QRIS: Empowering Family Child Care Providers as Leaders
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I am a teacher. I didn’t see myself as one before, but I do now, and that gives me confidence to do many things—hold parent conferences, record observations, do assessments, and plan lessons and events for the children and their families. —Family Child Care Provider
As a result of her participation in one state’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), this family child care provider gained knowledge and skills that transformed the way she served children and families in her program. Recent estimates indicate that family child care homes make up approximately 20 percent of the child care community, with children spending an average of 30 hours a week in such settings (Laughlin 2013). Family child care providers are an important sector of the early care and education community, yet they are often overlooked as key stakeholders and leaders in the field. The rise of quality rating and improvement systems in states in the past 10 years addresses this oversight as they include family child care homes in their quality improvement efforts. QRIS were established as a means to provide a common set of standards of practice across different types of programs in early care and education—including center-based, home-based, and school-based programs.
QRIS provide a framework for engaging family child care providers in quality improvement efforts and create a mechanism for including family child care providers in important community-and state-level discussions and decisions regarding early childhood policy and practice. QRIS consist of five core components:
- Quality standards in important areas of practice
- Monitoring of early childhood programs in relation to the standards
- Assistance to programs in meeting the quality standards
- Financial incentives for program improvement
- Dissemination of program quality information to parents and the broader community (Child Trends 2010).
The power of relationships
Delaware, the author’s home state, has adopted a QRIS technical assistance model that emphasizes relationship-based support for the family child care community in general. For family child care providers serving a higher proportion of children and families in low-income neighborhoods, a higher intensity model of support including more technical assistance, additional financial incentives, coordinated professional development, and a community of practice is available. Delaware Stars consists of five star levels—those entering the program are designated as “Starting With Stars.” Programs work their way through the star levels with level 5 representing the highest quality.
In Delaware, technical assistants (TAs) have a caseload consisting of either center or family child care programs and work with these programs throughout their journey as they achieve each star level. This long-term relationship allows family child care professionals and their TAs to develop an ongoing, collaborative partnership that supports quality improvement efforts by building on the providers’ strengths and providing professional development opportunities that meet the providers’ individual professional needs. This customized approach, which provides more frequent one-on-one support and opportunities for reflecting on practice, successfully engages providers in the QRIS as well as empowers them to grow professionally as they become leaders and advocates in the field.
Empowerment is key
Delaware’s QRIS engages all participating programs in designing and enacting their own quality improvement journey. Empowerment—the belief that one has the skills and knowledge to make a positive impact within one’s own context—is fundamental to this approach (Bogler & Somech 2004). Family child care providers partner with Delaware Stars to design and implement quality improvement strategies that are specific to their individual goals and program needs. Delaware’s QRIS hybrid system has a smaller number of required standards at higher star levels, allowing providers to select additional quality standards that align with their philosophy and practice when developing their quality improvement plan. Ernestine, a family child care provider participating in the QRIS, capitalizes on this approach when making decisions about her quality improvement goals and starting on her path to leadership.
During early conversations with Cherise, her TA, Ernestine explains that she has always built strong relationships with the families she serves. She describes the multiple family events she hosts throughout the year and the in-depth conversations she has with parents at drop-off and pickup. Ernestine also enjoys participating in trainings and workshops, often accumulating far more than the number of annual hours required each year for maintaining licensing.
Ernestine and Cherise create a quality improvement plan that uses these strengths for acquiring points in the QRIS standards that Ernestine has chosen to concentrate on. The plan implements biannual parent–provider conferences and annual developmental screenings to enhance program quality and provide additional support to families. Along the way, QRIS supports Ernestine and offers her resources, such as materials and professional development to encourage the sustainability of program improvements.
Quality improvement strategies
Delaware Stars uses a variety of support strategies to effectively engage family child care providers in QRIS and build their capacities as leaders in the field, including relationship-based technical assistance, community of practice participation, and coordinated professional development planning.
Relationship-based technical assistance
Relationship-based technical assistance—the foundation for supporting programs—is established through positive, trusting, and respectful relationships between the TA and the provider (NAEYC & NACCRA 2011). Early in a family child care provider’s enrollment in Delaware Stars, the technical assistant assigned to the provider invests time and energy in building relationships with her and understanding her program operations as well as the children and families she serves. The TA’s efforts then shift to addressing the specific goals set by the provider.
