By Linda D. Kozaryn
WASHINGTON -- Sarah Hearn and Linda Tomlins share a common daily goal -- providing a warm, nurturing environment for hundreds of children entrusted to their care.
Hearn is the family member support flight chief at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Tomlins is the child development program administrator for the Naval District of Washington. In the last decade, both have witnessed a dramatic transformation in military child care as child development programs have replaced traditional 'baby-sitting' services.
Before the Military Child Care Act of 1989, caregivers' training was "minimal or nonexistent," said Hearn, who started working in the field about 12 years ago. "They were basically babysitters providing custodial care."
According to Tomlins, who began teaching preschoolers more than 20 years ago, this "rudimentary stage" of child care involved taking care of children's basic needs -- seeing that they were diapered and fed.
Hearn recalled that money and materials were both in short supply. "Children would be housed in overcrowded situations or in places with very stark, cold, brick walls -- with no softness or anything nurturing," she said. "Staff did what they thought was OK, because they didn't have the guidance necessary to do better.
"The Military Child Care Act, however, 'raised the bar,'" Hearn noted. "Congress now gives us the dollars that we need." Today, children explore their world accompanied by trained child development specialists. A mandatory up-or-out policy tied to monetary incentives encourages people to remain in the field. "We're constantly trying to groom and produce quality people, and if they don't want to perform, they're not going to take care of our kids," she said.
The days are long gone when caregivers fail to interact with children, Tomlins stressed. Today's caregivers are not babysitters, she said, adding that her staff would be very upset if someone suggested they were. Instead, she said, today's caregivers are "an extended family for our military and civilian parents. If we do it right, I always feel it is a chance to make a difference."
Child development centers now provide sound, developmental programs, Tomlins said. Caregivers spend a great deal of time developing their curriculum.
"We assess children's progress and develop our plans accordingly," she said. Family care providers and center staff "put forth 100 percent in planning and trying to put together a good, solid day of learning activities for the children."
What's it take to become a child development specialist? According to Tomlins, "a real respect for children and their families, and an interest in seeing that the children get their needs met and the families get the kind of support that they need."
Caregivers understand children's developmental needs and are trained to identify special needs, Hearn said. They don't just write off children who display behavior problems as "difficult" children, she pointed out. They look for the cause.
"Those are the special things we do, more than just saying, 'Yes, we have a slot for your child,'" she said. "We get to know the child and parent and do those extras that make a real difference to kids."
Child care specialists help youngsters develop social and educational skills. Children learn natural sciences by creating a garden and watching things grow. Children as young as 3 and 4 use computers to identify shapes and colors.
"We encourage them to do things mom and dad may think they're too young to do," Hearn said. "Parents are in awe when they come in and see what their little babies are able to do. Even among one-year-olds, we encourage family-style dining, learning how to pass, how to share, how to pour."
Since many children spend about 10 hours a day in child care programs, caregivers at the military facilities try to make each classroom unique. Children's artwork, parents' photos and pictures of people in all walks of life adorn floors and walls.
"We try to stress diversity and avoid stereotypes," Hearn noted. "If a little girl is in the dramatic play area and she wants to put on a hardhat, that's quite all right."
Working with children takes patience and understanding, she stressed. It's not for everyone, even those who profess to "love children," said the former youth activities director, family care coordinator, child development center assistant director and center director, and now program director. For herself, though, she concluded, "I can't see myself doing anything else but working with children."
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