When you’re at Crystal Barksdale’s child care, you’re family. The family aspect is a very important part of Ms. Crystal’s Little Rugrats, named for the popular TV show that depicts the world from the viewpoint of toddlers. “The children I serve come from diverse family backgrounds,” Crystal says, “but they all feel included as they interact with every member of my family. My husband has an HVAC business and keeps our heating and cooling system in good repair. I also get a lot of support from my own three children, now all in their twenties.”
“My children grew up in the child care,” Crystal says, “so they know how to run it with their eyes closed. My son often cooks meals and always dishes up something the children love. My older daughter drops by to help care for the children. And my younger daughter works with me full-time teaching the 3- and 4-year-olds. I teach the infants and toddlers. So, we all join to build a warm environment that has the feel of your grandma’s house.”
When Crystal talks about grandmas, she’s thinking about the two women who served as role models for her career. “My grandmothers lived on the same block while I was growing up,” she recalls, “and had 10 children between them so there were a lot of grandkids. When I was young, all of us grandkids and our friends used to gather at their houses to sit on the porch, do our homework, play games and have fun together. It was a place where you could feel comfortable, loved and have a good meal.”
That image stayed in Crystal’s mind while she was growing up. “As a teenager, I babysat for a lot of little children,” she says, “and after high school I went to cosmetology school, where I learned to do hair and nails. I was 20 and working as a cosmetologist when my older daughter’s family child care provider suggested I become a family child care provider, too. It seemed like a good idea because I already had families in my neighborhood who wanted me to watch their children. So, it was just a matter of getting registered and having my home inspected. After that, I gave up cosmetology because I found that I loved working with children much more.”
In the 24 years since then, Crystal has expanded her business as she moved from an apartment to a big house in the diverse Baltimore suburb where she now cares for eight young children. She has also expanded her knowledge of the early childhood field by earning her Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential. “After I was in the business for about 10 years, another child care provider told me about the CDA,” Crystal says. It seemed like a great idea though at first, she worried that it would take a lot of time.
It turned out to be worth the effort as Crystal found herself gaining new knowledge and building a network of colleagues. “Ten of us took the classes together and we helped each other with the work,” Crystal says. “Earning the CDA helped me get out of my shell since I didn’t get a chance to meet other providers while working in my home. It also made me think about what I could do to contribute to my profession.”
For a time, she served as vice president of the child care division at her local branch of the Service Employees International Union. “I helped providers complete the paperwork for the CDA, write their professional statements and put their portfolios together,” Crystal explains. And though she no longer serves as an SEIU VP, she still helps other folks earn their credential. And she currently serves on the Maryland Office of Child Care Advisory Council, which discusses different ways to help providers advance in their profession. Among the ideas the council members have supported was helping folks earn their CDA—a suggestion the Maryland State Department of Education came to act on this year.
“Getting a CDA is a great way for providers to enhance their professional growth,” Crystal explains. “We have a lot of providers with many years in the field who don’t have the time or means to go to college. But they can earn college credits when they earn their CDA. The providers also learn a lot about themselves and how they want to run a business when they put their portfolios together. I know that completing my own involved a lot of research and hard work that enhanced my skills and helped me succeed in my career.”
Crystal was so busy with her child care business that she put off renewing her CDA until this year when she learned that that the Maryland State Department of Education was helping with the cost of credentialing fees and books through a grant awarded to the Council for Professional Recognition. “I put a lot of work into my CDA training,” she says, “so I wanted to keep up the credential. The grant gave me an opportunity to do so without spending a lot of money.”
Crystal can put the money toward the regular updates that she makes to her family child care home. “Every year we paint and rearrange the spaces to keep the rooms fresh and exciting for the children,” she explains. Crystal and her husband have also made accommodations to help Donna, a little girl who’s disabled, get in and out of the home with her walker.
“We want every child to have what they need,” Crystal says. So, she makes sure Donna gets regular therapy while she’s at the day care. She also puts in extra effort and does research to help children with learning challenges advance. “We had one little boy who would get frustrated when he was learning to read,” she recalls. “We would tell him to come over and sit down at the table so we can figure it out. Then we told him to breathe, take your time, sing the letter sounds one at a time, then sing them together while clapping your hand to the sounds. And it worked, as his mom told me after taking this approach for a couple of weeks.”
Crystal wants to help learning continue at home, so she provides all the children with little notebooks. “The notebooks are for the parents, so they can help the children get used to doing homework,” she explains. “I encourage the children to use them by saying ‘Mommy and Daddy don’t know how to count to ten, so you have to show them.’”
Crystal is committed to teaching children and taking them to the next level, whatever challenges they face. She also expands their world through frequent trips to the circus and the zoo, pumpkin farms and parks. Her goal is to make them feel cared for like they would if they were at grandma’s house. And the families are grateful for what she does to give their kids a wonderful childhood. “The parents may not always thank me in words, but I can see how much they cherish the work I do with their children. They know that I love all my little rugrats.”