The TA uses the relationship as a foundation for building the provider’s skills through observation, reflection, and modeling, in alignment with evidence from studies on how coaching is used in early care and education programs (Isner et al. 2011). Providers have some choice in selecting the quality standards for moving from one level to another.
Erika provides family child care services to Spanish-speaking families in her community. She talks with Joanne, her TA, about the need to improve communication with families and to connect families to outside resources. To meet this need, Erika chooses a quality improvement plan that incorporates standards related to family and community partnerships and dual-language learners.
Erika implements a number of Delaware’s QRIS strategies to improve her program. She incorporates both Spanish and English into the curriculum, makes dual language labels for the child care space, and communicates with families in both languages. She serves as a liaison with outside agencies to provide early intervention services and obtains information from the local school district about school readiness. Her actions result in stronger relationships with families and more family participation in the program.
Engaging in decision making, as Erika has done, increases the likelihood that not only will a provider embrace changes made in the program, but the changes will be effective and sustainable. Including providers in the decision-making process of improving program quality also influences providers’ self-efficacy. As providers experience an increase in self-efficacy, their motivation and commitment to their work is strengthened and they are better able to persevere through challenges (Bandura 1977).
Communities of practice
A cohort of eight family child care providers gathers for their first community of practice meeting. Accustomed to attending traditional support group meetings or trainings to meet annual licensing hours, the providers sit together in silence, unsure of what they are getting themselves into. Little do they know that over the next two years they will experience life-changing events that will not only enhance their programs but also have a profound effect on them professionally, including pursuing college degrees, taking on leadership roles, and advocating for high-quality early childhood programs throughout the state.
Communities of practice (CoP) are groups that foster collaborative learning through the sharing of information and experiences (Wenger 2000) and lead to positive changes in teaching practice (Vescio, Ross, & Adams 2008). Unlike support groups, which may be used as venting sessions, this professional network gives providers a supportive, nonjudgmental forum that promotes personal growth and a sense of self-worth. The monthly meetings, which run for approximately two hours, are facilitated by the TA and often take place at local libraries in the evening or on Saturday mornings, depending on the consensus of the group. It sometimes takes several meetings before providers are comfortable enough to interact effectively with others, especially since such interaction is not typical in customary meeting formats or in professional development offerings that providers are used to attending. Over time, providers use these meetings to motivate each other through friendly competition, build self-confidence, and implement new practices, similar to other family provider’s participation in different networks (Lanigan 2011).
Model Community of Practice Meeting Agenda
- Meal (provided by Stars) and socializing (approx. 30 min.)
- Sharing successes and challenges—strategies that have worked, newly found resources to share with other providers, and recent challenges providers may be struggling with (approx. 1 hour, 15 min.)
- Resources and updates shared by the teaching assistant (approx. 15 min.)
The meeting agenda is based on the current needs of the providers, as they share recent successes and challenges in their individual quality improvement plans. Through this collaboration and reflection providers are able to acquire and internalize new knowledge and then apply it—rather than merely retaining it—making these communities effective for professional growth (Buysse, Sparkman, & Wesley 2003). Time is allocated at the beginning of each meeting for providers to enjoy a meal and talk to one another. This encourages personal relationships for providers, who often work alone and rarely have opportunities for socializing with other providers. (See “Model Community of Practice Meeting Agenda.”) Having the support of fellow providers who share in each other’s desire to improve and grow is something the group members can continue—with or without the TA—and is another strategy for empowering providers and addressing sustainability. Take Cassie’s experience, for example.
During a recent meeting, Cassie tells her CoP group about her frustration with implementing a comprehensive curriculum, one of the standards she chose to work on in her quality improvement plan. She feels as though she is not teaching because many of the activities she was used to leading—like rote memorization of the alphabet and numbers—are not part of the new curriculum.
As fellow providers ask her questions about what activities she is doing, the group explains that Cassie is not only teaching the children letters and numbers through a more child-centered approach, but she is also extending the learning through hands-on activities that encourage children’s curiosity. Several providers think she is creating more authentic experiences for herself and the children. Cassie leaves the meeting feeling more confident in her teaching abilities and ready to share the new curriculum with the families she serves.
