This letter appeared in my inbox the other day and I thought it was so wonderful I asked if I could share it.  I have worked in daycares and as a nanny and I’ve seen some of the things Helen speaks of.  It is so important that we understand how the care we provide for our children either ourselves or via others will impact them for their entire life.  This is a beautiful reminder of that.

Dear Tracy,

I am quite overwhelmed by reading your first ‘sleep lesson’ post and will pass on the link to parents who need our support.

I so believe in what you write about. I have only recently subscribed to your blog and commented today on your wonderful interview with Dr. Darcia Narvaez.

I am a ‘recovering daycare worker’(!) and as such have become distressingly obsessed with the many instances of profound neglect I have observed.

Before I worked for four years in a Montessori daycare with infants and toddlers I’d educated both my sons from birth to 18 – probably beyond that age since learning together is more of a lifestyle thing for us. Plus given family care one-on-one to the infants of working parents.

The permanent affects, good and bad, of early care on babies and young children is something that is largely missed in the world of academic research on the subject.

With due respect to you, your research and studies, I think too few people have worked in early childhood care for any length of time before conducting research on the subject. Most of our theories are correct as far as my experience tells me but the lack of knowledge and implementation of those theories out in the real world of early care, be it with parents, families or daycare workers has proved to be worse than I initially thought. By my calculations – based on more than 50 families I’ve observed over twenty+ years – only about 20% of children are on what used to be a true neurotypical developmental trajectory.

The impoverished nature of teacher training – most particularly Montessori training here in the US (often just six weeks of residential training!) – has much to answer for. Even my own three years of British teacher training for the 3-7s had severe limitations and certainly didn’t in any way prepare me for the numerous children with (mostly undiagnosed) developmental delays I’ve worked with. My list is inordinately long, sad to say.

Experienced early care colleagues in England, now running mother and baby classes, have told me that they are reluctant to even suggest that a child might show signs of having a delay. And yet even the Early Start Denver Model for autism treatment promotes early delivery of their program – certainly well before three years of age if any good is to come of it.

I still do not believe that the Montessori Primary class practice of a three-hour work period is necessarily good for a child who is speech delayed. No amount of speech therapy once a week will rectify five mornings a week at school for 3½ years where you are rarely spoken to!

Our family successfully incorporated caring for one baby at a time into our home education program – what a lovely learning experience for our sons in their elementary years not to mention the warmth the babies felt being lovingly cared for. Our sons learned about early care and at the same time how their young cousins overseas might be growing up. I can now say that ‘our’ babies grew to be healthy, responsible and wholesome adults.

Then in 2001 I started caring for a friend’s 18 month-old granddaughter, P., in the child’s home. This was the first child I’d cared for outside my own home environment and the only one I’d known to appear to have developmental delays/issues: panic attacks at any sudden sounds, couldn’t be held, no communication skills (except for the panic attacks), a tuned out/glazed eyed thumb sucker at mom’s appointed nap time – it was a long litany of astonishing missing puzzle pieces.

I started studying, every day. What could be the cause, what was P. suffering from, and furthermore, what could I do to improve the quality of her life?

As I observed nuclear and extended family interactions with the child and had limited conversations with the family (quite telling really!) I started to build a picture of her first 18 months.

At first glance I thought I was seeing an autistic child for the first time, then over time I suspected it was some type of attachment disorder. Neither of these conditions was particularly covered in my three year British teacher training course in the early 70s, although I know John Bowlby’s books were on our reading list – they actually make more sense now that I’ve got 35 years of early childhood care experience under my belt!

Suffice it to say I learned so much from working with little P. I learned to have even greater patience and flexibility than the primary skills that took me into caring for little ones 40 years ago.

I went slowly and communicated every detail of what we were doing and what was happening around us. The information I obtained from her family included:

“My child never crawled” – so we played crawling games and I never used the activity center she was regularly in while her parents were home. We always played together on the floor.

“My child doesn’t watch TV” – yet ‘educational’ TV or a Disney DVD was on every day when I arrived. So my rule became “No TV while Helen’s here”.

“You can’t change her diaper, she won’t let you” – so I worked out how to make her feel comfortable for a diaper change – standing up looking out the window worked very well!

I introduced foods she’d never seen before like yogurt and apples – which prompted language, at last. Mom did start to buy the foods I suggested. P. also learned turn taking skills when using a spoon or a fork at mealtimes. We spread newspaper on the kitchen floor and blew bubbles together; ‘bubble’ and ‘apple’ are such lovely first words that roll off the tongue!

P. had beautifully healthy brown hair but no one seemed to brush it so as a way to ‘touch’ her gently I instituted a once a day hair brushing session – slow and deliberate, talking to her all the time. It worked.

We started exploring the neighborhood on our daily walks, admiring the plants and birds, ‘Stop’ signs, everything we saw – labeling everything with its proper name. Taking the time to look at the colors of the flowers and how the birds walked and ate, always stopping at Stop signs; not just walking by.

