What is High-Quality Early Learning and Child Care and how is it Achieved?

In the last few decades, as early learning and child care (ELCC) has become more widespread, questions have emerged about what high-quality care is and what factors impact quality. 

Today, there is abundant research literature about the characteristics, correlates, assessments and measurement of quality. One conclusion of this work is that “quality matters”– that is, ELCC can have beneficial outcomes for children if it is of high quality (particularly for children who are vulnerable) but that poor-quality programs may have negative effects.  

What is “quality”?

This question yields lively debates in the early childhood field, with multiple points of view about goals and basic conceptions. Ideas about quality are inextricably linked with values, and a society’s conception of the child, of childhood, the program purposes and the respective roles of the family and society. 

Canada, as a nation, has not developed a conception of ELCC quality but there is general agreement that some ELCC program characteristics are fundamental to a basic or minimum definition of quality. 

Basic elements of quality

Gillian Doherty, a Canadian ELCC researcher, identified some program elements considered to be basic for quality: 

  • safety
  • good hygiene
  • good nutrition
  • appropriate opportunities for rest
  • equality of opportunity regardless of gender or other differences
  • opportunities for play and development of motor/social/ language/cognitive skills
  • positive interactions with adults
  • facilitation of emotional growth 
  • an environment and practices that supports positive interaction among children

Policy matters when achieving quality

While improving quality is envisioned to be an integral, ongoing part of solid policy frameworks, research studies have examined key structural program factors shown to predict –or set the stage for–quality in early childhood program.
Key predictors are:

  • regulation
  • staff training in early childhood education
  • wages/working conditions
  • staff-to-child ratios and group size
  • educational approach
  • auspice (who owns the program)


Whether or not child care is regulated has an impact on quality, although it does not guarantee quality. At a minimum, regulation ensures public oversight and that basic requirements including basic safety, nutrition, ratios, number and qualifications of staff are in place.  

One American study showed that the more stringent the requirements, the higher the quality. This makes sense—a jurisdiction in which a two-year ECE diploma is required for all staff is more likely to have staff with this credential than if the requirement is that only one staff per centre is an ECE.  Overall, regulation is considered to be a starting point–but certainly not an end point–for quality.

Post-secondary training in early childhood education

Staff training in early childhood education in college or university is one of the most important predictors of quality in child care, with strong research evidence showing the relationship between high quality and postsecondary training in early childhood education. ECE training is so important that UNICEF’s minimum benchmark says almost all the people (at least 80%) “working regularly with young children, including home-based caregivers” should have at least initial early childhood training before they begin to provide ELCC, while some research suggests four-year qualifications in ECE. 

Wages and working conditions

It stands to reason that higher wages and good working conditions attract and retain better educated staff, promote higher morale, and result in lower turnover—all factors at the heart of high-quality child care. Indeed, at least one US study has shown that the wages of early childhood education staff is the best single predictor of quality.  Across Canada, low wages–even at minimum wage level–are the norm for most of the child care workforce, while centres report that it is difficult to attract and retain qualified educators to work in programs.  

Staff-child ratios and group size

Small group sizes and high staff-to-child ratios are factors closely linked to quality in child care; the age group determines what is considered an “adequate” ratio and group size, as more staff and smaller groups are needed for the youngest children. Most of the provincial/territorial regulations in Canada set staff-to-child ratios that are generally considered to be adequate, although some provinces/territories do not regulate group size, which also has a key impact.  Because ratios and ECE training are related, having lots of staff with no early childhood training is not a substitute for having well-trained educators.  

Educational approach

A high-quality ELCC program has a planned program that exposes children to language and ideas, providing many play‐based opportunities for peer interaction, exploration, experimentation and problem-solving. 

A solid pedagogical approach considerschildren’s development holistically, includes a clear, descriptive educational philosophy and sets out how the variety of goals for children will be achieved. In a high-quality program, staff have the knowledge and reflective approach create the program to fit the specific situation within the overarching philosophy and goals, treating children as active, “co-constructors of knowledge”.  An “off the shelf”, pre-packaged early childhood curriculum does not usually have this type of flexibility. 


Who owns the child care program (auspice) is shown to be an important predictor of quality child care. 

Research shows that public and non-profit child care is significantly more likely to be better quality than for-profit child care, even when public funding is the same. This doesn’t mean all not-for-profit child care programs are high-quality and all those set up as businesses are poor quality. But research shows clear links between auspice and predictors of quality such as wages, working conditions, training, staff turnover, staff morale, staff/child ratios and group size. This means auspice plays a key role in determining whether program quality will be higher or lower.

Download as PDF