SHOULDN'T any reasonably sensitive person be able to care for a group of children? Common sense may say yes, but a lot of people who have devoted careers to studying child care would contend that things are far from that simple. These experts say the need for systematic training for providers of child care is enormous.
At present, ``there is no question that the level of training of many people in day care is quite low,'' says Ron Haskins, a Congressional Science Fellow who has done extensive research on child care. The reason, he says, is ``pretty clear -- money. We just don't pay enough for day care to have the kinds of programs advocates seem to think we need.''
Yet close observers of the field point out that many relatively well-educated people stay in child care simply because they love it. And training, where it's made available, is usually well received.
But what does ``training'' mean when it comes to taking care of children? In the past, such know-how simply passed down from one generation to another.
Today's changing family patterns, and increasing use of day care, have changed all that.
Providing child care ``is a profession; there are skills. . . .'' insists Ellen Galinsky, a child-care specialist with Bank Street College in New York. ``It is not the same as taking care of your own children in your own home.''
And it's a profession, she says, that requires a solid background in such fundamentals of child development as knowing what curriculum is appropriate to a particular age group, the basics of health and safety, and how to form ``effective partnerships with parents.''
Other experts contacted by the Monitor mentioned training in detecting child abuse as well, a legal requirement in some states.
``Anything to raise these women's attitudes about the importance of what they're doing'' is positive, says Alison Clarke-Stewart, of the University of California at Irvine, referring to small-scale family day-care businesses, run usually by women in their own homes. ``We know that the home-care providers who do the best job think of themselves as professionals,'' she adds.
Is there any danger of setting training standards so high that some people, particularly those with low incomes and little formal education, will be excluded from jobs in day care?
``It's a constant concern,'' says Gwen Morgan of Wheelock College in Boston. ``Clearly you want children to have access to models from their own communities.''
She explains that there is a ``a fair amount of emphasis on in-service training.'' This allows people to learn skills while on the job and helps keep the field open to individuals who may lack formal education.
Stronger training requirements will have ``a screening effect,'' Mrs. Morgan admits. In her view, it will become apparent that some people aren't suited for child-care work. Training, in effect, can ``counsel'' those people in a different direction, she says.
Dr. Clarke-Stewart sees no immediate danger of excluding people who'd like to enter the field. More to the point, she says, there are many untrained and unlicensed providers working now, most of whom would welcome some form of training. Training through teleconferencing
Some promising training efforts are under way already. Community Coordinated Child Care in Madison, Wis., reaches day-care providers via a video network. Diane Adams, director of the program, explains that her agency works in partnership with the University of Wisconsin extension service to operate ``a giant party line'' for day-care providers in the state.
The university's Educational Teleconference Network has 120 locations -- often courthouses or other public buildings -- where people enrolled in the course can watch a TV monitor and join in discussions. ``No one is farther away than 20 miles'' from one of the stations, says Ms. Adams.
The teleconference courses touch on a wide range of subjects, including practical information on how to finance a child care center, curriculum options, administrative tips, and tax matters.
Enrollment varies, but Adams estimates a current five-course offering, called the ``Child Care Improvement Project,'' regularly reaches 160 providers. Each pays $20 to participate.
Using money provided through the federal Job Training Partnership Act, Adams's agency has also launched a project to train low-income day-care providers. An important part of that effort is the role of ``mentors,'' experienced providers who work closely with the students in setting up a new child-care business.
Wisconsin, unlike most states, requires a certain level of training for day-care providers: one 40-hour course to be an aide in a child-care center, two 40-hour courses to be a teacher in a center, one 40-hour course to be a licensed family day-care provider (plus 15 hours of continuing education). So in Wisconsin, says Adams, ``it's a given, you will go to training.'' Corporate funding for training
The Child Care Initiative Project, administered by the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, is designed to give ``intensive training and expand the supply of licensed providers,'' as network executive director Patty Siegel explains it. Under the program, six pilot programs are being set up in various parts of the state. The bulk of the funding for the initiative has come from Bank of America and other large California companies.
Mrs. Siegel's organization, one of more than 100 child-care ``R and R'' (resource and referral) networks in the country, has long disseminated information about good day-care practices through its dozens of local member agencies. ``What's new is to have corporate support for training,'' she says.
Each pilot project gets a grant of around $60,000, says Siegel. And the funders are committed to expanding the program to eight more sites next year. As part of the program, the Resource and Referral Network has produced a ``Family Daycare Training Handbook,'' which will be distributed throughout the state.
Siegel's organization is also under contract with the state to train day-care providers in child-abuse detection and prevention. Accreditation of institutions
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has set up an accreditation system for day-care centers through its National Academy of Early Childhood Programs.
Though the immediate goal of the program is to accredit child-care institutions, thus setting a standard for the field, ``the whole process is a valuable training mechanism,'' says director Sue Bredekamp.
That process has three stages. First, the staff of a child-care center undertakes a ``self-study'' to see how well it meets the criteria set down by the NAEYC -- concerning relations between staff and children, curriculum, and physical surroundings, among other things. Directors, teachers, and parents are all asked to contribute to this self-analysis, says Dr. Bredekamp.
Next comes an on-site visit by the NAEYC staff. This verifies improvements made as a result of the self-study. The final step: a decision, made by a commission of nationally known experts, on whether to accredit.
Accreditation is good for three years, then a center has to go through the process again. The system has been in operation only since last fall. At present, says Bredekamp, 600 child-care centers in 40 some states are in the self-study stage. Twenty-five centers are currently having their on-site visits. New centers are joining the program at a rate of about five a day, she says.
The subsidiary of NAEYC, the Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition, runs a credential program for child-care providers. It was recently expanded to include family day-care providers. Over 17,000 people in 50 states have received the Child Development Associate credential so far, says Peggy Harrel, director of promotion for the program.
Bredekamp emphasizes that the NAEYC programs are not designed to squeeze all child-care providers into the same mold. She readily acknowledges differing philosophies of child care within the field. ``We feel our standards represent a consensus on what a good quality program is,'' she says.
``We're not trying to make them all the same, but to assure that there is a level of quality parents can be assured of.''