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Childcare centers found to be difficult workplaces; affects care offered
STANFORD -- Childcare centers are difficult places to work, characterized by low wages and stressful conditions that result from inadequate staffing and a general lack of resources and training, an exploratory study of four childcare centers as workplaces has found.
Job turnover rates among workers were high as a result of the poor conditions, and the quality of care suffered in the sampling of public and private centers studied in depth in Santa Clara County, Calif. The study was led by Myra Strober, labor economist and professor of education at Stanford University, and will be published this spring in the first issue of the journal Feminist Economics.
Strober's findings help explain results from a national report, "Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers," released in February by researchers at four universities. That report, which studied 400 licensed daycare centers, concluded that the vast majority of the 5 million American children cared for in childcare centers are receiving mediocre care, in centers where health and safety requirements are not met, a learning atmosphere is not created and warm, supportive relationships are not engendered.
Strober said she hopes her research results will lead to additional studies of childcare centers as workplaces, to help address some of the problems facing the childcare industry.
"One of the factors that child psychologists say is extremely important for childcare is continuity of personnel," Strober said. "Children need to make emotional connections with childcare teachers. When the workplace in childcare is so stressful, the turnover rates among personnel become very high, making it difficult for many centers to provide the care children need."
Annual job turnover rates for preschool teachers in Santa Clara County were found to be 43 percent for teachers and 68 percent for aides, according to a 1988 survey conducted by the Santa Clara County Department of Education. Similar figures have been found nationally and are on par with turnover rates for gas station attendants, Strober said.
She and her colleagues designed their study to complement other quantitative childcare studies by using an approach of talking directly with childcare workers. Graduate students Suzanne Gerlach-Downie and Kenneth Yeager conducted 20 interviews of aides, teachers and directors at four centers. The centers included a non-profit center subsidized by the state, serving 166 children; a non-profit center subsidized by a local social service agency, serving 115 children; a private for- profit center fully funded by parents' fees, serving 163 children; and a private for- profit center that is part of a nationally franchised chain, serving 186 children.
A number of factors were found at each of the centers that contributed to the difficult workplace environment. These included low wages, inadequate staffing and training, lack of preparation time for teachers and lack of management training for directors.
Low wages, staffing
All of the workers at the centers that were studied mentioned low pay and poor prospects for pay increases as negative aspects of their job, especially given the high cost of living in Santa Clara County. In addition, only one of the centers in the study offered health and dental benefits to its employees.
In some cases, teachers also had to provide their own supplies out of their low paychecks. "I can't tell you how often I had to get my own paint, make my own clay - and it was coming out of my own pocket. They didn't have the petty cash," said a former teacher at one center.
Directors at each of the four centers faced a chronic problem of inadequate staff, constantly adjusting to meet adult/child ratios mandated by the state. The number of children at the centers typically varied hour to hour and day to day, forcing staff to move back and forth from room to room. In addition, the directors noted that because of the lack of funding for, and availability of, substitutes in cases of illness, many of their staff ended up coming in sick, adding to the stressful conditions. The directors also had a hard time replacing staff when they did leave and often had to double up responsibilities on existing staff or hire less qualified people for the job.
"I had one person out today in my toddler room, and then I still haven't filled that 2-year-old opening or my other infant opening," one director told researchers. "So I'm essentially three people down today. . . . If I hadn't hired somebody earlier this week, I'd be four people down. Then I'd be crazy."
Training, preparation time
Although laws require childcare teachers to have early childhood education credits, a general shortage of teachers has left many centers with teachers employed on emergency licenses without any coursework specifically for teaching pre-school children, according to Strober. Of the teachers interviewed, those with early childhood education training felt more competent, faced less stress and were less likely to leave.
Said one teacher after completing her early childhood training: "People say, 'Oh, what a hard job. How can you do it? How can you work with those kids?' I say now, 'Because I know how to do it. . . . Now I know how to handle the kids.' ”
Many workers included in the study had difficulty attending early childhood education classes that were offered. Most worked all day and had to fit in classes at night, creating a burden for many, especially those with families of their own.
The teachers and aides at each of the four centers also indicated they had very little time for setting up classrooms, developing activities or preparing materials. As a result, they often put in their own unpaid time for preparation. Some felt that the absence of preparation time symbolized the lack of professional regard by their employers.
Director experience, skills
In the centers studied, it was found that the directors often had the most influence on the quality of the workplace environment. Their responsibilities included everything from overseeing budgetary allocations and staffing to developing teaching methods and materials, to setting styles of staff and parent communication. Yet none of the directors interviewed had any formal management training. According to Strober, directors were trying their utmost to be good managers in extremely stressful situations, but were simply not trained to do their jobs.
Strober emphasized that excellent childcare centers do exist, but the difficult workplace problems highlighted in the study may well be widespread and not limited only to centers. Family daycare providers likely face many of the same issues, she said.
"There is no way we can have excellent childcare unless we put into it the resources that are required," Strober said. "While it is clear that the rewards for workers in terms of hourly pay and benefits need to be increased, other ways of improving the childcare worker environment are relatively inexpensive."
Early childhood training classes need to be made accessible to childcare teachers and aides, Strober stressed, and management training should be provided to directors. Some economists argue that enforcing existing laws that require childcare workers to have training would worsen the shortage of teachers for childcare. However, Strober said her findings suggest the shortage would be decreased, because workers with training are less likely to leave.
Strober encouraged community colleges to work with state departments of education and teacher credentialing boards to inaugurate pilot projects in which child development classes are offered at childcare centers. Strober said she also hopes foundations, community organizations and governmental agencies will give high priority to the development and testing of training programs for childcare center directors. In addition, she urged businesses to get involved by supporting training and research projects aimed at management training for directors, and by helping employees find quality daycare options.
"Since work being done in these areas is at the early stage, we should view programs as experimental," she said. "Demonstration projects and research to determine what works best for improving the workplace environment for childcare workers are greatly needed."
Copies of the study, "Childcare Centers as Workplaces," are available from Myra Strober, School of Education, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-3096. The study was co-authored by former doctoral students Suzanne Gerlach-Downie of SRI International, Menlo Park, Calif., and Kenneth E. Yeager of the Department of Political Science, San Jose State University.
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