Advancing Early Childhood Education

Colorado Must Do a Better Job of Supporting Family, Friend, and Neighbor Early Childhood Caregivers

I walked into the caregiver’s home and the first thing I noticed was the warmth. Not warmth in the temperature sense of the word, but an intangible aura that filled the house. I felt comforted by the atmosphere of the room as if a toasty blanket fresh out of the dryer was being wrapped around my shoulders.

After stepping into the room, I immediately noticed the young children. Four sets of beautiful dark brown eyes from tiny humans peered up at me from a circle where they were sitting on the floor. They were in the middle of what looked like story time.

My sudden appearance momentarily broke their concentration. They were curious. Their eyes seemed to say: Who is this strange man invading our sacred space?

I smiled, hunched over a little, and waved excitedly to each of them as I quietly said, “Buenos días hijos.”

This was Sylvia’s house. At least I’ll call her Sylvia for this piece. Sylvia is what is commonly known as a Family, Friend, and Neighbor early childhood caregiver, or FFN for short. She was caring for three children from different working families in the community. The fourth child, and the youngest of the group, was her own.

FFN caregivers like Sylvia play a critical role for families, particularly for families of color and those living on low incomes. They are often next-door neighbors, friends, parents, grandparents, or other family relatives. They are exempt from holding a license which affords them the ability to serve families who often face barriers when accessing traditional childcare options.

They are flexible with their scheduling by opening their doors early in the morning or closing them late into evening. They are affordable to a fault by charging much less than what you would find at a childcare center. And they often provide more inclusivity with a culturally and linguistically responsive environment for children that aligns with the values of the family who are choosing FFN care.

It is estimated that in any given community, an average of 60% of children are not in licensed care settings. In some communities with limited or no access to licensed childcare, the percentage could be much higher. It is important to note that unlicensed does not mean illegal. Nor does it mean lacking in quality. There are many reasons why one would not seek licensure (e.g., a grandparent who is only interested in providing care for the next few years; a mother who is trying on childcare as a new career option; an immigrant who is weary about approaching a system that has not historically been friendly to those without documentation; etc.).

In Colorado, it is estimated that the number of children under the age of five is at least three times greater than the number of available spots in licensed childcare centers in counties throughout Colorado. Studies of the early childhood workforce have found that most FFN childcare providers are women and over half of FFN providers across the U.S. are people of color.

And yet, FFN providers are historically vastly underpaid, undervalued, and isolated from the existing public infrastructure that supports the childcare sector. While their prevalence and importance are recognized by many, barriers to their success persist including:

  • Limited Access to Resources and Support – Due to being historically excluded from the formal early childhood system, training, professional development, and opportunities to connect with others are limited or nonexistent. This stems from the fact that these resources weren’t intentionally designed for FFN caregivers. Resources from the early childhood system were specifically tailored for center-based and licensed childcare, excluding FFN caregivers.
  • Financial Insecurity – FFN caregivers are the lowest paid of all early childcare workers with a third of providers reporting that they receive no compensation at all. This leaves FFN caregivers at an extreme disadvantage compared to licensed caregivers that are able to access supplemental financial resources in order to operate (e.g., universal preschool funding). While there is a path for FFN caregivers to accept funding from the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, most are unaware of the process, much less that the program even exists.
  • Stigma Associated with FFN Care – Many people assume that FFN care is inferior to licensed care, despite research suggesting that FFN providers can offer high-quality care. There are even those in the early childhood sector who continue to falsely claim that FFN care is illegal. This stigma can make it difficult for FFN providers to access resources and support and can contribute to a lack of recognition for the important role they play in supporting families.

While the new Colorado Department of Early Childhood has their hands full with the implementation of universal preschool in Colorado, they are also working hard to address the historic exclusion of FFN providers from the early childhood system. They have recently hired a dedicated FFN administrator and are developing a funding mechanism for FFN training and support programs. They are also in the process of establishing an FFN advisory council. Recent legislation allocated $7.5 million from the economic recovery and relief cash fund to support these efforts.

While this is great news in the short term, supporting FFN caregivers can’t just be a one-off effort tied to short-term stimulus funds. Sustainable funding needs to be committed for the long-term.

Support for and inclusion of the FFN community of caregivers must become normalized whenever we are talking about childcare. Imagine a world where:

  • Early childhood conferences where FFN providers are included as attendees, presenters, and planners. Sessions would be held during times when they could attend and in multiple languages.
  • Early childhood training and support programs had the funding and the cultural competence to make intentional outreach to and provide programming to FFNs during weekends and evenings.
  • Resources (financial support, supplemental food, mental health referrals, child development materials, etc.) were easily available to all child caregivers regardless of setting or licensing.

Anyone who cares about children in Colorado – from state government to private funders, from advocacy organizations to service providers, from licensed childcare to early childhood councils – must do a better job of ensuring that all early childhood caregivers are supported, listened to, and included. Addressing the barriers that FFN caregivers like Sylvia face is critical to ensuring that all children have access to quality care, regardless of where that care takes place.

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Written By: Miguel In Suk Lovato

Miguel In Suk Lovato believes in child/youth-centered educational opportunities that foster curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. He recognizes that factors...

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