15 Things to Look For When Choosing Child Care (from a picky teacher mom)

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ChildCareI am very fortunate to be a stay at home parent and have not had to worry too much about child care. When I was pregnant with my second girl, we decided to look into part time daycare for my older daughter to give her some socialization and give me some time with the baby. Luckily, my husband’s company subsidized an early childhood center exclusively for their employees. I had heard great things about it and my niece had gone there. I took a tour, loved it, and didn’t have any doubts about my daughter being in great care.  For a year and a half, she was well taken care of, made friends and loved her teachers.

Wanting to substitute teach part time, I wanted to start both girls in part time daycare. But, because my husband left the company, I have had to look for a new daycare. Being an early childhood teacher and having worked at an early childhood center (birth – prek), I am fairly particular about where I want to send my children for child care. I have a specific checklist in my head that I go through when looking for child care. Call me picky, sure. But, we’re talking about my children and I want the best care for them, even if for just 2 days a week. Between referrals, word of mouth, and Google, I called and toured 8 daycares. EIGHT. And only two made the cut. And one doesn’t do part time care.

There is a basic list of questions to ask when looking at child care that you could easily Google. There is even a list posted right here: Choosing a Regular Daycare Provider

And then there is my teacher, picky, protective, no one will take better care of my child than me checklist:

  1. Clean, safe, environment

This is somewhat basic, but you’d be surprised at the little things I have noticed. I’m talking visible dust, smudges on windows, overflowing garbage, food leftover on the tables or high chairs. As far as safety, I don’t want to see doors left open where infants or children have access to the teacher area. There shouldn’t be any teacher materials within a young child’s reach. There should be a reading area, manipulatives area, dramatic play, cozy area, and exploration area. Yes, even for infants.

For infants up to 16-18 months, cribs should be separated with a divider so that children cannot enter the sleeping area. I prefer a clear divider, away from windows. Who wants their baby sleeping with the sun shining through a window without curtains?!

If you want to get really picky, you’ll look for Reggio or Montessori based classrooms with natural wood furniture. Soft colors, natural lighting, and no loud primary colored chairs, tables, and rugs. I know this is asking for a lot, so let’s move on.

  1. Student/teacher ratios

Centers are required to follow state laws regarding student teacher ratio, but some centers follow a lower ratio. Lower ratios mean more attention and one on one care for your child which is huge for me! This is a tough one to find. Most centers don’t have the space or flexibility to allow for lower ratios.

I also look at how the classrooms are divided by age group. For me, the less transition, the better. I also believe in multi-age classrooms. My ideal is: birth-12 months, 12-18 months, 18-36 months, 3-5 years. I also like to ask if they are strict about moving children based on age or developmental stages. I prefer some fluidity and flexibility based on development. I don’t want my kid moving rooms just to make space or numbers for ratio.

  1. Sick policy

Again, centers are required to follow state laws, but we all know not all parents follow these rules. Kids are supposed to be symptom free for 24 hours before returning. I don’t think that happens. Which sometimes I understand because most parents work, but at the same time, c’mon! You’re spreading germs!! Anyway, I look for snotty noses. Yes, I know snotty noses aren’t a big deal as far as sickness and your everyday cold goes. But, besides this being a pet peeve of mine, it tells me teachers aren’t taking the time to clean up the kids to help prevent germs from spreading. I really can’t stand a runny nose. Especially a goopy, green boogery nose.

  1. Crying kids

This may sound silly as kids cry as a means to communicate, especially infants. And I understand with a room full of kids, it may be difficult to attend to every single child’s needs. But, this is their job! I look around the room, the halls, and even on the playground and notice if a child is crying. I then look to see how attentive the teachers are. If the kid is being ignored or their issue isn’t being directly addressed, that shows me the teachers and/or center’s philosophy on disciplining, nurturing, and empathy.

  1. Teacher interaction

In a way, this goes along with crying kids. I want to see teachers interacting with the children. Most importantly, I observe how they are speaking with them and what they are saying. I want teachers who are going to speak to my children at their level. Children should be asked open ended questions, given opportunities to explore and develop creative problem solving skills. I want my children to be encouraged to be inquisitive. I want to know my child is being taken care of emotionally as well. That my child feels comfortable to tell their teacher when something is wrong.

This includes infants. Infants need interaction as well. I don’t agree with plopping them in a swing or bouncy chair all day. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe they should be used at all, but in a center, there’s no way a parent can monitor how much time is spent in them.

