Quality in Family, Friend, and Neighbor Child Care Settings

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Currently, more than 60 percent of children in the United States under the age of 5 are in some type of non-parental child care on a regular basis ( Johnson, 2005) and care by family, friends, and neighbors (FFN care) is the most common form of nonparental child care in the nation (Maher & Joesch, 2005; Sonenstein, Gates, Schmidt, & Bolshun, 2002; Snyder, Adelman & Dore, 2005). Infants and toddlers, regardless of family income or household structure, are predominantly cared for by family, friends, and neighbors. One state study in Minnesota, for example, found that 78 percent of children under the age of 3 were in FFN care (Chase, 2005). National studies show that nearly half of all children (under the age of 6) spend time in family, friend, and neighbor care (Boushey & Wright, 2004), and nearly a quarter of school-age children are cared for by FFN caregivers (Capizzano, Tout, & Adams, 2000; Snyder & Adelman, 2004).

Recognizing the widespread use of FFN care, a number of national and state agencies have invested public funds to support the use and strengthening of family, friend, and neighbor care. For instance, since 1988 parents can use federal child care subsidies (through the Child Care and Development Fund) to pay for care by a FFN caregiver, and currently nearly a quarter (22 percent) of all children who receive federal child care subsidies use FFN care (U.S. Child Care Bureau, 2009). Additionally, more than 25 percent of states now fund quality improvement initiatives specifically aimed at family, friend, and neighbor child care (Porter & Rivera, 2005).

New understanding of how the quality of various early childhood settings affects child outcomes has led to increased attention regarding quality at the state and federal levels and prompted policymakers, researchers, and parents to ask more careful questions about the quality of care across settings, including FFN care. To date, much of the research on the quality of child care has explored the quality of care offered in licensed child care settings (that is child care centers and family child care homes). Given that FFN caregivers are generally exempt from state regulation (depending on the state), only need to meet basic health and safety requirements to receive CCDF payments for providing care, and therefore not required to meet defined program standards, the quality of the care children are receiving in FFN care is of primary importance.

This review examines the current research on the quality of family, friend, and neighbor care. Specifically, it looks at the following questions:

  • What are some of the difficulties in defining quality in FFN?
  • What are the structural characteristics related to quality of FFN care (for example, provider education and training, adult:child ratio, etc.)?
  • What is the quality of care in FFN settings, including interactions between children and their FFN caregivers?
  • To what extent do parental perspectives regarding FFN care shape our considerations about quality?
  • What do we know about FFN care and children’s developmental outcomes?
  • What evidence supports strategies to improve the quality of FFN care?
  • What are some of the methodological concerns with studying the quality of FFN care?

What is Family, Friend and Neighbor Care?

Family, friend, and neighbor care (also referred to as informal care, home-based care, kith and kin care, kin care, relative care, legally unlicensed, and licenseexempt care) is one of several types of non-parental child care. Child care is typically categorized according to setting, regulatory status, and the provider-child relationship (see Morgan, Elliott, Beaudette, & Azer, 2001). For example, child care can be based in licensed centers, regulated home-based family child care, in-home nanny care, or license-exempt FFN.

In this review we define family, friend, and neighbor care as home-based care – in the caregiver’s or child’s home – provided by caregivers who are relatives, friends, neighbors, or babysitters/nannies who are legally exempt from licensing and regulation. While this definition reflects a growing consensus in the field, researchers and policymakers have yet to settle on a consistent term and definition to describe the license-exempt, home-based sector of child care in which so many children spend their time. Across the literature, FFN caregivers have been categorized differently in various research and administrative datasets, making generalizations across studies difficult.

What We Know

FFN caregiver characteristics
  • Education: Family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) providers generally have lower levels of education than licensed providers (a high school education compared to some college or a college degree).
  • Experience: FFN providers exhibit a range of experience caring for children, some gained by virtue of their own parenting experiences, and some by caring for children who were not their own.
  • Motivation: FFN providers cite consistent, similar reasons for providing care including: wanting to help the child’s parent; wanting to help the child grow and learn; fostering intergenerational ties; and staying home with their own child.
  • Stability: the extent to which caregiver turnover is a problem in the license-exempt sector is unclear; however, relative providers self-report a remarkable degree of stability of FFN care arrangements – ranging from 12 months or more.

Quality in FFN care

  • Quality ratings in FFN care tend to vary by the assessment tool used. For example, studies using the Family Day Care Rating Scale (FDCRS) to assess quality consistently show that the quality of FFN care was rated as inadequate to minimal. Studies using the QUEST – a new quality assessment tool designed for home-based child care – found that caregiving settings received at least adequate ratings for space and comfort, outdoor materials and safety, supervision and monitoring, and caregiver warmth and responsiveness.
  • Research findings consistently show low adult:child ratios (for example, 1:2) in FFN care; lower than ratios generally found in licensed caregiving settings.
  • Overall, the quality of caregiver-child interactions is a strength of FFN care. Most FFN studies found acceptable levels of warmth and support for children.
  • Studies were mixed on whether the development of children in license-exempt settings lags behind that of children in licensed settings. The Three City Study suggests that child care quality rather than child care setting affects child development (Li-Grining & Coley, 2006). The Growing Up in Poverty Study however, found that children in centers showed significantly higher cognitive and school readiness skills than children in FFN settings. At the same time, children in family child care had higher rates of behavioral problems than children cared for in FFN settings (Fuller, et al., 2004).
  • Findings on the quality in FFN care should be viewed cautiously however, as researchers are wrestling with whether the concept of quality and the measurement of quality should be the same in license-exempt settings as it is in licensed settings.
  • FFN providers reported wanting to learn how best to support children’s development. They also expressed interest in health/safety, child development, and business and financial information, as well as in community resources and activities particularly low-cost ones. At the same time, the majority of FFN providers did not express interest in becoming licensed. More research is needed to understand the most effective strategies for educating and supporting FFN providers.

Parental satisfaction

  • Research findings were mixed on parents’ satisfaction with their FFN care arrangements, but further research is needed to clarify the factors affecting parental satisfaction and decisions about choosing care.

Parent-FFN provider relationships

  • Parents’ and providers’ reports about their relationships and/or their communication with each other were strikingly positive (which may in part be due to the social desirability of good relations).

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