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By María Caridad Araujo

Lee este artículo en español.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, we have seen a rapid expansion of publicly funded child care services for children below three years of age. In countries like Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, at least 40% of children are using child care services by the time they are three, and in some cases, two.

Increased demand for child care services responds, in part, to changing demographics of Latin American families, namely the rise in urbanization, less numerous families, and increased participation of women in labor markets. Between 1999 and 2014, female labor force participation rose from 58 to 65% in the region. This new trend is reflected across all education groups, and amongst women with children younger than five years of age.

While maternal employment tends to enhance families’ incomes and favors children’s well-being, it raises important policy questions around early childhood care.

What is high quality child care?

Much has been said about the main characteristics of high quality child care. Experts usually distinguish between structural elements of quality and process quality.

Structural quality relates to infrastructure, availability of materials, qualifications of personnel in charge of children, and caregiver-to-child ratios. This aspect is important to ensure adequate conditions of safety and hygiene.

Process quality focuses on the nature of interactions between caregivers and children. High quality interactions with small children need to be frequent, responsive to their interests, rich in language, warm and sensitive to their needs.

Research suggests that process quality is crucial for child care services to attain outcomes on child development. To be sustainable over time, process quality is not something to compromise on. Sadly, evidence in Latin America is not encouraging, as it suggests extremely low levels of process quality.

The relationship between quality of care and childhood development

In a recent publication, my colleagues and I explored the relationship between process quality and child development outcomes. We looked at data from the largest provider of publicly funded child care services in urban Peru, the Cuna Más Program. We compared process quality and child development outcomes across different classrooms within one childcare center.

We found that for a child exposed to a classroom with a caregiver who offered a higher standard deviation process quality, development outcomes were 7% larger than a one standard deviation. In other words: when process quality is better, childhood development is better, and greater. Another thing we discovered is that caregivers with more years of education were not necessarily more effective at producing better child development outcomes, but caregivers with more years of experience were.

8 steps to offer high quality childcare to scale
1. Expand coverage only when a strategy to provide quality services is in place
2. Target children from the poorest and most vulnerable families for subsidized services
3. Offer competitive working conditions for personnel
4. Provide in-service mentoring as part of a continuous training strategy, so that staff learn to consistently offer high-quality interactions to children under their care
5. Implement continuous quality improvement strategies, relying on real-time data to trigger consequential actions
6. Strengthen pre-service training programs for providers
7. Implement evidence-based curricula
8. Emphasize process quality

A deeper discussion of each of these strategies can be found here.

What strategies do you consider are most needed in your region or country? Which ones do you think would work best? What other pieces are needed to ensure high-quality childhood development services? Tell us in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.

María Caridad Araujo is a Lead Specialist in the Social Protection and Health Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). 

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