By Susan Stopper
Research shows that children who receive higher quality early child care are better prepared for school with stronger reading and math skills, larger vocabularies, and more advanced social and emotional development. How can parents find child-care programs that will deliver those benefits for their children?
New Jersey has joined 40 other states, including Delaware and Pennsylvania, in offering a state-sponsored rating system of child-care and early-learning programs. Grow NJ Kids helps providers, who volunteer to participate, with the tools to assess and improve their programs. Participating programs are listed at GrownNJKids.gov and rated with one to five stars based on health and safety, curriculum and learning environment, family and community engagement, workforce and professional development of staff, and administration and management. Parents can search for participating programs based on location, rating, ages served or whether they are in a home or a center.
While the program is voluntary, Stephanie Wallen-Fort, director at Holding Hands Family Child Care and Play Center in Mullica Hill, NJ, says, “Our belief is that taking the step to participate shows our commitment to quality. We have always emphasized strong relationships between staff and the children, and that is a big part of this program.”
Holding Hands enrolled in Grow NJ Kids in June 2018 but won’t receive a rating for 18 months to two years because the assessment process is so comprehensive. “It touches every part of the business, from how we wash hands, to the curriculum, to staff policies, to programs for parents,” says Wallen-Fort. “But the process is more important than the stars at the end. Every opportunity to improve along the way trickles down to the children.”
The process has inspired Holding Hands to adopt a new research-based curriculum that blends learning into every part of the day. For instance, instead of working on reading at 10am and writing at 11am, reading and writing are integrated into all parts of the day, including playtime, so children see the connection of these skills to different aspects of their lives. “The curriculum is better matched to this stage of life when kids are active learners,” says Wallen-Fort. Holding Hands is aiming for more than three stars, but Wallen-Fort says that even a three-star rating indicates a quality program.
“Star-rated programs exceed state licensing requirements. The difference between three, four and five stars may not be immediately apparent in the day-to-day experiences of the child or parent,” says Wallen-Fort. “It may be because the center offers one less parent workshop a year or does not participate in a home-visit program.”
While participating in Grow NJ Kids helps child-care providers meet quality standards, Wallen-Fort explains that providers can still differentiate themselves through individual philosophies and implementation techniques. For instance, Holding Hands is committed to flexible schedules that accommodate parents whose work schedules change or who only need one day of care a week.
Providers can also choose how to implement rating standards. For example, all programs that participate must have a parent-communication policy, but how they communicate is the provider’s decision. Wallen-Fort says at Holding Hands they send lots of photos so parents can see their children as they learn and play. These individual differences, paired with Grow NJ Kids’ ratings, can help parents find a quality program that fits their needs and preferences.
Susan Stopper is a freelance writer.