Running a Home-Based Military Family Preschool Program

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Episode 173 – In this episode, Tessie Ragan from Perfect Start Learning joins us to shed some light on the unique advantages and challenges of providing child care to military families in a home. Without many of the resources available to larger centers and restrictions specific to military providers, Tessie has many lessons of resourcefulness and perseverance that all child care providers can be inspired by.

To learn more about Tessie’s program, visit https://www.perfectstartlearning.com.

Episode Transcript

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Tessie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

Tessie RAGAN:

Hi, thanks for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Today we’re delighted to have on the show Tessie Ragan. She’s the owner of Perfect Start Learning, a family or home childcare program based out of Edwards Air Force Base in California. [We’re] looking forward to learning from you, Tessie, about the challenges and benefits of being a home childcare provider and owner. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you and perfect start learning.

RAGAN:

I actually started this program after I graduated from Western Carolina University in 2012. We had just got back from Germany and I knew during that process of getting my bachelors degree that I had a different mindset about how I wanted to run a program. And I figured that I could do it better the way I wanted to out of my home versus trying to set up a center. Because one of the basic one of my basic philosophies is that high-quality childcare and education should be available to all children and families and I did not want to price anybody out of having access to what I was doing. And I felt like a family childcare home was better suited for that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And so I guess the way that works then is because you’re not paying separate rent and utilities and whatnot for a separate space you can then have lower prices for your families?

RAGAN:

Yes. So, with my overhead so low it doesn’t translate to the parent. So, I’m able to do a pre-K preschool program much like the larger locations do or the boutique preschool pre-K programs. But I don’t have to charge thousands of dollars a month, which means that children that may not actually have gotten to get preschool pre-K program education can now afford it.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That makes a ton of sense. And just tell us a little bit about your program. So, like, how many children are you serving? And what are your philosophies around how you run your programs and this type of thing?

RAGAN:

My program is preschool pre-K. I take care of six children at a time because of military family childcare regulations. But I have 20 children enrolled: so I have [hourly blocks of] 7:30 [AM] to 11:00 and then 11:30 to 3:00 [PM]. I have six children. And I do pre-K [on] Monday, Wednesday, Friday and preschool, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

So, the two sessions are different because of they’re working on and what they’re ready for developmentally. So, my program is built for children to move through the entire program and stay with me.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And what’s the typical age? Or what is the age range of the 20 children that you have enrolled?

RAGAN:

So, my preschool goes to two years old to three, three-and-a-half [years old]. And then my pre-K program is four to five [years old]. And sometimes I will move my children up if they are ready because my two– to three-year-old range, we’re working more on social skills and sharing and getting used to being in a preschool environment and learning how to work with others. And my pre-K environment is usually… while they play a lot they are getting ready for kindergarten.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And you mentioned that you’re able to keep your prices a bit lower because you’re in a home. Are there other benefits for home childcare, versus a licensed tour group childcare program that’s not in a home? Are there things that you maybe your families say to you [as to] why they prefer your program at a home?

RAGAN:

Well, one of the things that I think is really important to note is that we have smaller numbers. So, even if you are running a large group family childcare home, the max that you’ll have in the home all at one time is twelve. So, that means that the children are getting individualized care; you have children that have anxiety and they don’t like being around large crowds; they’ve never been to a preschool pre-K program before. And this allows them to get used to being around other children while still maintaining a small environment where the teacher can see them at all times and cater to their needs better.

So, I am able to individualize my goals for each child and work with the children on a one-on-one level without sacrificing quality in my program for the children. And the parents love that. They love that I know that their children have switched their favorite characters and I’m able to individualize their working with stuff, with that character and things like that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, so it sounds like you put quite a bit of effort into the quality of the educational aspect of your program. Do you use any frameworks or prescribe to any guidelines or anything like that in terms of your educational and development plans? Or are these things that you have created on your own?

RAGAN:

The curriculums, I actually… because I know children are flexible and they move quickly through their domains I actually deploy three different curriculums for their children and I’ll switch back and forth depending on what their interest level is.

