As an infant advocate over several decades, I have witnessed many changes in attitudes toward infant care in general and towards group care in particular. Until recently, the care of infants in this country has largely been the concern of the family and the family physician. Only in the last decade or two has the need for providing alternative care become increasingly apparent. In the fifties, group care of infants was non-existent and looked upon as potentially harmful. In the sixties, the pros and cons of group care were debated in an emotionally loaded atmosphere. In the seventies, an increasing number of infants spent six, eight, or more hours each weekday in group care. State and federal regulations, even when met, do not insure that the infants’ needs are met, too.
In my work of consulting with a great variety of centers, I have found that while the people in charge of infant centers usually are well-meaning, child-loving people who want to do a decent job, this rarely is possible because of the low pay and status of the infant-caregiver, poor, if any, pre and in-service training, very few model centers, inadequate facilities, constant change in personnel, and so forth. Can any center meet the needs of infants under such difficult conditions? What are the infants’ needs, beyond those for food, rest, warmth, and hygiene? Most people would respond with the following: love, as demonstrated by rocking, fondling, and body contact; and cognitive stimulation as demonstrated by an abundance of objects, teaching materials, and lesson plans. These needs have become largely accepted and most centers try to meet them in different ways.
We who follow the R.I.E. philosophy have our own ways of meeting infants’ needs. R.I.E. seeks to attain a balance between adult stimulation and independent exploration by the infant. We focus on two areas of the infant’s life: the time spent with the adult who cares for the infant and the time the infant spends alone freely exploring his environment. Only a child who receives undivided attention from his educarer during all routine caregiving activities will be free and interested to explore his environment without needing too much intervention of the educarer. If the educarer understands that the infant needs both concentrated attention while being cared for and time to explore alone, she (he) also gains time for herself (himself).
In order to highlight the differences between the attitude of a good average caregiver and a trained educarer I will compare and contrast the two:
- Whereas a caregiver may rush through routine caring activities in order to get ready for the more valued time of following a curriculum, lesson plan, or providing some structured stimulation, the educarer uses the time that must be spent with the child anyway as a potential source of valued learning experience;
- Whereas many caregivers rely on infant curricula, books, and packaged programs as prescriptions to teach, drill and speed up new skills in the areas of gross motor, fine motor, social/emotional, or language development, the educarer trusts the infants’ abilities to initiate their own activities, choose from available objects, and work on their own projects without interruption;
- Whereas the care-giver teaches and encourages postures and means of locomotion which the infants are not yet able to do on their own, thus hampering free movement and exploration and sometimes even creating bodily discomfort, the educarer provides appropriate space for the infant to freely initiate his own movements without interference, thus helping the infant feel comfortable, competent and self-reliant;
- Whereas the care-giver’s attention is focused on the elicited response to her stimulation, the educarer focuses on observing the whole child, his reaction to the caregiving person, to the environment, and to his peers, thus learning about the child’s personality and needs;
- Whereas the caregiver selects and puts objects/ toys in the infants’ hands, the educarer places the objects/toys so the infant must make an effort to reach and grasp them. The child works towards what he wants;
- Whereas the care-giver encourages dependency by assuming an active role, such as rescuing a child in distress or helping him to solve his problems, the educarer waits to see if the child is capable of consoling himself and solving his own problems, thus encouraging autonomy;
- Whereas the caregiver may often use bottles and/ or pacifiers to soothe a crying child, creating a false oral need for food and sucking, the educarer accepts the child’s right to show both positive and negative feelings. The educarer does not want to stop the crying, but rather he/she tries to understand and attend to the child’s real needs such as sleeplessness, hunger, or cold. If the infant soothes himself by sucking his thumb, the educarer accepts this as a positive self-comforting activity;
- Whereas the care-giver often restricts infant-infant interaction, such as infants touching each other, for fear of them hurting each other, the educarer facilitates interactions by closely observing in order to know when to intervene and when not to;
- Whereas in a situation of conflict between infants, the caregiver resolves the problem by separating, distracting, or deciding who should have the toy or object in question, the educarer would comment “Both you, John, and you, Anne, want that toy.” Often, after such impartial comments, minor conflicts resolve themselves;
- Whereas the care-giver may become aggressive in controlling an “aggressor,” thereby reinforcing the aggressive behavior, the educarer models appropriate behavior by touching the aggressive child and quietly saying something like, “Easy, gentle . . . nice.”
- Whereas the caregiver may rush to pick up, to rescue, and to console the “victim” of the “aggressor,” the educarer squats down, touches, and strokes the “victim,” saying “Gently now, nice.” By concurrently stroking and talking to both the “victim” and the “aggressor,” the educarer is modeling and consoling both children without reinforcing a pattern of becoming a “victim”;
- Whereas the care-giver likes to have more people or helpers in the room, the educarer wants to become the steady person to her own small group of about four infants;
- Whereas the care-giver gets exhausted from picking up one crying child and putting down another as if extinguishing one fire after another, the educarer calmly observes and can often prevent the “fire”;
- Whereas the caregiver may scoop up an infant unexpectedly from behind, thereby startling interrupting, and creating resistance in the infant the educarer always tells the infant before she does anything with him or her and thus gets cooperation.
All of these examples try to illustrate that while both the caregiver and the educarer love the infant the educarer demonstrates love by showing and teaching respect.