I want a teacher that is a facilitator; asking questions, engaging my child. Even with outdoor and indoor play. That’s not to say I want a teacher in my child’s face at all times. What I’m talking about are teachers sitting on the ground, on their phone while the kids are playing. That is a red flag for me.

  1. Formal curriculum and assessment

A curriculum is basically used to guide teachers on what to teach and how. There are objectives for what is being taught and assessment determines if those objectives are being met. Many parents think infants and toddlers don’t need a formal curriculum. While the objectives are not as detailed as when they get into preschool, there most definitely should be a curriculum AND a formal assessment in place.

Most all centers have a curriculum. You’ll notice a calendar type chart on the board which shows what activities are planned for the week and what skills or areas of development are being addressed. What I have found is that not all centers have formal assessment. Some centers purchase assessment tools, some use checklists, some use developmental assessments, some have portfolios for children’s work. Why does this matter so much to me? Not because I care if my 18 month old can rattle off the alphabet and can count to 100 or my 12 month knows her colors and can sing all three verses of the Itsy Bitsy Spider (are there three verses?!) It’s the opposite. I want to know if my child CAN’T do something.

I want to know if my child is developing atypically or delayed. If my child is in someone else’s care, they better be able to tell me if they suspect or feel there is a developmental concern and how to address their needs. THIS is what assessments are for. Early intervention is one of the most important support systems with proven success.

  1. Teacher credentials and accreditation

This goes hand in hand with curriculum and assessment. I want people who are qualified to recognize and address issues with my kids. Experience goes a long way. But, I don’t get my hair done by someone who isn’t licensed. I don’t go to a mechanic who isn’t certified. I wouldn’t get on a plane without a licensed pilot. So, why would I leave my children, on a daily basis, with someone who isn’t licensed?

Caregivers should have a high school diploma and a CDA (Child Development Associate), at minimum. Every caregiver should be CPR Certified, I was surprised that this wasn’t the case in every center.

Which brings me to accreditation. It may vary by state, but there are accreditation programs that are voluntary for centers and schools to participate in. There can be different levels, but things like curriculum and teacher credentials would be an example of something required in order for accreditation to be granted.

Now, just because a center is part of Step Up to Quality or NAEYC accredited, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a superb, better than average center. What it does mean, however, is that the center has standards and accountability in place. There is structure to their practice and programming. Which for me, is better than nothing at all.

  1. Parent communication board

This is best practice. Important information should be posted in the hallway or outside the door for parents to easily see. Important information includes: center menu, calendar with special dates (closings, pajama day or water day or what not), weekly lesson plan, communicable disease announcements (a notice when there is pink eye or HFMD, etc).

There should be an open door policy with the teachers and directors.

  1. Funny smells

I joke, but am serious about this. I have very sensitive senses. If I walk into a center and it has any sort of funky smell, I’m out. It’s like a stale poop/canned green beans/mildew odor. I get that many cook the meals in-house and you can’t avoid the smell of food. But, if there’s an unclean smell that I can’t get over, sorry, my kid won’t be enrolled there!

  1. Daily menu and if it’s still on the floor, table, or kid

I’m not too picky about the food and this isn’t necessarily a deal breaker for me. I’m not expecting organic kale salad with quinoa and butternut squash risotto. I actually don’t even expect organic milk, even though that’s what I give my kids at home. I do look for fresh fruit and veggies, which many centers DO NOT serve.  Unless you’re paying $$$ for it, most centers do not offer something fresh every day.

I also look at how the kids are served food. It’s a good idea if you care a lot about meals and how they eat to take a tour or visit during meal time. For toddlers, I look at the table and chair arrangements. I think children can start to learn to sit at a table at 12 months old. I don’t want my child in a high chair until they’re 18 months old, which some centers do. I also want my child to be given the opportunity to use utensils starting at 12 months as well as whatever drinking vessel we use at home.  It’s also nice when the area is cleaned before and after eating.  Some centers have an aide that helps during meal time which gives teachers the ability to sit down with the children and manage the craziness that is meal time.

  1. Children’s artwork/photos/documentation

The best classroom décor is the children’s own work. I don’t care to see bulletin boards with borders for every holiday or season of the year. I care to see authentic work from the children. As a teacher, I know this takes a lot of effort. But it means exactly that. Teachers and staff are taking time and effort to create meaningful and intentional experiences.

  1. Smoking staff

I don’t need to say more than if I smell smoke, I’m out. There are too many studies out there about the effects of 3rd hand smoke.

  1. Diapering and toilet training

There are not any strict Ohio state laws regarding diapering and toilet training. Centers set their own standards. However, you may request how often your infant’s diaper gets changed. Typically, every 2 hours has been best practice.