And so right now we’re using… the one that is steady is Mother Goose Time. So I will use Mother Goose Time the entire time for art and everything because the parents really love that program. My other ones are Starfall and I use Handwriting Without Tears to help them.

But the gauging of if they’re ready comes from what I’ve learned in school about child development. And I’ve recently been delving into brain development while I’ve been doing my master’s degree and everything and trying to figure out what I could do better for the children.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, that’s awesome. And what about on the opposite end? What are some of the challenges that you think you face in a home-based childcare environment and as the owner of a home-based childcare program?

RAGAN:

Because I do [run a home-based program] I don’t have any overhead. I am able to charge lower prices. But I’m in a home, so then we’re not taken as seriously as perhaps childcare providers in larger centers. So, we don’t have access to grants; we don’t have access to extra money to help us get new equipment. And so all of that all that money is coming out of what the parents pay us. So, we have to figure out how to keep up-to-date with what the children are focused on, what they need, best practices, developmentally appropriate practices, trainings and all of that, because sometimes these trainings – especially really, really good trainings – they kind of price out family childcare providers. So, we will want to do what’s best for the children in our care. But we may not be able to financially afford to do all of the things that we would want to do for these children.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that makes sense. And what about you? Do you have anybody to help you out? This must be maybe a higher risk of burnout because you’re taking on so much.

RAGAN:

Oh, yes. The field does see a lot of burnout from teachers. Military-family childcare providers are not allowed to hire their own assistants. So, I am currently not allowed to have someone help me out. I have to do it by myself. And right now we’re seeing a shortage in the field due to some extenuating circumstances and getting a provider’s license and their background checks then. So, right now you are seeing a high rate of burnout from family childcare providers from the military life who are not able to hire and get help when they need it.

But on the civilian side, you’re able to get help. But I don’t have any help right now. My husband’s able to come and do paperwork – he’s my secretary. He loves that. He’s my secretary right now and he’s able to take over my paperwork and do all of that for me. I’m in school for my master’s degree right now.

But it’s the burnout is very high. And that’s something that I’ve been trying to draw attention to, that we do do a lot. We do everything that centers do, but we either do it by ourselves or we do it with limited help.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, you definitely have a full plate of responsibilities, that’s for sure. At least you have your husband helping you out; that’s something!

RAGAN:

Yeah, I’m pretty sure when I got out the military, he did not see himself helping me. He said I was going to end up in a teaching in a kindergarten. So, he was very shocked when I was, like, “I’m going to do this by myself. I’m going to own my own business.” He’s like, “Oh, my gosh! You used to be a cop in the military. And now what are we doing?”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

 “I guess we’re doing this!”

RAGAN:

Yes! And I love it. I’m one of those weird people that had a goal since I was five years old. And my goal was to join the military and get out and become a teacher. And the teacher part happened just a little sooner.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And so you have children of all different age ranges. How does that work? Like, what are what are the benefits and challenges of that, versus maybe you’re in a larger, licensed childcare center and all the children are the same age in a classroom?

RAGAN:

Oh, well, I love it. I love it. What ends up happening is, the younger children learn new routines; they learn from the older children much quicker. So, my big thing is [presenting] concepts to all children. You’re not expecting them to be good at the concepts or grasp them right away. But the fact that hearing the older children getting introduced to them makes it that much easier when it’s their turn to really get introduced to it because they’ve heard you explaining it to the other children.

So, I think the one downfall is that that they’re still younger. You still have to make sure you’re doing developmentally-appropriate things with the younger children. And there’s more instances of meltdowns. You have more instances of separation anxiety.

And it might set off a chain reaction in the classroom of everybody crying, which was my beginning of the year. For my preschool-age [group] we had we had one come in and he was fine. And then the next one came in and they had separation anxiety very bad because they had not been to a program before. All of a sudden it was a chain reaction and everybody that came in after was crying. For about two hours it was shifting crying from all six children.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Oh, fun!

