More understanding and support needed for family day home educators, says researcher

Doctoral student draws attention to the challenges they face and the strengths they bring to communities.


As family day home educators take on an increasing role in Canada’s child care system, better understanding and supporting their needs will be crucial, says a doctoral student who is gathering information to help fill the knowledge gap. (Photo: Getty Images)

As the owner of an accredited family day home for 10 years, caring for a small group of children, Laura Woodman loved what she did. 

“I was literally being paid to play with the children, to cuddle babies all day. I thrived by building these relationships.”

But it was also a struggle, working alone and juggling the many daily tasks involved, she recalls.

While daycare centres have more staff to share the varied responsibilities, the job of a family day home educator is much more “multi-faceted,” Woodman says.

“We provide child care, program planning for children of mixed ages, menu planning; we’re the chefs, the janitors, the administrators and the business owners.” 

That bundle of challenges is at the heart of research the University of Alberta doctoral student is now doing to help raise awareness of what family day home professionals need so they can thrive.

“As single operators they need to be better understood and supported in the child care system.”

While the field of early learning and child care is well researched, the experiences of day home educators are less represented, says Woodman, who is conducting the work to earn a PhD in human ecology through the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences

Perhaps because they take care of smaller numbers of children and work out of their homes, “they tend to be seen as less important” in the child care system, she suggests.

“But family day homes are a distinctly different service model, so trying to shoehorn them into a daycare centre-based model is not going to work.” 

The gap in understanding what family day home educators face is concerning, says Woodman, who began researching the overall issue while earning a master of science in family ecology and practice.

It could discourage some of them from joining the formal child care system by becoming licensed through day home agencies, which Woodman believes is crucial to providing good care.

“The quality of care is generally higher because they are required to meet government regulations to maintain certain professional standards, including first aid training, monthly fire drills and maintaining paperwork for things like medication. There is oversight to ensure safe environments for the children.” 

In contrast, the only requirement for providers of private day homes is to have a maximum of six children under the age of six, in addition to the operator’s own children.

“In addition, they are only monitored if a complaint is made — for example, when there are imminent child welfare, health or safety concerns. There is no monitoring and little to no support,” Woodman adds.

Not making room for the unique needs of family day homes could also have implications for many of the licensed child care spaces being created through the recent early learning and child care agreements in Canada, Woodman believes.

“The goal is to increase access to quality, affordable child care, and in many places, including Alberta, those spaces are aimed at family day homes because in rural or remote areas, the populations are often too small to support an entire daycare centre. 

“But creating more spaces in a system that isn’t designed to meet the needs of day home educators won’t provide sustainable care. If they don’t have enough support, they are going to struggle and ultimately could close.” 

A long-term solution has to involve support systems “focused on the specific needs of family day homes,” she says. 

A challenging career path

To help fill that knowledge gap, Woodman wrote a recent discussion paper, drawing on existing research and her own experiences, to explore current challenges facing family day home educators.

One of the most critical barriers they face “is a sense of guilt and worry” if they have to take time off for any reason, she notes.

Things as basic as attending a professional development conference, making a doctor’s appointment or going on vacation are difficult, because there’s often no backup help to keep the day home open.

“They feel guilty about letting families down. And it’s really stressful for them to feel they have to work all the time. The more stress they feel, the lower their ability is to meet a child’s needs.” 

Other challenges they face include low wages and funding, a sense of isolation and lack of opportunities for professional development.

Along with that, practices designed to support day home educators vary widely among contracting agencies, Woodman points out.

While such agencies are required by government regulations to offer in-home support visits from a consultant, and continuing education opportunities such as workshops or conferences on a regular basis, day home educators are often disappointed, Woodman notes.

“That’s a problem, because agency practices can be done well or poorly, and that can really affect the quality of care given by day home educators.”

At the same time, Woodman’s review highlighted the strengths of day home educators.

“They are really passionate about supporting children. Most are not just doing it to make a living; this is their career path.”

Their work also results in continuity of care for children and fosters valuable long-term relationships with families.

“When a relationship grows over time, the parents and educators can collaborate to support the well-being of the child as they watch them grow. Children’s emotional development can just soar.”

Building an information base

To hone in on ways to support them in their work, Woodman is asking both licensed and unlicensed family day home educators to take a survey

Gathering information about their experiences and needs, including work-life balance and self-care, can help shape a child care system that is more targeted to their well-being, she says.

Ultimately, she’s hoping the results of her research will “build information at every level of the system” to guide decision-making by family day home educators and the agencies, governments and parents that support them. 

“If we are building a system that relies on family day home educators, especially to provide services in child care deserts like rural and remote areas, we need to start amplifying their voices so they can look after themselves and offer quality care.” 

Woodman’s PhD research is supervised by professor Adam Galovan and supported by the Soroptimist Foundation of Canada Grants for Women Graduate Students.