Don’t call her a babysitter. That’s a teenager who wants $50 and pizza to watch your children on date night.
Valeria Holloway has taken care of children professionally for nearly 20 years. She started in the business, as many young mothers do, because the cost of child care was so high that it would have eaten up most of her salary, and she preferred to stay home with her new child.
That started a decades-long journey to become an early childhood educator who specializes in special needs children.
“When I roll these kids out and they go to kindergarten and their teachers are totally amazed that they can read and write and spell their names and can count to 100, that, to me, is where I am most proud,” Holloway said.
On an early summer morning, Holloway, who has a pink-studded nose ring and graying, short cropped hair with a shiny headband that reads “proud mom,” sits at a table playing blocks with “the trio,” three siblings she cares for.
She keeps up a steady stream of conversation as she builds her own structure.
“So what is this that you’re making? A traveler thing for the Paw Patrol?”
“They would love to be going somewhere. So where are you going to take the Paw Patrol?”
“You’re just going to take them around the room or are we going somewhere special?”
One girl chatters back with rapid-fire words. She’s hard to understand, so her older brother often “translates” for her.
But, as an experienced child care provider and preschool teacher, Holloway asks the girl to slow down when she speaks — and to repeat herself until she’s understood. A 4-year-old boy has a lisp, so she works with him on enunciating words. Another young girl has vision problems, so Holloway practices visual and listening skills with her.
“I just know I have to meet each child exactly where they are,” Holloway says.
Those rich interactions characterize the high-quality child care New Mexico has been driving toward since at least 2013. After parents, caregivers play a crucial role in how prepared children are for school and life.
Awareness of the importance of high-quality early childhood education and care is increasing.
Rhianna Thomas, a professor of early childhood education at New Mexico State University, said some hallmarks of that care are low teacher-to-child ratios that ensure one-on-one interaction.
Trained early educators know how kids learn and grow, and can assess how they’re developing. They use play to teach children literacy and math skills, how to interact with other people, solve problems and control their emotions.
Learning can come from something as simple as a song.
“Holding a baby in your arms and singing a song is going to build a connection between the two of you,” Thomas said. “With very young children, building relationships is important. Human beings are born seeking connection. We learn through those connections.”
In addition to the emotional connection, a baby will hear language and learn rhythm, Thomas explained.
Thomas has tips for finding high-quality care. For basic safety, she recommends seeking out licensed providers. Next, ask about child-teacher ratios. The Children Youth and Families Department, which licenses and rates child care providers in New Mexico, has a child care search tool that shows parents the nearest licensed care and the providers’ star ranking from two to five stars. More stars indicate lower ratios and staff with higher training.
Thomas also looks for meaningful interactions between the caregiver and children, and whether centers tailor care to the child or treat all children the same.