Caring for Our Children Basics: A Brief History of Early Care and Education Standards and their Monitoring in the United States (USA) 

It all started in and around 1965 when the Federal government got into early care and education (ECE) in earnest with Head Start and federally funded day care for low-income families.  It started off slowly but began to pick up momentum with exciting studies and research applying principles from developmental psychology to policy making.  Researchers and policy makers wanted to make sure that these new programs were not detrimental to young children since our frame of reference were children being raised in orphanages and the ultimate outcome for children was not positive.  Would ECE have the same impact? 

Issues around quality, appropriateness of standards, and demonstration programs became the focal point of federal research funding.  The focal point of this essay is on the appropriateness of the ECE standards and the resulting monitoring systems that were to become key to the federal involvement in early care and education.   This essay will be organized by the following 50 years neatly broken out by each decade to get us from this beginning in 1965 until the publication of Caring for Our Children Basics in 2015 by the federal government, the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  A look at the 2020 decade with a future note is also appended to this essay. 


During the 1970’s, the federal government became concerned about what were to be the standards for this new national program related to federally funded ECE for low-income families and their children.  Head Start was a separate entity and we will revisit Head Start later but our focus for now is on the federally funded programs which became known back then generically as day care.  This nomenclature changed to child care and to finally early care and education (ECE) during this 50-year history.  The initial standards for day care were the Federal Interagency Day Care Requirements (FIDCR).  A very large appropriateness research study led by Abt Associates to determine what were the most salient standards and their intended impact on children while in day care was conducted during this decade.  These standards were to be federally mandated requirements for any program receiving federal funding.   This is where group size and adult-child ratios standards became such important safeguards and surrogates for children’s health and safety in day care programs. 

It also became of interest for the federal government to design the monitoring system that would determine compliance with the FIDCRs.  But it became clear to the original designers of this new system that the monitoring of the FIDCR was going to be difficult to do across the full USA.  So, the question became, is there a way to monitor the standards in the most effective and efficient manner?  This question and the future of the FIDCR were to be altered and put on hold once we moved into the next decade.  


A change in federal administration and a resulting change in philosophy related to the federal role in America altered many things and one of them was the relationship of the federal government and the states.  Rather than the federal government mandating day care requirements, the focus changed with the locus of control moving from the federal level to the state level via block grant funding with very few federal requirements.  This meant a moratorium to FIDCR and its ultimate demise.  The federal government was not going to be in the business of providing day care, this was going to be the jurisdiction of the states.  Head Start did become the exception to this rule with its own standards and monitoring system. 

The focus of federal funding switched from the national to the state level in determining compliance with each state’s respective child care licensing rules and not with an overarching FIDCR.  There was still interest in making these state monitoring systems as effective and efficient but there was no interest in the federal government determining what these requirements would be.  Two monitoring approaches grew out of this need for effectiveness and efficiency:  risk assessment and key indicators.    These two approaches were originally designed and implemented as part of a federally funded project called the Children’s Services Monitoring Transfer Consortium in which a group of five states: New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and California teamed up to explore their most effective and efficient monitoring systems and begin transferring these systems to one another and beyond. 

These two monitoring approaches were tested in the above respective states and it was determined that their impact had a positive effect on the children who were in those day care centers.  This was a major finding, similar to the FIDCR appropriateness study, in which these approaches provided safeguards related to the health and safety of children while in day care.   


By the 1990s, it became clear that the federal government had pretty much drawn back from any leadership role in having mandated federal requirements when it came to health and safety in child care.  It was left to national ECE advocates who were positioned within the federal government (Administration for Children and Families; Maternal and Child Health Bureau) as well as throughout the USA with national and state agencies and organizations (American Academy of Pediatrics; American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care) that saw a need for child care health and safety recommendations at least.  If we could not have requirements, we could at least have recommendations and provide guidance to child care programs throughout the USA. 

This led to the first edition of Caring for Our Children which was a comprehensive set of child care health and safety standards.  It was a major game changer for the ECE field because now there was a universal set of standards based upon the latest research literature for states to use as they considered revising and updating their respective state licensing child care rules.   

But there was a problem.  Caring for Our Children was a comprehensive set of health and safety standards which was their strength but at the same time it was their weakness.  They were so comprehensive (well over 500 well researched standards) that they were intimidating and it was difficult to determine where to begin for the states. 