It was so exciting to hear her say “Ibis, Daddy, ibis” one day when the flock of ibis we’d seen every day on our walk was feeding in her back yard! Dad’s response to his non-talking daughter? “Uh huh”. Very telling! I was thrilled the day P. discovered the power of the word ‘Wait’ when she yelled at me to stop before leaving for the day! Another lovely and useful language tool.

When P. was age five the family impulsively moved away. Finally raising my hourly rate after three years of work, just a couple of weeks beforehand (hindsight), but still not telling me the truth about the impending move; they ensured I stayed working for them.

The second child, three years old (with no developmental delays – because she’d mostly been cared for by me? Continuity of care?), very perceptively told me just before they left “I’m never going to see you again”. I had to promise that I would always be her friend and we would exchange cards.

Suddenly they were gone!

Two months later they returned briefly and I went to spend time with the girls. P. put her head on my lap for the very first time (the closest we’d ever come to a comforting hug in over three years!) and asked, “Will you be my mommy?” What was I supposed to say?

I told her ‘no’ because ‘she had a wonderful mommy’ – she just cried and cried. I lied, and lied some more!

However, with continuity of care (in my opinion the big missing piece in the daycare puzzle and in this case the child’s developmental puzzle) she made sufficient wholesome progress in her three years with me (25 hours a week was all it took) to be mainstreamed into Kindergarten and at age eight she was admitted to her school’s gifted program.

My work was done.

As a daycare worker (an even longer story as to why I was working part-time in a daycare) the lack of knowledge of continuity of care by staff and parents just boggled my mind. I stayed in the job at the Montessori daycare for four years simply because of my belief in continuity of care. I stayed way beyond the time that was healthy for me.

Change in the school’s philosophy just wasn’t possible. Tight swaddling of every crying baby was the order of the day in the Infant program where I mostly worked because of my love for the age group. Children who cried too much weren’t the staff favorites obviously, but I’m drawn to reassuring anxious children so I took on the ‘worst’ of them and we got along fine.

Swaddling horrified me – I’d never swaddled a baby in my life. I now know swaddling can be gently and appropriately done to ensure no damage to a baby’s hips and joints (never mind what swaddling does to their psyche!), but I’m still not in favor of it.

Could this really be Montessori’s way? Of course it wasn’t – it was Montessori’s way misinterpreted for the American market and the convenience of working parents and profiteering on the part of the daycare owners.

My parting words were “Don’t break the babies”. Just one or two staff members knew what I meant; the others were oblivious.

After I left I read even more prolifically the work of researchers in the world of early childhood. The majority seems to have had little or no experience working full time in daycare programs so in my mind they are still basing their work on old theories, some of which are their own!

The realities of modern daycare life are unimaginable, even a Montessori facility (were you aware that no one owns or truly monitors the Montessori name here in the US?). I think the only way research can be conducted into the effects of daycare is by a participant observer and they probably need to work undercover for several years in a facility to get the full picture. A 90% staff turnover can’t be good for any child, can it?

I am now convinced that many instances of autism and developmental delays all began with early care and early carers, even when those carers are related to the child. Unless you’ve seen a child gentled through their trauma and anxiety you cannot understand the extent to which tender, kind and slow care by one or two special people makes a world of difference and improvement in a child’s development.

A casual approach to early care of any sort is no better than letting your child cry it out. How many times have you heard parents say “They always cry when they start…daycare/kindergarten” REALLY? It doesn’t have to happen!

Thank you for listening. My story is long and my care experiences range from infants to elderly people (up to 104) with Alzheimer’s, related and unrelated, institutionalized and not. The same sort of care applies and works well across the ages.

I look forward to reading more of your past posts and keeping up with everything you write in the future.

Helen

About Helen:  I am English by birth and education, and have lived in Florida since my marriage in 1972. I arrived in the US as a British trained teacher of the 3-7s. From the mid-1980’s I educated both our sons at home (they are now 35 and 32; our youngest son is 100% home educated, the oldest spent one year in a US school). I have worked as an early care specialist in various environments and remain an avid researcher of the causes of developmental delays and the impoverished state of early care.  I improved my oldest son’s health from age 2, largely through dietary measures. In 1999 with our home-educated sons I fought to rehab my husband from devastating surgery using many of the same skills we’d all learned together. I contributed to my mother’s at-home care in her 90s and other people’s elderly parents, plus Down’s Syndrome adults and children, in the same way.  To pass on my 40 years of knowledge I started a weekly mum & baby/nanny & baby class in September 2012, called Bradwell Baby Cottage. My goal is to embody all that I know and have experienced to bring kinder and gentler care to babies. Plus provide a very necessary open support group for the adults involved – it works!  My list of educational heroes/mentors I’ve vicariously learned from is too long to mention here. My hobbies are reading and gardening and, despite rarely being on the water, I still consider myself a sailor at heart! We are passionate supporters of our sons’ hobby of singing barbershop harmony!  I love spending time with our 3 month-old granddaughter, who has already given me opportunities to learn more, including reminding me to hum her favourite barbershop tune at every opportunity!