As far as toilet training, centers are to work with parents on what methods are to be used. Some centers do not keep track of how many times your child tries or uses the potty (see below). But, like with diapering, you may request that a chart be used.

  1. Daily Reports required up to 18 months

A reason why toilet training charts aren’t often used is because Ohio state laws do not require daily reports to be used after 18 months. Daily reports show what your child ate, how many wet and dirty diapers were changed, how long they napped, and highlights of what activities your child did that day.

Best practice would be for centers to use a daily report up through preschool. I actual believe in reports through preschool as well, but as a teacher, I understand that time doesn’t always permit you to write about each child every day.

  1. Play Spaces

Most centers have an outdoor play area.  It’s good to check it out and see what the equipment looks like.  The area should be fenced in and secure.  At a minimum, there should be space for kids to run around and some sort of climbing equipment.  Obvious red flags would be old equipment that looks unsafe or unstable.  It’s really nice if there’s grass, a garden, astro turf, or rubber flooring.

Many places don’t have room for an indoor play space or a “muscle room” as many call it.  But if they do, this is a great bonus.  It gives children of all ages the proper environment for gross motor activity during inclement weather.

So that’s it. My short checklist of 15 things to question and look out for when looking at child care options. I understand there are many other factors which contribute to choosing a daycare. Convenience, pricing, and location are understandably important considerations. I think that is what I found pretty appalling in my search. The amount of affordable, quality daycares in the area are few and far between. And if they are affordable and offer quality care, the wait list is over a year.

Another important tip is to tour a center unannounced. You can really get a feel for how a center operates when they are not prepared for you. Make sure the directors have open communication, are welcoming, and listen to any and all concerns or questions you may have. Also ask about a transition plan. They should be open to you starting slowly so that your children can be introduced to their classroom and caregivers before starting. I learned the hard way. I toured 8 centers and thought I had found one I really liked. After being so discouraged, I missed many of the items on this very checklist. The first day they started, something in my gut said this wasn’t for us. After a few weeks of taking my girls there, my gut feelings proved to be right. Anya was still crying on and off the whole time she was there. I didn’t see any teacher pick her up to comfort her. And her teacher smelled of smoke. Although it was another transition for them, I pulled them out and am glad to say they are at a center we all really like. Separation anxiety is normal and our children will cry when they get used to new surroundings. But, if you’re not comfortable with where you’re dropping them off, no one will be happy and it won’t get better.

 

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I relocated to Cincinnati in 2010 from Chicago to be with the love of my life. For a good long while I had trouble calling Cincinnati home, but 5 years, a husband, and 2 kids later, I am happy to be a Cincinnatian! I am a proud, tired, loving, tired, creative, tired, and doting stay at home mom to 2 spunky girls, 15 months apart. Prior to having kids, I was an early childhood teacher. It's tough being a teacher mom because I have found there is a difference between teaching and parenting, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I love finding and creating exciting, engaging, and fun activities to do with my girls and hope I can share some of what we do with other families.

16 COMMENTS

  1. My brother was asking me for some tips regarding picking a good child care center. I liked what you had to say about daily reports and keeping track of their activities. This way if something is abnormal they can know and act accordingly.

  2. I do like that a good sick child policy made it pretty far up your list. After all, you will want to make sure that the center is not allowing sick children to attend. That way you can keep your own child healthy and away from sickness.

  3. I liked how you said that children should be asked open-ended questions to be given opportunities to explore and develop creative problem-solving skills. My wife and I work full-time jobs and we have been looking for a daycare that would be able to watch after our daughter while we are at work. It would be great if we could find a place that offers a fun environment but also helps our child develop skills she will use for the rest of her life.

  4. Thanks for pointing out that when checking out the outside of child care spaces at a minimum, there should be space for kids to run around and some sort of climbing equipment. I am looking for an after-school child care center that can watch my kids for a couple of hours before I get off work and can pick hem out. Outdoor play is very important to me, so I think that making sure that they had good outdoor equipment, as well as room to play, would be one of the main things to look for. Thanks for the tips on choosing a child care center.

  5. I will be starting a new job soon and I need to find a child care center for my young daughter. I appreciate your advice to find out about the teacher to student ratio at different daycare centers. I want to make sure that the teachers can give individual attention to my daughter, so I will make sure to ask about this when touring different centers.

  6. Lilly, I love that you talked about making sure the childcare you choose has a clean and safe environment to make sure that your child stays healthy. My husband and I both work full time and I am returning next week, so we need to get childcare for our daughter. We will keep these tips in mind as we search for a professional that can take care of our child.

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