Waiting for Day Care

Earlier this year, the National Association for Family Child Care published a list of ten child care trends on the rise in the United States. A few things stick out on this list, specifically numbers 1 and 6. 

  1. “Competition from other child care programs will continue to increase. 

6.     “It will take longer to fill child care openings.” 

These forecasts point to a growing problem among child care providers and seekers: there are fewer spaces available than there are children who need care. This issue is amplified in high-population-density areas, where multiple families of similar socioeconomic backgrounds may be vying for the same spot at the neighborhood daycare. This results in long wait lists and an increasingly stressful experience for the parents and providers.  

Wall Street Journal story illustrated how wait-list pressures had turned one day care worker into “a spreadsheet geek.” The woman, Susan Herbert of Mableton, GA, now spends a significant portion of her day tracking data to help avoid making promises to parents that she can’t keep. She records things like birthdays, projected enrollment dates for wait-listed kids, and information based on projected first step or bottles needed for babies already enrolled at her facility. These variables help her predict openings with some accuracy, a necessity when she gets daily calls from parents begging for admission. 

So, why is this happening? And what can parents do to ensure their little ones get spots at nearby centers? We’ll break it down. 

What’s Going On? 

Parents are more intent than ever on getting high-quality child care for their children. They are so intent, in fact, that some sign up at popular centers within days of finding out they are expecting. To make things easier on the care providers, some child care centers don’t even offer paper applications, opting instead to hand parents wait-list forms when they arrive.  

There are a few reasons for this boom, but one of the most important has to do with changes in the work force. There are more women than ever working, which means there are fewer parents staying home to be full-time care providers. Infant care spots usually have the longest wait lists, indicating a general shortage of maternal and paternal leave. With more people in the workforce, and without generous parental leave laws, new parents are pressured to get back to work as soon as possible. This means they will seek out child care earlier.  

What Can You Do? 

It sounds crazy, but some child-care centers allow parents to wait-list children before they are even conceived. Directors will often accept a wait-list entry before conception so long as they pay an often-refundable deposit. Some directors will accept wait-list entries with no questions asked.  

However, we want to note that most parents don’t have the ability to plan their children with this type of accuracy, and putting down a deposit might not be feasible for some families. We have a few tips that might help you get into your preferred day care center, whether it’s the one with the best services or the one closest to your home or workplace. 

  • Visit several centers and try to get on more than one wait list. Ask about deposits and whether they are required or suggested. 
  • Register for child care at least one year before you will need it. This doesn’t have to be the moment you conceive, but you should start thinking about it while planning for the baby and sorting out parental leave. 
  • If you get on a wait list, call the center every month or two to ensure your status is accurate.  
  • Plan to enroll in summer, if possible. This is when more slots tend to open. 
  • Stay on the wait list at your first-choice provider even if you enroll elsewhere.  

Growing Evidence Suggests Benefits of Redshirting Pre-School and Kindergarten

Redshirting, or waiting to start your child’s academic education, is growing in popularity, and further evidence suggests the benefits of the practice may outweigh the drawbacks. Estimates of redshirting rates often fall between 3.3 and 5.5 percent of children eligible to enroll in kindergarten based on their age.  

What is Redshirting? 

As a term, redshirting has its origins in collegiate sports. The term is applied to an athlete who is kept out of competition to develop skills and develop additional eligibility. The term comes from the red shirts typically worn in practice by athletes training with the team but who may not participate in competition themselves.  

Academic redshirting means allowing a student or child an additional year to gain different skills. This could mean anything from taking time to improve reading comprehension to instilling social skills before sending them off to school. 

Making the choice to redshirt a child is never easy, and it should be a constant conversation between parents, school administrators and the kids themselves. Redshirting often happens if a child’s birthday is close to the cutoff date for a school year. In these cases, the decision determines whether the child will be the oldest or youngest student in the class. It will affect their learning and social education. 

However, it is important to note that redshirting appears to be a luxury item. The phenomenon is almost twice as prevalent in schools serving affluent student bodies as it is among those whose mean household income is close to the poverty line, and it is significantly more common among white students. This is unsurprising, as redshirting also implies an additional financial burden.  

Earlier Isn’t Always Better 

There is a modest but significant correlation between the initial age difference in children and student performance, but many have proven the relative-age effect to be negligible. If there is a benefit, it often diminishes with time. Still, there are several reasons aside from academic performance that could warrant redshirting, especially when it comes to child development.  

Redshirting a child or student can help with social skills. If a student attends school when they are not ready, it will affect the way they interact with other students, possibly changing the relationships they carry with them through their social and academic career. Redshirting can increase social confidence and provide the advantage of gaining popularity among peers when they eventually enter school. This can be especially important for children with forms of autism and/or personality disorders.  

Redshirting can also be extremely beneficial for children who have ADHD or other neurodevelopmental disorders. Taking an additional year to develop focus and attention skills and have benefits that extend beyond your child’s grade school years.  

Making the Decision 

If you are considering redshirting your child, meet with the school before you enroll. This will provide you the opportunity to ask the teacher for the curriculum they plan to teach for the year. Speak with school administrators, other parents, and your child to gather as much data as possible. 

