Last week, All Our Kin Executive Director Jessica Sager spoke with New America’s Aaron Loewenberg about All Our Kin’s history, our new study (which Aaron had written about previously in a different article), and the importance of investing in family child care providers. Read the interview with Jessica at New America’s website, or keep reading to see the whole thing here.
Aaron Loewenberg: What led you to create All Our Kin and what need does it fill?
Jessica Sager: All Our Kin grew out of a very particular historical moment–the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which “ended welfare as we know it.” The law imposed new job training requirements on welfare recipients with young children, and created a lifetime limit on their eligibility for benefits. I entered law school just weeks after President Clinton signed the Act. I had come to law school wanting to be an advocate for children; working with a local policy organization, I began researching the law’s consequences on children and families. It was clear that the Act’s new job training requirements would create a tremendous burden on our already inadequate child care system. We didn’t have then, and don’t have now, enough safe, healthy child care options, let alone the high-quality, nurturing, developmentally appropriate settings that we know are crucial for children’s development. Under these conditions, parents would be forced to choose between their families’ economic survival and their children’s well-being.
In response, Janna Wagner and I founded All Our Kin. In its initial form, All Our Kin was a lab school where parents on public assistance could come together with their young children. Participants trained to become early childhood educators, while working with their own and each other’s children. Our program was designed to enable parents to continue to receive benefits while they trained with us. Upon graduation, they could go to work at child care centers, or open family child cares in their neighborhoods, thus expanding child care options for other parents.
How did you get started working with family child care providers?
We began by working with the graduates of our lab school who had chosen to open family child care programs. Unlike those who had gone to work at child care centers, the family child care providers had nothing in place to support their continued professional development, and no resources to help them manage the multiple roles they had to play, as teacher, director, and business owner. We researched best practices around the country, and created a family child care network for our graduates based on what we learned had been most effective. Once we created the network, however, we found that the demand extended far beyond our original group of graduates. Family child care providers began reaching out to us, asking if they could take part in our trainings and programs. The network grew, first throughout New Haven (where All Our Kin began), then to adjoining towns, and eventually expanded to four cities in Connecticut: New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford and Norwalk. In 2008, we closed the lab school, focusing all our efforts on family child care.
Family child care is such a critical piece of the child care landscape. We know that almost half of all children under five spend a portion of their day in home-based care, and that our youngest children and our poorest children are especially likely to be in these settings. Family child care fills a pressing need for care that is affordable, accessible, flexible, and culturally diverse. If we care about children’s foundational learning experiences, it’s essential that we raise quality in home-based care.
Could you provide some more details about the organization’s Toolkit Licensing Program? And, what other services does All Our Kin offer to family child care providers?
The Toolkit Licensing Program, a collaboration between All Our Kin and the Connecticut Children’s Museum, has two components. The first component is a series of boxes–literally kits–that contain everything that a would-be family child care provider needs to become licensed in the state of Connecticut. The second component is the Toolkit Coordinator, an All Our Kin staff member who serves as a counselor, advocate, and critical friend. She helps applicants navigate the multistep process: her role includes everything from explaining the paperwork, to following up on the status of an application, to helping the applicant prepare her space for children. Throughout, she is reinforcing the message that child care providers are professionals, and that this is just the first step on a lifelong professional journey.
Once a provider becomes licensed, she graduates to All Our Kin’s Family Child Care Network. Our network, which is voluntary and free, offers providers a range of services to improve the quality of their care and the sustainability of their businesses. All our programs and services are offered in both English and Spanish. In each community, we also build relationships with multiple stakeholders–health providers, mental health providers, school systems, libraries, museums, food banks, legal clinics–so that we can connect family child care providers, and the parents and children that they serve, to a broader range of opportunities.
All Our Kin also runs a small Early Head Start-Family Child Care partnership program, in conjunction with the United Way of Greater New Haven, which serves as a learning lab for our work overall. Through Early Head Start, we’re able to access additional training and resources for providers, children and families, and learn new strategies that we can try out in other parts of the network.
