem Solving

1.       Teachers have realistic expectations for the behaviors of infants and toddlers. They share their knowledge of these expectations to parents.

2.       Teachers understand that children need adult support to regulate their behavior during the first three years. They stay near when children are playing closely together rather than just using language to direct or redirect children.

3.       Teachers understand that infants and toddlers cannot share. They help children learn the skills that lead to sharing like waiting, taking turns, and asking for what you want with gestures or words.

 

Parents as Integral Part of the Learning Environment

1.       Parents are invited to participate at various levels and in various ways.

2.       Program has an "open door" policy concerning family members.

3.       Parents and teachers of each child freely share information both formally and informally.