Coordinated professional development
Coordinated professional development is a quality improvement strategy and another component of the more intensive model of support for family child care providers, with the expectation that providers attend both monthly CoP meetings and specific professional development sessions. Sessions are offered through the state’s system for professional development and funded through the Delaware Stars program. Family child care providers participate in coordinated professional development, attending sessions with their fellow CoP group members and TA. The eight professional development trainings offered through QRIS focus on high-quality early childhood programming and successful business management, and they include one session specific to the unique context of family child care and multiage environments. In order to obtain Delaware’s Family Child Care Credential, providers must complete all 66 hours of the professional development sessions. The TA and providers decide in which order to attend trainings, based on the needs of the group.
Most sessions are held at community-based locations in the providers’ geographic area. This approach to professional development individualizes trainings, and enables TAs to support providers with implementation of new practices learned during training. The ongoing connection between professional development training and on-site technical assistance reflects a research-based model for successful professional development (Zaslow & Martinez-Beck 2005).
Reinforcing practices in the provider’s own program allows for more successful use of the new skills (Fullan 2007). Through the use of observation, reflection, and other quality improvement strategies during TA visits, providers are empowered to view professional development as a meaningful way to improve practice and grow professionally, rather than simply to meet annual hours. As Bettina, a family child care provider in the cohort, stated, “Knowing what I need helps me know what to look for. I might not be able to have everything in my program I’d like to have, but now I have a plan. I know what I want my backyard, my music area, and my dramatic play area to look like.”
Family child care providers as leaders
Engagement in QRIS can provide an entry into leadership opportunities for family child care providers. Over the past two years, Delaware’s QRIS has established a Family Child Care Ambassador program, with a team of 10 family child care ambassadors—providers who come from all parts of the state for monthly meetings. Ambassadors are family child care providers nominated by their TAs based on their leadership qualities, engagement in the quality improvement process, commitment to children and early childhood education, and their desire to make a difference for young children in Delaware. These providers take on leadership roles in recruiting and promoting participation in the QRIS through public speaking engagements, advocating for quality family child care programs by mentoring and supporting other providers, and serving on task forces that provide input to system policies.
Engagement in QRIS can provide an entry into leadership opportunities for family child care providers.
As with any new initiative, potential barriers and challenges continue to impact providers’ participation in the QRIS. One of the biggest challenges for providers has been finding their ability to balance their professional lives—with long business hours, quality improvement efforts, additional professional development, and commitments associated with their new leadership roles—with their personal lives and family responsibilities. Finding a healthy balance is not only important for the providers’ well-being but is also crucial to their continued professional growth and effectiveness (2002). Statewide quality improvement efforts can contribute to the stresses and challenges of being a family child care provider; however, the presence of an ambassador group creates a feedback mechanism to ensure that family child care providers’ concerns have a voice at the state level and ensures that the QRIS remains responsive and supportive of this sector.
Delaware Stars has opened many doors and exposed me to opportunities and people I never thought I would meet. Because of Stars, I am an ambassador, a contract trainer, and a soon-to-be owner and administrator of a center. Stars has taken my professionalism to a level I never thought I could reach. Our children get one-on-one help every day to accommodate their individual needs and prepare them for school, and I have never felt as much support from their families as I do today. Reaching Star level 5 was a major accomplishment because of how busy my days are. Support from Stars helped us offer events that involve parents and families, bridging the gap and making us partners. Families are now the initiators of events, and we follow their lead.
—Thelma, Family Child Care Provider
State-level quality improvement efforts like QRIS can provide an inclusive opportunity to build the leadership skills of family child care providers. This sector of the early childhood workforce is often overlooked when communities and states organize initiatives to improve the quality of early childhood education. As state systems are being built to engage a variety of program sectors in the early childhood field, meeting the unique needs of family child care providers creates opportunities to support them as leaders in their communities.
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Photographs: © iStock
Jennifer Cortes, MS, is a technical assistant for Delaware Stars for Early Success, the state’s quality rating and improvement system, and was a family child care provider for 15 years. [email protected]
Rena A. Hallam, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and associate director of the Delaware Institute for Excellence in Early Childhood at the University of Delaware. [email protected]