At the age of nine North Carolinian Gigi Schweikert started her career in early childhood education. “When I was little girl, I set up my first childcare program in my backyard one summer, as a mother’s helper for kids in the neighborhood,” she says. She got paid the royal sum of 50 cents a day for each child. She enjoyed the work, and chose it as her college summer job, working at the a childcare center. She has gone up to become a childcare center director, a childcare consultant to some of the country’s largest corporations, and a writer and lecturer on the subject of how to provide optimal care for the children of working parents.

Schweikert gives the keynote address at the 11th annual Early Care and Childhood Conference, sponsored by the Child Care Connection, on Saturday, September 30, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Princeton Hyatt. The conference also provides training for child care providers and administrators. Cost: $60. For more information, call 609-989-7770.

When Schweikert matriculated at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, she had intended to go to medical school. But when she decided she wanted to work with young children, she switched to education. After receiving her degree in elementary and early childhood education in 1983, she got a job at the Early Childhood Program at the United Nations in New York, working her way up to director by the time she left seven years later.

She moved away from the hands-on management of a childcare center when she took a job at what is now Bright Horizons Family Solutions, where she did work-family initiatives for Fortune 500 companies. Her assignments included helping corporations set up onsite childcare and doing management sensitivity training to help supervisors to realize that “people have a life beyond work.”

Sensitive to these issues, Schweikert rearranged her work life after she had her second child, moving to part time. By the time she had her third, and then her fourth, she sought flexibility by consulting, writing, and speaking through BabyStep Consulting (www.gigischweikert.com). Her consulting clients have included Johnson & Johnson, Prudential, Bank of America, Merck, IBM, Genentech, and SC Johnson Wax.

She has written several books, including “I’m a Good Mother, for the Not-so-perfect Mom” and “God, God What Do You See? I See a Mother Looking at Me,” and she has hosted the television show, “Today’s Family.” Schweikert offers advice to working parents on how to choose out-of-home childcare:

The program should be accredited. The NAEYC accreditation is the national standard of excellence for early childhood education. Although there are some good centers that are not accredited, the NAEYC imprimatur ensures that the facility meets requirements for safety and appropriate ratios of staff to children and that staff members have ongoing training. “It makes it a professional organization,” says Schweikert.

Parents must feel comfortable with the place and the people. Parents have different needs, says Schweikert. “Some need pristine and clean, because that conveys quality to them, and some are more comfortable in a homey environment. You have to feel comfortable to be able to say, do, come, and go as if it were your own home.”

Caring for children requires a partnership between the caregiver or teacher and the parent. “It’s an intimate relationship, and you have to really feel comfortable,” she says. Even in the best accredited program things will happen. “The children will get bumps and bruises, there will be biting and illness, pacifiers will get lost, and the academics may not be what you feel they should be,” says Schweikert. “But in the end, it’s how do they work with you to resolve the things that happen.”

Lead staff should be in for the long haul. Look for longevity in the administrators and the lead teachers, even if there is a lot of turnover among other staff. Longevity suggests a good working environment.

Location, location, location. Don’t compromise on quality, but look for convenience. “Parents often want to make a sacrifice for the highest in quality of care,” says Schweikert. They will often drive great distances. “But convenience is important too,” she says. “If you’re able to pop over at lunch or get involved in the center, you will feel more comfortable.”

Curriculum should focus on exploration, not worksheets. “Forces in our society push us into thinking that earlier is better and more is better in everything we do, but that’s not necessarily true for children,” says Schweikert. “We need to celebrate the developmental milestones they’ve accomplished rather than always looking ahead.”

Parents want their kids to be well equipped for school and life and think, wrongly, that learning alphabets and numbers is the best way to achieve this. Schweikert believes instead that exploration, “being little scientists,” will lead the children to develop skills for success.

Using an analogy to how adults learn to use the computer in a hands-on way, she continues, “Children have to put their hands on everything to learn.” As a result, the environment should include lots of things that are safe and hazard-free for children to touch and explore — not just plastic toys. The caregiver is the facilitator of the environment, she says. It is her job to help children “discover what we’ve already discovered” — for example, that things sink or float, that books are just words written down, that ice melts, and that some things are hard and some soft.

Teachers should be well schooled in child development. Teachers should receive lots of training about what is and is not developmentally appropriate, and the curriculum should highlight the types of learning that are happening, with pictures of block constructions, movies of water play and field trips, and descriptions of what children learn in the dramatic play area. “They need to focus not on what the children make,” says Schweikert, “but on the process.”

Parents must stay involved. Once parents have selected child care for their children, they need to continually monitor that care. When spending time at the center, they should stay attuned to how it looks, feels, and smells.

“Good programs want parents to be the eyes and ears of the center,” says Schweikert. “They want you to voice concerns and suggestions.” Yet don’t expect that every suggestion you make will be accepted. Parents can expect responsiveness, but must realize that the child care providers are making decisions with the best interests of the group in mind, not just those of any one child.

If something makes a parent uncomfortable, however, for example, concern about a staff member or about inadequate supervision on the playground, the parent should take action.

From her wide experience with childcare, Schweikert urges working parents to “let go of the guilt.” She doesn’t believe that working makes you a bad parent.

“I believe that quality versus quantity time is huge,” she says. “A lot of people stay home and don’t spend time with their kids. They’re around the kids but not with the kids.” She emphasizes that before parents pick up their kids from daycare, they should turn off their cell phones. And no electronics or car TV either. The goal is to “actually have conversations.”

But however much time parents spend with their children at home, their environment during the work week is critically important, and parents need to find the best place they can for themselves and their children. But, according to Schweikert, sometimes they don’t put in the necessary time and effort.

“Sometimes parents find themselves being greater advocates when they are looking at a car or purchasing a home,” she says. “You also need to be aggressive and consumer oriented when purchasing care for your child.”

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