RI Child Care Staffing Crisis: Erin Thibeault’s Story

Highly-Skilled Educators Are Key for High-Quality Child Care 

East Providence resident Erin Thibeault is a certified special education teacher who currently teaches first grade in the East Providence Public Schools. Her four-year-old son attends child care at Meeting Street Early Learning Center in Providence while she and her husband are at work. Erin raves about the high quality learning environment at Meeting Street, which she sought out after a negative experience at a child care program her son previously attended. 

After Erin became concerned about her son’s development as an infant, the family began receiving services from Early Intervention that are designed to help infants and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities. Her son started in a child care program at 18 months, and EI specialists would regularly observe him in his child care classroom, providing recommendations to make the classroom experience more productive and enjoyable for him. Ultimately, the child care staff at this program was not able to successfully implement the Early Intervention recommendations, and Erin was forced to leave the program because they could not meet his needs.

“I saw the teachers at his old program visibly frustrated with his behavior. They didn’t have the administrative support or specialized training to meet his needs, and they declined to implement simple recommendations from our EI specialists, such as not putting him at a table with more than three other children. They saw him as a kid who was acting out, and didn’t know how to help him,” said Erin. “I was scared that we’d be asked to leave, and thought I was going to have to quit my job to stay home with him. I know of two other families who had a similar experience, so it’s not uncommon.” 

Erin says that after switching to Meeting Street, a completely different side of her son emerged. “On the first day they met him, they understood him—they realized he was a sensory seeker, who would benefit from boundaries and routines. They recognize when he’s getting dysregulated and help him regulate. They have an awesome inclusion program and have helped him with peer relationships. It has made a world of difference,” said Erin. “He’s recently been diagnosed with ADHD, and without Meeting Street, I’m terrified to think what his trajectory could be.” 

Even with her degree in elementary education and her special education certification, Erin says it still took independent research, multiple conversations with their pediatrician, advice from a social worker, and months of meetings with various EI specialists to steer her in the right direction with her son’s early learning. Erin recognizes that she had the knowledge to access resources and was not afraid to advocate for her son, and she wonders—what’s happening to the children of families without the same advantages?

Erin believes that all teachers, including early childhood educators working in child care settings, must have the skills, knowledge and resources to address the needs of all children so that every child has the opportunity to thrive in the classroom. Erin stresses that it’s crucial that legislators and statewide leaders ensure child care programs receive the funding needed to attract and retain qualified and effective early childhood educators. Rhode Island child care licensing regulations currently require only a high school diploma to be a classroom teacher or family child care provider. Although the state has helped with scholarships for early childhood educators through several initiatives, it is difficult to keep skilled early educators in the child care field once they’ve completed their degree because compensation is so low ($12.11 per hour on average in 2020). 

Due to staffing challenges, Meeting Street has only been able to consistently stay open until 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. even though families request later pickup times due to their work schedules. They may need to decrease their hours further if the staffing crisis continues, and they currently have 15 children waiting for classroom spots to open up. Without child care staff to accommodate families that need care, more working parents will struggle to find care during the hours they work to support their families. 

Erin says that paying for child care has also been a struggle, and that tuition has consistently been equal to or higher than her housing costs. She’s not sure she could afford to cover the costs of child care for a second child, even with her public school teacher salary combined with her husband’s salary as a firefighter and ability to earn more by working overtime. 

“I want our legislators and statewide leaders to know that every family needs and deserves access to high quality child care that meets the needs of their family. It’s crucial to a functioning society,” said Erin. “The child care payment model is flawed, and the full cost burden of child care cannot fall solely on hardworking parents who can’t afford it. We cannot afford to pay more than we already are for child care and we desperately need child care educators to be adequately compensated for the critical work they do.”