Daycare 101 – A Parent’s Guide

by Melanie Gold

Millions of children–over one-fifth of all American kids with working moms–attend daycare, according to the U.S. Census. Based on these figures daycare is the most common form of child care in the United States.

But the system is rife with complexities and problems. For starters, most daycare educators are sorely underpaid while families are financially overburdened, making it difficult for any parent to afford quality child care. Entrusting your child to someone else’s care is possibly the most stressful aspect of parenting.

There are 3 basic types of child-care centers, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): chains, independent for-profit facilities, and nonprofit centers. Chain centers often have a wide variety of activities and programs; but because of bigger size, they may be less flexible in addressing your child’s individual needs and may be less likely to open earlier or stay open later than usual (or they may charge a fee to do this).

Independent for-profit centers are usually small programs run by a small staff and depend on enrollment fees for operation. Because many are built around one or two dedicated people, they can be quite excellent, except in cases of frequent staff turnovers or ownership changes.

Nonprofit centers are often linked with houses of worship, community centers, universities, or organizations like the YMCA or YWCA. They may have access to public funding, allow discounted fees for lower-income families, and put enrollment profits back into their programs, to the children’s direct benefit.

“My daughter was at a not-for-profit daycare,” says Cheryl Duksta, a mother and an early childhood educator. “The rates were high (no discounts), but 85 percent of the money was put into teacher salaries. The remainder was put into supplies for children and training for teachers.”

But nonprofit programs may be subject to undesirable changes enforced by the sponsoring organization, so parents need to be sure they are represented on the daycare’s governing board. They also may rely heavily on parent involvement for fund-raising. The strict standards applied to publicly funded centers may not apply to privately financed ones, and many states exempt church-run facilities from even minimum requirements.

When in doubt, Duksta recommends seeking out a center with accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

“The NAEYC has higher standards than the states, and daycares usually have to go through many hoops to be accredited. Many parents go for church daycares, believing that they will be good because they’re owned by churches. I’ve seen some atrocious care in church-run daycares. But at my daughter’s accredited church-owned preschool, the teachers are degreed and they have the right philosophy about child-centered learning.” Duksta feels that learning through play is more important for youngsters than learning academics.

Even before walking into a daycare, parents should know what is developmentally appropriate for their child’s age group and what their state’s regulations are. Parents can request a copy of their state’s child care center law from their regional Children’s Bureau. Armed with this knowledge, parents will be better prepared to observe and ask questions, and hopefully find some peace of mind. The following tips were compiled from parents, educators, and the AAP.

1. Look for safety first.

  • Parents should be aware of pick up/drop off procedures and should inform the center who is allowed to pick up the child. Find out the procedure for giving permission for other adults to pick up the child on occasion. Parents should find the facility’s doors locked at all times.
  • The center should have a clear policy regarding sick children. Find out how illnesses are handled, and be sure the center will promptly notify parents in the event a child or staff member contracts a communicable disease, such as a cold, chicken pox, measles, or hepatitis.
  • Find out where the first-aid kit is stored and that it is in serviceable order. One day-care staffer told me that most of the employees at her center had no idea where the first-aid kit was, and therefore did not know that it was an empty box. Staff should be certified in CPR and the Heimlich maneuver.
  • The facility should have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, covered radiators, strong screens or bars on windows above the first floor, safety caps on electrical outlets, and plenty of play equipment that is developmentally appropriate and in good repair. Is there a safe outdoor area with cushioning under climbing equipment?
  • Child care providers should have written consent to dispense medications, and a doctor’s note is required for dispensing prescription medicines.
  • Staff should report any injury that requires a child to be hospitalized or treated in an emergency room to the state Children’s Bureau.

2. Examine all aspects of the facility.

  • Locate the center’s valid license and health certificate, which should be displayed in a conspicuous place along with state regulations. Contact your state’s Children’s Bureau to find out about complaints and/or license revocation.
  • Discuss general procedures, such as hours of operation, transportation, field trips, emergency procedures (such as routine fire drills), notification of a child’s absence, weather cancellations, special celebrations, and how to contact staff during off-hours. Are there extra staff available during busy times or during an emergency? Also find out how much parental involvement is expected.
  • Is there a separate room (behind one-way mirrored glass or blinds) where parents can pop in at any time and assure themselves that their child is okay?

