Selecting Quality Child Care

by Danielle Schultz

Choosing a good child care setting for your child can be one of the most important decisions you can make in your child’s early years. Over the last several years, professional child care centers have gotten some very bad publicity. Although there are certainly horrendous child care centers out there without the children’s best interest at heart, I believe this to be the exception rather than the rule. Parents who educate and inform themselves can certainly make this difficult and important decision where to place their children a comfortable one. This article will hold important information for all parents needing child care whether you are looking to find a new setting for your child, or evaluate your child’s current child care arrangements.

Licensing, licensing, licensing…
A current and valid license to provide child care is one of the first key elements you should look for in a provider if choosing any type of group care setting. Find out what agency licenses child care facilities in your area and get a copy of their guidelines. Anyone you would entrust your child with should be able to meet the minimum requirements for licensing. The license should be on display in all centers and licensed homes. Look at the license to note the expiration date and capacity. Compare the capacity to what is actually in the center.

In a recently published article by Environmental Health Services in Brevard County, Florida, the number one violation by child care centers cited is adult-to-child ratio. This is also one of the most serious in my opinion, as if a center is not maintaining minimum licensing ratios, they cannot be giving the children in their care the best care possible. Find out what legal ratios are in your area and make certain centers you visit adhere to them.

Steps to Finding a Quality Child Care

1. Ask
Begin by asking friends, relatives, co-workers about the care they have experienced with their children. Keep an open mind as your hear the good and the bad they share with you. Pay close attention when centers’ names keep popping up with either a very good reputation, or the opposite of horror stories.

2. Call
Keeping in mind the recommendations you might have gotten, call around to rule out centers that are not practical for you. Eliminate from your list those that do not have the hours available for your requirements. Count out the centers which exceed your budget limitations. Pay close attention to the service you receive on the phone. If the answering party does not sound professional or is not pleasant with you, keep that in mind if you decide to visit the center later.

3. Visit
Visit some of the centers on your narrowed list. On each visit, listen to your instincts. How is your first impression? Does the place look safe for your child? How are the caregivers interacting with the children? Are they enjoying talking and playing with children? Are they on the children’s eye level? Are the learning materials and toys in good condition, plentiful and within reach? If you have a good feeling about the center, stay awhile, and be sure to return again. It is best to visit at varying times of the day: active play (usually 9-11am), nap time and drop-off or pick-up time. See the section later in this article on what you should encounter when visiting a quality child care center.

4. Know the Ratios and Count
Know the maximum capacity of your child’s class. Count the number of children in the group. Then count the number of staff members caring for them. Obviously, the fewer the number of children for each adult, the more attention your child will get. A small number of children per adult is most important for babies and younger children.

5. Tour, Interview and Ask Questions
It’s very important that the adults who care for your children have the knowledge and experience to give them the attention they need. Ask about the background and experience of all staff: the program director, caregivers, teachers, and any other adults who will have contact with your child in the center.

What You Should See..
Some might be a little bit surprised about what you should encounter when visiting a quality child care center. First, listen to the noise level of the center. You should hear busy and happy sounds and pleasant adult voices. If the center is very quiet, find out why. Children should be permitted to express themselves verbally. You should not be surprised if encountering minor chaos at transition times (beginning of lunch, naptime, etc.) Getting a group of children from one activity to another takes hard work, and is often a setting of “controlled” chaos in quality centers.

You should encounter a pleasant-smelling center without the obvious scent of urine. Carpets and floors should be clean and free from constant clutter. The center should be generally clean, but be careful of settings which might be misleading. For example, if a center is one-hundred percent perfectly clean, one might wonder if the children are permitted to play with toys and explore with art materials. It might mean that the teachers are spending more time on cleaning tasks than with the children. I would personally rather encounter a center at naptime with food still on the floor from lunch with the teachers rubbing the children’s backs. The cleaning can wait until the children are asleep.

If arriving at activity time, note the activities taking place. The children should have some free choice over the activities they participate in. At circle time, you might see a child sitting off to the side observing. This is preferable to forcing a child into a situation he is not ready for. In general, the children should have happy, relaxed or contented faces. If a child is upset, see how he is being responded to. Nurturing teachers should be giving support and comfort to this distressed child, but also keep in mind if you see a child crying alone, the child might not wish physical comfort from the teacher. Feel free to ask the tour-giver about that child and listen closely to the response. It might be that the child does not want to be comforted as described above. The tour-giver might also explain that in reality, all distressed children cannot (and should not) be held all day long. You might find that the teacher was holding the child just prior to your visit.