RAGAN:

Yeah, but it worked out. Once you push past that – the separation anxiety and everything – it works out. But I love that I’m able to introduce something to all the children. And then you don’t think that they’ve picked it up until they’ve gone home and they’ve told mom and everything.

An example of that would be, I was teaching my older ones about the space walk and we were pretending to be astronauts in space. And we were all taking turns putting on the helmet and seeing Neil Armstrong’s line across the classroom. And one of the two-year-olds went home and pretended they were bouncing on the moon and said the quote to their parents. And they were, like, “Oh, my gosh!” And I was, like, “Yup, we did that!” And these are things you don’t think that they’re going to catch on to and you just do it for fun. And you realize, “Oh, no, they’re paying attention!” They’re going to remember.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

They’re taking in more than you think, for sure. If I’m listening to this podcast and I’m an early-childhood educator thinking of taking a similar path to you and maybe starting my own childcare program at home, what advice would you provide?

RAGAN:

I would really stress making sure you make time for yourself. A lot of the advice that’s given to providers, especially when it was given to me, had to do with the things that I needed in my program to draw in parents, the things that I needed, the types of toys that I needed and everything. These are all things that you can add into your program.

The biggest thing that’s a hard change for providers is our support system and our self-care. We don’t do it enough. We give up a lot of ourselves to make sure that we’re taking care of our families and our children that are enrolled in our programs. And we also feel very guilty about taking time off that we may need for our own families. And I would suggest making sure that you have systems in place to prevent burnout. Because if you love this job and you love what you do, that is one of the things that you need to make sure you do so that you are in this job for the long haul and that you’re not burnt out in three years.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s good advice and so, so real. And a topic that we’ve talked about more and more, I think, on the Preschool Podcast, actually. Because you’re absolutely right – a lot of early-childhood educators out there, the reason they got into early-childhood education is because they like supporting and serving others. But you can only do that really well if you also make sure you take care of yourself. So, that’s great advice to our audience.

Tessie, if I would like to get in touch with you to learn more about running a home childcare program or I want to check out your program, where can I go to get in touch with you or learn more?

RAGAN:

I am on many social media platforms because I’m crazy. So I have a website: www.PerfectStartLearning.com. I’m also on Facebook where I am currently posting 24 days of Halloween. I have dressed up every single day since the beginning of October for my class. And so today I’m just that there’s Madeline from the Madeline books. And so you can see all of that. And I have a big finale planned for next week. I am also on Instagram under @PerfectStartLearning. And I’m on Twitter, more or less, under @LearningPerfect.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wow! And you do all of this social media and dressing up for the whole month of October above and beyond all the other things you do, which is crazy. You must have a lot of energy to do this!

RAGAN:

Oh, yeah, I love this career path. I enjoy my job. I actually asked my husband the other day, “If I had another career, what do you think I would do?” And he literally could think of nothing else that I would be doing. And this was it. I love it.

I’m actually going to be presenting about family childcare providers with my co-facilitator with NAEYC [National Association for the Education of Young Children]. We are both co-facilitators for the family childcare forum on the Hello [online networking platform] for NAEYC. And we are going to be at the conference in November presenting.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And that’s in Nashville, I think this year, right?

RAGAN:

Yes, it’s in Nashville, Tennessee. So, I actually did not think I was going to travel this much. It’s kind of cool!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s a great opportunity. Tessie, you’re awesome. Thank you so much for joining us on the Podcast. It’s always great to have on people like yourself who are so passionate about early-childhood education, genuinely care about the real issues, and are also working with children every day. You’re doing amazing things and thank you for everything you’re doing. And thank you for joining us on the Podcast today!

RAGAN:

Thank you for having me!

Michael Keshen

Michael is the Content Manager at HiMama, with over 7 years of online content publishing experience. He is the current editor in chief for HiMama's early childhood education blog and ECE Weekly newsletter. When not developing content for early childhood professionals, he can usually be found out and about with his wife and daughter exploring all that Toronto has to offer, or playing music with his karaoke band.

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