A recent independent study found that providers affiliated with All Our Kin scored higher on measures of child care quality compared to other providers. What does this study tell us about what works in improving the quality of family child care settings?
The study is very exciting, because it makes a strong case for the value of investing in family child care quality. It supports what the research of scholars like Juliet Bromer tells us; staffed family child care networks are the most effective strategy for raising the quality of family child care programs.
We are still learning about what makes a network effective, but a few things are clear. First, relationships are fundamental. In order to be effective, work with family child care providers has to be strength-based, grounded in mutual respect and reciprocity between network staff and providers. Second, staff need specialized training and knowledge in order to do their work well. They need to understand the principles of both child development and adult development, as well as the particular strengths and challenges of family child care. Third, in order to combat the isolation and loneliness that go along with the work, providers must have opportunities to build relationships with each other, and engage with a broader professional community.
I’m hoping that the study will encourage states and communities to expand the professional development opportunities that they offer family child care providers. I’m also hoping that it will lead to additional funding for research into family child care initiatives like ours.
Are there any plans to replicate the All Our Kin model in other states or communities? Have other states or communities reached out to try to adopt this model?
We are working on a plan to expand the All Our Kin model to additional communities, both within Connecticut and beyond. Our strategy has two parts. First, over the next five years we plan to replicate directly in three to five additional sites. Second, we’d like to partner with agencies in other parts of the country who are already engaged in working with family child care providers, sharing what we’ve learned through trial and error over many years in the field. We get several calls a month from communities all over the country who would like to learn from what we do; we want to be responsive to their interest and enthusiasm. It’s exciting to see the growing interest in family child care, and the growing recognition that family child care is an essential piece of the child care puzzle.
What is the biggest challenge you see going forward when it comes to improving the quality of family child care providers?
Honestly, I think the biggest challenge is convincing stakeholders, such as policymakers, educators, and community leaders, that family child care programs can be a quality option for young children. Once you succeed in making the case, it follows logically that we need to provide the resources–funding, training, incentives–that will make quality possible.
What are your thoughts on the recommendations of the National Academy of Medicine’s Transforming the Workforce report and the implications for family child care providers?
I’ve read the Practitioner’s Guide, and I’m looking forward to reading the full report. I love the vision of a cohesive, unified set of standards for the early childhood workforce, and the acknowledgement of family child care providers as professional educators and lead teachers. The focus on high-quality professional learning systems is very much in line with the way we think about our work at All Our Kin, and the elements outlined in the report (active learning, coaching, peer study groups, sustained and intensive learning) are the same elements that we work to incorporate into all our professional learning activities with family child care providers. I hope the report will inspire states to think about ways to structure their professional development systems to align with these principles.
I am an advocate of bachelor’s degrees for all educators, including family child care providers, but only so long as the requirement is implemented thoughtfully, and providers receive the supports and resources necessary to make it feasible. In our experience, family child care providers are enthusiastic and eager to take college classes that directly apply to their work, but they are more challenged by, and less likely to see the value of, general education requirements. So, many of our providers have, with our support, obtained nine to twelve college credits in early childhood, but they rarely continue to a two- or four-year degree. Language barriers are also a challenge; few courses are available to our Spanish-speaking providers. So, to make this idea a reality, I think you’d need: (1) funding for scholarships; (2) specialized support for family child care providers (language supports, among others, and perhaps a cohort-based model); and (3) most of all, tangible incentives to make it worth family child care providers’ while.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
I am a huge advocate for investment in family child care, for so many reasons. First, as I discussed earlier, when you raise the quality of family child care, you reach many of our youngest, poorest children, those in the greatest need. Second, because family child care is such a good option for working families, when you expand the supply of care, you make it possible for low-income parents to enter and succeed in the workforce. And finally, through building family child care businesses, you raise the incomes of providers, many of whom are parents themselves, and help them build better lives for their own families.
New America is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.