3. Take a good look at the staff.

  • Find out the staff member to child ratio. The younger the child, the more adults there should be in each group. Following are ideal ratios as indicated by the AAP:
  • What are the hiring requirements for staff members? Be aware that some for-profit family-owned centers may not properly train their staff but “bank on the small or family image to draw in parents,” says Duksta. Caregivers should have at least two years of college, pass minimum health requirements, and receive basic immunizations. Ideally they should have some background in early childhood development.
  • Directors must either have a degree or many years of experience qualifying them as experts in child care and administration. Does the director interact and help out during busy times? Does the director act in a professional manner?
  • Did the center do a criminal background check on its employees? Most states only require a background check for criminal activity in the state where the center is located. Did the center go the extra mile and perform a background check for every city in which its employees lived? There is no national system in place yet, so it’s up to centers (and their savvy parents) to assure the quality of staff.
    “That really scares me, personally,” says Shirley Jump, mother of two and a full-time freelance writer working out of her home in Indiana. “It’s the number-one reason my kids don’t even go to a Mommy’s Day Out program.”
  • How strict are the caregivers? Is discipline appropriate for age and infraction? How much of the day’s activities are self-directed and how much is scheduled?
    “Some parents believe that self-directed means no time structure,” says Duksta. “Good daycares do have structured times for activities–kids thrive on predictability. What you don’t want are all teacher-driven activities.” For example, you wouldn’t want to see the teacher putting out art supplies to force the children to sit down and color. “What you want to see,” Duksta continues, “is the teacher placing material out and letting the children color if they want to.”
  • Are children encouraged to finish projects even when they take longer than planned?
  • Parents should pay close attention to the staff’s practices, especially when the staff is unaware. Do the staff have patience? How are disputes settled, and how are the children, especially toddlers, taught to share? Staff should not single children out for punishment or favoritism. When walking together, do staff lead the children across streets only when it’s safe and at the appropriate location? Staff at a daycare in Pennsylvania were spotted leading a line of children across a busy street from between parked cars.
  • Pay attention to how meals are prepared and how often the children are fed. Make an unannounced visit to the center during lunchtime. This is the time when staff will be preparing lunches and will be most stressed, and the children may be rowdy or cranky at this time of day.
  • How often are the children taken to the toilet and/or diapered? Does the staff wash up before and after every diaper change, and wear gloves during a diaper change or while cleaning up bodily fluids, as required by law?
  • Are the “energetic” children given any special time to let off steam? Is the concept of “free play” encouraged?
  • How are the children prepared for nap time? How do they go to sleep? Are crying children acknowledged even if the teacher is too busy to attend to the child? Are they cuddled and comforted? Are the children taught to wait?

Christine Mondello, a degreed daycare provider, summed up her own search for summertime child care for her 18-month- and 6-year-old boys: “Listen to your gut feeling or instinct, mainly in response to the caregivers and not just the surroundings or facilities. You have to feel they have time to talk to you and hear your concerns.”

-Your state’s department of Health & Human Services, Children’s Bureau, or Department of Public Welfare will have tips on selecting child care.

For more information on the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, read Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Steven P. Shelov, M.D., F.A.A.P., editor-in-chief. Contact the national headquarters at 141 Northwest Point Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098; 847-228-5005; fax 847-228-5097; E-mail [email protected];

-You can contact The National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1509 16th Street N.W., Washington, DC 20036; 800-424-2460; fax 202-328-1846; E-mail [email protected] for more information about accredited daycares. Their web address is

-At press time, was under construction. When up and running, this site will purportedly offer a global directory of daycare facilities. E-mail [email protected]

-The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies has a helpful web site where parents can subscribe to “The Daily Parent” newsletter and find other child-care related links. NACCRRA, 1319 F. Street, NW, Suite 810, Washington, DC 20004-1106; Phone: 202-393-5501; fax 202-393-1109; E-mail [email protected] provides age-specific (preschool to high school and beyond) news, education trends, expert advice, informative articles, polls, discussions, and downloads

-NPSS, Inc., a private company, has daycare listings, and a specialized resource and referral system. 17195 Newhope St., Suite 201; Fountain Valley, CA 92708; 800-323-0267; fax 714-546-8239; e-mail: [email protected]; provides information and resources relating to the Head Start program

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