- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

The father titled his letter, “You Can’t Tell a Day Care by Its Cover.” It told a story that has become all too familiar during the past few years. The dad in question, a single working father, had no choice but to put his 3-year-old in day care.

“For the past few years, my son has attended a local commercial day care with seemingly impeccable credentials,” the father writes. “There’s not much staff turnover, they have bright and attractive classrooms, a variety of outdoor play equipment, and an emphasis on learning.”

Nevertheless, his son had been a perennial problem at this center. At the end of many days, the dad would find the boy in special timeout in the director’s office. On other occasions, the father had to leave work early and pick up his son because of aggressive outbursts.

Finally, at the director’s suggestion and also because misbehavior was escalating at home, the father sought help from a psychologist. That, however, didn’t prevent the director from expelling the little boy. The father then enrolled his son in a church-operated center that was neither glossy nor academic.

From the very first day the little guy began attending the new center, he has been a completely different child.

The father writes: “Life at home has improved 100 percent, with no tantrums or timeouts, and I now have confidence that when he goes out in public, he will behave as well as he does at home. It’s an incredible change, and the only possible explanation is that the old day care’s treatment of my son was the cause of the problem. Just goes to show, you can’t judge a book, or a day care center, by its cover.”

The father is right about that. Sometimes, the most “glossy” day care centers — ironically, these also generally are the most expensive — have the youngest, most ill-trained, ill-suited staff. Often the teachers in question lack what it takes to deal with a child who possesses a strong determination to have things his way.

There’s an art to dealing successfully with the “ultra-strong-willed child,” and that art isn’t likely to develop in the course of acquiring a two-year degree as a child care specialist. It develops along with a sense of wisdom concerning children, a wisdom borne on the wings of maturity and experience.

Most people don’t even develop such wisdom until they become grandparents, which is why I generally recommend regarding the age of the staff as one of the most important variables when choosing a day care center.

Furthermore, as this father discovered, outward appearances mean nothing, nor does an “emphasis on learning.” In fact, an academic emphasis usually means the center is keeping the children seated at tables, performing rote pencil-and-paper exercises, for much of the day — a structure that substitutes for effective, creative discipline.

However, the father may be wrong that the center’s mishandling of his son caused the problem. It’s possible his son would have brought the same oppositional, aggressive behaviors to any center. Sometimes, the way a teacher handles a child’s very first misbehavior sets a snowball rolling downhill, during which time the child’s determination and anger escalate along with the teacher’s frustration. In this case, the child’s problems are not necessarily caused by the teacher; it’s more accurate to say the child and the teacher or center are a bad “fit” for one another.

In either case, however, when behavior problems develop in a day care environment and the problems escalate over time, it’s time to find another center. Pointing the finger of blame serves no purpose.

The best day care programs I have seen were hardly glossy. Rather, the walls often begged for new paint; the building, usually an older church, smelled ancient; many of the teachers were grandmothers; and little if any emphasis was placed on academic learning. The presence of “women of wisdom” in a day care environment virtually guarantees that the younger teachers will be mentored properly, and an emphasis on developmental activity rather than academics virtually ensures that the children will be relaxed and happy.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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