Family child care educators serve a crucial role in society: enriching the lives of children, as well as providing parents with vital services and peace of mind while they are at work.
With the complications due to COVID-19, access to safe and high-quality child care is more important now than ever. Traditionally, family child care educators have represented an extremely fragmented market. Yet recently, networks of support have been forming around them that may provide an opportunity to more feasibly address the family child market segment. Over the past six months, the team at our company, Cognitive ToyBox has been working with family child care educators to understand how to better support them.
Through grants supported by the Harvard Center for Developing Child and the 4.0 Schools New Normal Fellowship, CTB has recently spoken to or worked with dozens of family child care educators to better understand their needs and potential solutions and opportunities for up-skilling. Through these conversations, we learned that family child care educators oftentimes form the backbone of a community, helping it to thrive from the ground up by setting up the youngest children and their families for success.
It is not uncommon for family child care educators to care for between 6 and 12 children, with all of the families working for the same organization or in the same field. Many family child care educators adjust their hours and schedules to serve the needs of families.
For example, we spoke with educators who have 4 a.m. start times to better serve agricultural families. Educators who serve law enforcement or medical workers have typically adjusted their hours to fit the needs of those professions. Many of the family child care providers we spoke with are embedded within (micro) communities, serving as an extension of the family unit by providing a safe and nurturing environment for children while their parents are on the job.
At the same time, all of the educators that we spoke with also emphasized their responsibilities as a teacher in preparing each child for school through high-quality learning experiences.
Urgently Needed, and Expensive
Despite the vital role that family child care educators play in caring for and developing the next generation, many of them are struggling to stay afloat.
These educators earn low salaries for long hours of work and often do not have access to the same quality of support and resources as their center and school-based counterparts. At the same time, child care is extremely expensive for families.
These market conditions have caused 97,000 family child care home educators to close in the United States from 2005 to 2017. COVID-19 may exacerbate this decline. ChildCareRelief recently estimated that 50 percent of child care educators could close their doors due to COVID-19. This would have a crippling effect on the economy, and impact thousands of families who depend on child care to return to work.
Although COVID-19 has posed significant challenges to family child care educators, it may also present new opportunities. Anecdotally, we have heard that enrollment numbers have significantly decreased for school-based early childhood programs in the 2020-21 school year.
It’s too early to tell, but families may prefer to place their child in family child care educators, which have parallels to the “learning pod” model in K-12. Family child care educators, which we view as analogous to “early childhood learning pods”, have a dedicated teacher who tends to the individual needs of each child, while also being responsive to families needs in terms of work schedules, as well as their cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Big Tech Needs
Most education policy discussions and resources, including ed-tech solutions, have traditionally revolved around support for “formal” school-based settings. However, it may be equally important to support “informal” education programs such as family child care educators in both policy and resource discussions, especially as the learning pod model becomes more prevalent.
In conversations with family child care educators, we were surprised by how little technology is utilized within these programs. This isn’t due to lack of interest: family child care educators spoke at length about the potential of technology to reduce their administrative burdens and paperwork associated with licensing, participation in Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, and general business operations.
There is an opportunity for ed-tech companies to expand into the informal education and child care market. One lesson learned from our research is that products designed for formal education settings won’t necessarily work “out of the box” for informal education settings.
It took several months of piloting and iterating on our product to meet the needs of family child care educators. Similarly, ed-tech companies that wish to expand into the “new normal” of the informal education market will need to dedicate time and resources to adapt their solutions to support these new learning models.
Co-authored by Nikki Navta, Partnership Manager, and Tammy Kwan, CEO, of Cognitive ToyBox