Several researchers remembered the two approaches to monitoring designed in the previous decade and wondered if they could be helpful in focusing or targeting which of the standards were the most critical/salient standards.  The risk assessment approach to monitoring appeared to have the most immediate applicability and Stepping Stones to Caring for Our Children was born.  This document clearly articulated which of the 500+ Caring for Our Children standards placed children at greatest risk for mortality or morbidity by not being in compliance with the respective standard.  Since the early 1990s, Caring for Our Children and Stepping Stones to Caring for Our Children have gone through three editions and have become very important resources to state licensing agencies as they revise, update and improve their ECE rules. 


In this decade several federal and national organizations began to use Caring for Our Children standards in innovative ways to measure how well ECE looked at a national level.  The Assistant Secretary’s Office for Planning and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published the Thirteen Indicators of Quality Child Care based upon a core set of predictor standards from Caring for Our Children.  These were standards that predicted overall compliance with all the standards and were seen as an efficient monitoring system.  NACCRRA (National Association for Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies) began publishing a national report card on how well states met specific standards and monitoring protocols based upon similar predictor standards from Caring for Our Children

These efforts helped states to make significant changes in their ECE rules in their respective states and in a very voluntary way suggested a means for national standards for the ECE field although we would need to wait until the next decade in order to see such a published document of national ECE health and safety standards for early care and education:  Caring for Our Children Basics


By the 2010s, ECE had grown into a very large but unwieldly assortment of programs with varying levels of quality.  Again because of major federal funding, the Child Care Development Block Grant, along with changes and enhancements in professional development, accreditation systems, quality rating and improvement systems, the ECE landscape had become more complex and less easy to navigate.  And rather than coming together it was clearly more fragmented than ever. 

We had very minimal requirements for the federal funding and most of these requirements were geared to the state agency using the state’s respective licensing rules as the threshold for standards.  This approach worked well with states with excellent licensing rules, but it wasn’t working as well with states who did not have equally excellent licensing rules.  We still did not have a core set of standards for ECE programs.  Enter Caring for Our Children Basics which took the best aspects of the above two monitoring approaches, risk assessment and key indicators and molded it into this new document.  This work was led by the federal government’s Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and although the standards are still recommendations and guidance, it is our best attempt at having national standards for early care and education.  It is an attempt to provide guidance to the full ECE field, child care, Head Start, preschool, and center based as well as home-based care.  It would be nice to have Caring for Our Children Basics as the health and safety foundation for early care and education throughout the USA.  I don’t see this happening in my lifetime. 

2020s: Looking to the Future 

As a footnote to this essay, the new decade has been dealt with a major curve ball with COVID19 rearing its ugly head and ECE has been impacted greatly because of this pandemic.  As of this writing we are nowhere closer to a solution to getting ECE programs back on line.  If anything, the pandemic really demonstrated the fragility of the ECE system we have built over the past 50 years and it clearly has not done very well.  My hope is that we can learn from the past 50 years and not continue another 50 years along the same route; although I am guessing that many ECE advocates would be glad to have what we had before the pandemic because what we have right non-sustainable.  We know a lot more today than what we knew back in 1965 when we were worried about would day care hurt children’s development.  We know today that quality ECE benefits children but unfortunately, we are no closer to attaining this today than we were 50 years ago. 

Two programs that have been very successful in avoiding these pitfalls are Head Start and the national Military Child Care program.  Both programs are exemplary examples of quality early care and education being provided with separate funding streams and standards.  Interesting enough when the Administration for Children and Families published Caring for Our Children Basics, both these programs were part of the reach of the published standards.  As we re-invent and re-structure ECE we should be looking to both these very successful programs for guidance. 

About Dr Fiene

Dr. Rick Fiene has spent his professional career in improving the quality of child care in various states, nationally, and internationally. He has done extensive research and publishing on the key components in improving child care quality through an early childhood program quality indicator model of training, technical assistance, quality rating & improvement systems, professional development, mentoring, licensing, risk assessment, differential program monitoring, and accreditation. Dr. Fiene is a retired professor of human development & psychology (Penn State University) where he was department head and director of the Capital Area Early Childhood Research and Training Institute.
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