All of the children should be in sight of teachers , unless using the restroom. Teachers should know at all times the number of children in their care. Teachers should be on the children’s level, using friendly and comforting tones, and should be moving about the group while “scanning” about the room with her eyes.

Classroom materials should include story books accessible to the children. Toys should be plentiful and in good condition. Manipulative toys such as legos, building blocks, puzzles, waffle blocks, etc. should be available to the children. Imaginitive play items such as dress-up clothes, hats and kitchen items should be in a center for free play. Art materials such as paints, glue, markers, crayons and blank paper should be in abundance. Odds and ends for free art is a definite plus. A television should be used minimally and in conjunction with weekly themes, rather as a babysitter throughout the day.

If visiting at lunchtime, you should see a relaxed and comfortable eating environment. Nutritious foods should be served along with milk, juice, or water. Children should be practicing polite manners as they chat with their neighbors. Teachers should be joining the children in proper table manners while eating. Self-serving such as pouring their own milk or spooning out a vegetable in a “family style” setting is a bonus. Children should be gently encouraged, but not forced, to taste the foods on their plate. Seconds should be offered on items eaten, regardless of whether the plate is “cleaned” or not.

If visiting at naptime, you should find the children being comforted as they go to sleep. Soothing lullabies being played is a plus. Personal items from home such as blankets, pillows and stuffed animals should be seen with the majority of the children.

Caregivers should seem warm and affectionate with their children. They should be using the children’s first names when addressing them or talking about them (rather than “smart” nicknames.) Caregivers should be interacting and involved with the children rather than standing back and directing them or ordering them around. They encourage the children to do some self help skills for themselves such as tying the knot before she ties their shoe or writing the first letter of their name on their paper.

Other environmental situations to note:

  • Electrical outlets should be covered.
  • Water fountains should be accessible and clean.
  • Restrooms should be plentiful, easily accessed, clean and odor free.
  • Children should have their own personal storage space.
  • Medicine should be locked and out of reach of the children.
  • Food allergies should be noted in the kitchen.
  • No cleaning materials should be in the children’s reach.
  • The children’s art should be displayed to give the children a feeling of importance.
  • Decor should be bright and cheerful but not totally overstimulating to the children.
  • Teachers should be able to be monitored through windows at all times.
  • The playground should have quality and safe equipment for climbing, riding and playing. A good amount of open space should be available with a good surface for running such as grass.
  • The playground should have several areas of shade, safe and high fencing, and teachers who are moving about and interacting with the children rather than sitting or chatting with other teachers.
  • Parking-may seem plentiful during a midday visit, but check out at the time you will be dropping off and picking up.
  • Parents should be able to refer to weekly lesson plans and daily schedules for preschool classes.
  • Curriculum should be child-friendly and include activities which allow the children to enhance their skills in the following areas: fine and gross motor, language, math, problem solving, music, self help, dramatic play, science, social awareness, exploration and cooperation.
  • Each day children should have periods of outside time (weather permitting) making sure not to be out too long in the hot summer months.
  • Stories should be read to the children on a daily basis.
  • Parents should receive daily or weekly take home sheets/ progress reports and monthly newsletters.
  • Activities should be made up of both teacher directed and child directed activities.
  • Arts and crafts should include more free exploration with materials and child-led patterns (i.e. it’s okay for a three-year-old to place a pre-cut flower pattern with all of the petals backwards, etc.) rather than dittos and coloring sheets.

Parent Handbook
Be sure to ask the center for a parent handbook. This should hold information about the many, many policies centers have, which may vary greatly center to center. Some of the policies described should include: sick children, biting and aggressive behavior, holiday celebrations, vacation weeks, tuition/attendance, disenrollment, days of center closure, visitation, late pick-up, authorized persons pick-up policy and procedures, medicine, accident/injuries/illnesses, smoking, parental discipline policy while on premises, discipline/time-out, custody situations, toys from home, security objects (pacifiers, blankets, etc.) Ask questions about any policies that may be unclear.

Follow Your Heart and Instincts
One of the most important tools to use when evaluating a quality child care center are your instincts and gut feelings. A parent’s intuition can be worth its weight in gold. If you feel uncomfortable with a center, your instincts are telling you that this might not be the best place for your child regardless of price, program and reputation.

By using all of the tools described in this article, you should be able to find a setting that is just right for your child.

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