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Just after 6 p.m. one Tuesday in northern California, 10 caregivers slowly signed into a Zoom room to learn about childhood developmental milestones. Children peeked into a few screens, other screens remained dark as the session leader, Daisy Amezcua, encouraged the group to introduce themselves and share why they were attending that night.

One participant explained she was hoping to refresh her knowledge so she can better prepare her 4-year-old grandson, who she watches during the week, for preschool. Another was there to “get back in the swing of things” now that her older children are teenagers and she is watching her 17-month-old daughter, almost-2-year-old nephew and 3-year-old niece during the week. A third participant was hoping to get information she could use at her home daycare, where she watches six children of varying ages each day.

Amezcua, the director of the YMCA of East Bay’s Early Childhood Center, launched into her presentation, covering the many milestones for children, from infancy to kindergarten. She explained how to ask for referrals for children who aren’t meeting developmental benchmarks, like walking or talking, and detailed what caregivers can do to stimulate development, starting in infancy. At that age children are “able to imitate some movement and facial expressions,” she explained. “If we laugh, they’ll copy us and smile as well.”

She noted that around three months, infants can see well enough to study the faces of their caregivers. “Which reminds us how important that face-to-face time is,” she said, before moving  on to the next slide, which displayed a list of developmental red flags for young infants. “If there is a loud sound … and they don’t get startled, that might be a clue that there might be some hearing issues,” she said. “So you want to pay attention to that.”

The meeting is part of a program run by BANANAS, a California nonprofit that focuses on supporting parents, families and child care providers, with an initiative specifically aimed at building community and building up the education of family, friends and neighbor caregivers (known as FFN’s), who provide child care outside of a formal system.

Nationwide, an estimated 7 million children from newborns to age 5 are watched in home-based child care each day, making it the most common form of regular, nonparental child care. This includes licensed programs and unlicensed providers, like friends, family members and neighbors. FFN arrangements are especially common for younger children; more than 22 percent of infants and toddlers are in paid or unpaid care involving a friend, family or neighbor.

FFN care offers unique benefits, including more flexibility for parents, especially those in rural areas where child care options are often lacking. Often families are drawn to friends, family or neighbor providers who share their language, race or culture; almost a third of Black children under age 6 and a quarter of Hispanic children in that age group are in regular care with a relative, according to 2016 data. About a fifth of white children under age 6 are in a relative’s care.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, such child care arrangements became even more common, experts say, especially after child care centers closed and parents scrambled to find arrangements that could provide individual care or care to small groups of children.

Yet despite the popularity of FFN care, these providers are largely excluded from participation in public and private support systems aimed at helping formal child care providers and can’t access the same level of financial help as licensed child care providers. While licensed family child care providers make an average salary of $29, 377, informal caregivers earn an average of $7,420. During the pandemic, one survey found these providers needed financial assistance to pay for basic personal and business needs like food and cleaning supplies.

“Family, friends and neighbors have been providing care for families for a very, very, very long time,” said Kym Johnson, CEO and executive director of BANANAS. “And they are also the provider group that probably gets the least amount of attention, recognition and support because it is informal in many cases,” she said.

Unlike licensed child care workers, FFN providers do not need to follow state child care regulations or meet health and safety requirements — unless they receive state-funded subsidies to provide care for a lower-income child. They are also not required to undergo any formal child development training before they begin to care for children.

“They’re not part of the system [where] we see subsidies or we see professional development,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, a nonprofit focused on early learning programs, including those that support FFN providers. “What we’re trying to do is understand their needs and really find ways to develop policy that could benefit them,” she added.

In California, several organizations are calling for more support for FFN providers, including an increase in dedicated funding for home-based child care providers, culturally-responsive resources for caregivers and more avenues to connect caregivers to community services so they have more support. Experts say programs geared to FFN providers are especially important to help stave off caregiver isolation and improve education on early childhood topics.

Existing programs that support FFN’s have ramped up services in the past few years and have tried to maintain momentum by moving meetings online during the pandemic. Visión y Compromiso (VyC), a California-based nonprofit focusing on the health and well-being of underserved communities, offers a five- week course for FFN providers covering topics like child brain development, CPR, nutrition, emergency preparedness and how to communicate with parents. BANANAS, which is based in Oakland, California, provides additional support for FFN providers. Through playgroups, the nonprofit provides a place where children can interact with each other while a staff member offers the caregivers facilitated conversations and training on first aid and health and safety and provider concerns.

It’s not always easy to reach these providers, however. Some may not realize the importance of their job, said Alejandra Reyes, a regional program manager at VyC. “They think of themselves like, ‘I’m just somebody who cares for children, it’s not a real job, it’s something I do at home.’” Reyes said. Others may think they’ll get in trouble for offering child care without a license or are worried about their immigration status and fear attending events in public, she added.

While it’s important to help caregivers, experts involved in FFN programs say it’s also important to provide socialization opportunities for children in these informal care arrangements. FFN provider Anne Stephenson said the opportunity for her grandson to socialize is what drew her to BANANAS events. A former kindergarten teacher, Stephenson has an extensive early childhood background but still benefited from the events, learning about new books to read and activities she could engage in with her grandson, who she watches regularly.

These programs, while helpful for providers, can also play an important role in school readiness for children, said Samuel Limon Jr., community relations specialist at the Fresno Unified Early Learning department, which runs the Helm Home Center. The center, which is affiliated with the local school district, hosts a drop-in play-and-learn program for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years. FFN providers can visit the center for structured play time. Children can explore a play room with their caregiver, participate in circle time, and work on a planned activity. “One of our main goals is to really have a structure for the children so when they go into preschool, it’s not such a shock or really hard for them socially and emotionally,” Limon said.

The program also offers a lending library, where caregivers can check out toys and books, and encourages caregivers to bring questions and concerns to sessions so they can receive guidance about child development and related topics.

Care giver Alejandra Muñoz started attending workshops and training through BANANAS a year and a half ago and has found them to be, “uplifting, important and helpful.” A mother to a 5-year-old and an18-year-old, Muñoz also regularly watches two children, ages 3 and 6. She found BANANAS workshops helpful in identifying their developmental stage and specific needs and has learned techniques to help the children cope with their feelings when they are frustrated or expressing their emotions. She also took home something more personally beneficial: relaxation strategies for when she feels stressed. And she has gleaned ideas for how to support creativity with the children she watches. Now, Muñoz says, she has “more tools to be a better caregiver for children and support them more effectively, even in their more difficult moments.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about informal caregivers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jackie Mader supervises all photo and multimedia use, covers early childhood education and writes the early ed newsletter. In her nine years at Hechinger, she has covered a range of topics including teacher...

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