It is important to remember that redshirting a child does not guarantee failure or success. Most kids are afraid to attend a new school, especially if they’re entering kindergarten. Regardless, it is important to be an invested, supportive parent. Assess your child’s needs, talk to them about it, and make the decision together.  

Understanding Cost vs. Value

If you spend any time researching day care and child care, you’re likely familiar with the contentious side of the industry: Regulation. Child care is currently regulated via accreditation; the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association for Family Child Care are the two most common accrediting organizations, but in some states, the Quality Rating and Improvement System is mandatory for licensed providers and programs that receive state subsidies.  

The added pressure on child care facilities and providers to maintain these strict licensures and accreditations translates to a higher cost of serving children. This cost is, in turn, passed on to the parents paying for day care.  

But doesn’t higher cost translate to a better value? And shouldn’t we hold day care facilities to the highest standards possible? Of course, but the issue is more nuanced than that.  

The Difference Between Cost and Quality 

GOVERNING article recently used a helpful example when explaining the issue. If the staff-to-child ration is more stringent (I.e. there are fewer children per staff member) and directors’ qualification requirements are increased, the quality of care provided would theoretically be higher. There might be more and better interactions between staff and kids, leading to a better learning and care environment.  

However, these regulations raise the cost of serving the children. These costs reduce supply (the number of children able to attend), increase prices, and encourage parents to use cheaper alternatives. Rather than passing this cost to parents, child care centers could try to pay staff lower wages, but that translates to attracting lower-quality providers to the industry. Plus, that could lower the quality of care instead of increasing it.  

So, what does this mean for parents? High cost doesn’t necessarily translate to higher quality care. In fact, high cost is becoming the baseline for most day care facilities as they struggle to maintain accreditation by cutting costs elsewhere. 

What Needs to Happen? 

In a perfect world, child care would be free and open to everyone. We’re pretty far away from that ideal, but in the meantime, there are a few things happening to help providers and parents alike.  

There is a strong push for state legislatures and regulators to liberalize day care regulations. That sounds dangerous – after all, regulations are designed to increase quality and safety – but it allows providers to operate more efficiently based on what the parents need and request. There is also a push for more widespread sliding scale options, which allow providers to retain accreditation while giving lower-income families the ability to pay what they can afford.  Federal subsidies can also help these providers supply high-quality care while decreasing the price passed to parents. 

Child care is a contentious issue, and there is no correct answer to funding, regulating, and subsidizing. More than anything, though, it helps to know the issues, especially if you’re about to enter the wild world of day care research.  

Are the Claims of Rising Child Care Costs Exaggerated?

Yes and no. It depends not so much on who you ask, but rather on who it is doing the asking. The short answer is that child care costs are rising fast—faster than inflation—but mostly if not entirely at the upper-end of the cost range. In other words, claims of skyrocketing child care costs are based disproportionally on higher-income households choosing to spend more on enhanced child care programs. Meanwhile, the costs for average-income households have largely risen in lockstep with inflation, while the costs for lower-income households have been largely stagnant.

Nevertheless, many news articles on the subject—as well as the U.S. Census Bureau’s own report, “Who’s Minding the Children?”—will simply claim the average cost of child care is going through the roof, while framing the issue as one of affordability rather than a difference in quality. There is also growing anecdotal evidence that there’s a widening gap in resources between the best and worst-funded programs, which would make sense.

From news sources with an ulterior motive, the claims are almost definitely exaggerated, but this is also a case in which the headline-grabbing statistic simply isn’t necessarily representative of the experience for the “average” person. Other news sources take a more balanced approach or even explicitly point out that the biggest problem is adequate program resources as much as rising costs for lower and average-income families. Interestingly, both sources are citing the same set of statistics from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). A big part of the difference in how this data is cited and interpreted is something as simple as using the median average rather than the mean average for household spending on child care costs.

For those familiar with the scale of income and wealth inequality, the idea that the activity of those at the very top would have a noticeable effect on the average isn’t surprising. So, before you get too discouraged about the prospects of affording day care for your children, you should know that some of doomiest and gloomiest news articles out there may not reflect your situation. If you’re interested, use this link from FiveThirtyEight to read more about the differences in how this data is interpreted and represented in the media.

What does this Mean for Today’s Families?

Again, what is clear is that wealthier households have been spending a lot more on child care over the last generation. The latest data suggests that even if you’re a member of the upper middle class looking to put your child in a more expensive and well-resourced day care facility, the recent acceleration of inflation in these programs has also been showing signs of slowing. Overall, it seems what’s changed over the last generation is something of the American Dream itself. For a growing number of families, the ideal scenario doesn’t depend on one of the parents being at home to raise the children. Instead, it’s having the financial resources to be able to place their children in the best day care programs in their community.

What’s stayed the same is the cost of child care for lower income families as well as their struggle to afford it. Over the last 5-10 years, the cost of many basic household necessities has gone up—and has gone up considerably faster than household wages. This has made it more difficult to make ends meet on nearly every front. So, to the extent that you’re feeling pinched, know that you’re not alone and it’s not all in your head. However, to the extent that you’ve been reading in the news that child care and day care costs are rising so much faster than inflation that soon day care will be out of reach for all but upper middle class and extremely wealthy, know that these news headlines are somewhat misleading.