Child care for Illinois’ infants and toddlers is lower-quality than that provided for preschool-age children, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis. While that’s typical around the country, it is cause for alarm because a child’s youngest years are the most critical for brain development.

The state is making a number of efforts to improve the quality of care for young children, but several of them have not caught on.

Data from state classroom quality ratings that took place in July through December 2011 shows that ratings of infant and toddler classrooms were significantly lower in program structure (such whether there is adequate time for free play, group activities accommodations for children with disabilities), interaction, activities, and language use. Catalyst Chicago obtained the ratings from the Illinois Department of Human Services through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Debra Pacchiano, director of continuous quality improvement at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, says that the lower interaction scores may be because it can be more difficult to meet the social-emotional needs of infants than those of preschoolers, who are less demanding.

“With children at this age, it’s all about reducing stress, [and] raising the level of attachment, predictability and comfort,” Pacchiano says. “The demands, physically and emotionally, are that much higher.”

The language score disparity may be because it’s harder to follow the attention and decode the cooing of an infant.

“You want to be able to see teachers in a very warm, responsive and attuned relationship,” Pacchiano says. “It’s not about [telling the child] look at this … it’s about joining in your attention with what the infant or toddler is focusing on.”

All that may be difficult for infant-toddler teachers, many of whom have low levels of education, to manage. But research shows that high-quality interaction is key for developing a young child’s attachment to a caregiver, ensuring the child feels secure in his or her environment. And a child’s youngest years, from birth to age 3, may be even more critical than what comes later.

“Unless you are that responsive, attuned caregiver, very quickly the child learns ‘you don’t make sense to me and I don’t make sense to you.’ You can very quickly see babies and toddlers kind of shut down,” Pacchiano says.

Nationwide, it’s typical for infants to be in the lowest-quality child care environments, she says.

The Illinois Department of Human Services rates child care programs with the ITERS (Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale) or the ECERS (Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale), depending on the age of students involved, as part of its optional Quality Counts rating system.

But the rating program, which aims to improve quality by giving higher state child-care reimbursement rates to programs that meet certain quality standards, has been slow to catch on.

Just over four percent of all the state’s 16,500 licensed child care programs currently participate. (Illinois has about 5,500 child care centers and 11,000 licensed child care home providers, according to a 2011 fact sheet from the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.)

Among infant-toddler programs, 400 have received 3-star ratings, which require (among other things) a score of at least 4.25 on the 7-point rating scale. But the benchmark for a high-quality classroom is a rating of at least 5. And 93 more infant-toddler child care programs – 12 percent of those that have applied – have failed to earn even a one-star rating, which requires score of 3 (or “minimal”) on the rating scale.

In 2008-09, the state also created a special credential for child care workers who work with children up to age 3. That requires a high school diploma or GED, work experience or classroom observation, and a handful of college classes (or an equivalent amount of non-college trainings). So far, just 176 teachers have earned it.

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