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What Makes a Great Daycare

Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care
Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care

It takes a village to raise a child: Hillary Clinton may have said it, but no one understands it more than a parent looking for quality daycare. From the caregivers to the administrators to the state licensing agents, everyone involved in a daycare's operation helps shape a child's experience. It's no surprise that finding a good daycare is a prime concern; for many families, it's a safe, affordable option that allows kids to socialize and learn in a loving environment structured around their needs. According to the Census Bureau, in 1999 more than one-fifth of children under age 5 were cared for in a daycare center. Nearly one-fifth more were enrolled in family daycare -- care provided outside the home by a nonrelative. But even though it's a popular option, finding the right daycare remains a huge challenge. The reasons are myriad, but one fact is clear: To find a great center, you need the insider's view. And we've talked to parents and experts to get it.

There are lots of daycares with nice teachers and stimulating toys. Unfortunately, these things are only two elements that make a center high-quality. "To me, having that job was a privilege," says Anne Goldstein, a former daycare teacher and current director of state policy initiatives with Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that promotes healthy early-childhood development. "It was an opportunity to make a difference in kids' lives."

According to Marsha Weinraub, PhD, professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia, "Only about 9 percent of daycares make the cut." Most, she says, are just fair. Why? One reason is that to attain or renew a state license (a requirement for most centers or family daycares), facilities must meet only a very basic level of health and safety standards, such as a certain amount of indoor space, adequate lighting and ventilation, and background-checked employees. Licensing agencies also call for specific child-to-staff ratios and group sizes, as well as caregiver qualifications, but these may be less stringent than child-development experts would like.

Another reason is that caregiving is a low-paying job. Unlike higher education, which the government helps finance through loans and aid packages, daycare is financed principally by families. Your dollars go not only toward caregivers' wages but for cleaning services, maintenance, supplies, and other expenses.

The bottom line: Daycare owners aren't getting rich on your tuition and likely can't afford to pay workers high wages. Because of such low wages (which put some caregivers in the same league as fast-food restaurant workers), the early-childhood field has high turnover and typically does not attract degreed professionals. Even those caregivers who want to get training often become discouraged. Who can afford to go to school when you not only have to pay for it, but you also have to reduce your working hours (and income) to go to class?

Finally, daycare quality remains low because to many people, early-childhood care is not a particularly exciting or entrepreneurial industry. Obtaining a state license can take years, requiring attention to dozens of details and long waits for multiple visits from inspectors. But things may be changing. Organizations like the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) are updating quality standards for daycares, while states like North Carolina have rating systems that indicate which facilities exceed licensing requirements. And some advocacy groups are calling on the government to help daycares improve. In the San Francisco area, for example, a Policy Analysis for California Education initiative successfully used tax dollars to provide financial incentives for childcare workers to participate in training.

In light of these developments, how can parents find the best-quality childcare? Start with the basics: sensitive, trained caregivers who are committed to the center; a low child-to-teacher ratio; and a creative, fun (and clean!) play space. You can consider both daycare centers and family daycares. Keep in mind that not all daycares are licensed. If you are considering an unlicensed facility, make sure you understand why it falls outside the state-licensing requirements, and check that they nevertheless meet American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) standards for staff-to-child ratios, group size, and caregiver training.

Whatever type of facility you explore, see if it's accredited by an organization like the NAEYC, a mark of quality. In addition, the AAP, NAEYC, and other groups have Web sites with detailed checklists regarding classroom space, teacher qualifications, sanitary practices, safety, and equipment.

But what about the less-obvious daycare features that can make or break your child's experience? Below are some insider tips that moms and caregivers say are critical in helping you zero in on your final choice.

1. Get recommendations from people who hold similar values. You may trust your best friend inherently, but that doesn't mean you necessarily have the same philosophy about childcare. "Two close friends, whom I consider to be exemplary parents, recommended a center for my daughter," says Dorre Kleinman, of Northampton, Massachusetts. "But when I visited, it was much too free-form and crunchy-granola for my taste," she says. "In the end, I enrolled my daughter in a program recommended by a different friend who, like me, wanted a written rundown of what her kid did each day."

2. Look for signs of an organized, well-thought-out day. Because young children feel safe when their days are structured and predictable, it makes sense to look for a daycare with clear plans and programs. "At a well-run school, you will always see a posted lesson plan, so parents know what the children will be doing that day," says Lee-Allison Scott, vice president of marketing with Atlanta-based Primrose Schools, a preschool and childcare organization with 137 schools nationwide. The lessons needn't be elaborate -- just enjoyable and appropriate to a child's developmental stage. Other signs that a daycare is well run include bulletin boards with recently created artwork, a regular parent newsletter, and a parent committee.

3. Know your priorities. Since no daycare center is perfect, parents say it's a good idea to be realistic about what you can change, what you can live with, and what's simply intolerable; and know that these factors will be different for every family. Kleinman recalls finding a center that seemed perfect in every way, except for the snacks provided. "I knew that I could always bring in my own snack, so I didn't sweat it," she says. "But another seemingly perfect center had a serious deal breaker: a teacher I didn't like who didn't seem to connect with my child during the initial interview. I realized that that some things are negotiable; but other things, like the teachers, are not."

4. Look beyond credentials and jargon. Don't let a teacher or director's training or lingo snow you. A daycare director may have an impressive degree, but that doesn't mean every word she says is sacrosanct or that the center is the right one for your family. She should be able to answer your questions clearly, without using jargon as a smoke screen. "At one daycare, when I asked the teacher what a typical day would be like, she gave me a song and dance about structure and toddlers not mixing and how the word 'curriculum' should never be used when talking about early-childhood education," says Kleinman. "She obviously didn't know what she was going to do with the kids all day and thought she could dazzle me with jargon." As in many areas of life, common sense should be your guide. "At my daughter's center, the turnover was very high," recalls Susan Levin, of Scarsdale, New York. "The director told me that the children were fine and didn't have a problem with all the changes, but I could see that my daughter was unhappy. I realized that the director wasn't playing straight with me, so I took my daughter out of the center."

5. Make sure the teachers are fully attuned to child development. Though 2- and 3-year-olds may be close in age, they are worlds apart developmentally. Try comparing toys and equipment from room to room. "For example, there should be a progression of books -- from board books in the infant room to more sophisticated literature in the older children's rooms," says Scott.

6. Determine whether the teachers feel empowered. Caregivers who work directly with children often have great ideas, and the director should be able to honor them if they're reasonable. But if a caregiver is afraid to ask her boss for something as simple as a few extra art supplies, something may be amiss. "Once, the caregivers at my daughter's center told me, sort of on the side, that they wished they had a microwave so they could heat up the kids' food," says Kleinman. "I later found out that they were scared they would lose their jobs if they asked the director for anything." The issue extends beyond crayons and mac and cheese; a daycare worker who is afraid of her boss's retaliation might also be afraid to bring up to parents important issues that might need the director's input, such as behavior problems. Observe how directors and caregivers interact, and seek a place where their behavior shows that they like and respect one another.

7. Look for engagement. A high-quality center is filled with a sense of engagement, says Scott. "For example, in a 3-year-old classroom, the teacher may be working with a small group on a particular lesson, while the assistant teacher is playing a game with the rest of the children," she says. "Maybe a few children are finishing up an art project. When one of them finishes the art project, the assistant might say, 'Sam, why don't you come over here and join us now?' No child should ever just wander, not knowing what to do next." She adds that teachers should be playing down on the floor with the kids, and the director should easily step in to help. Finally, she says, when you visit a center, watch how the children respond to you. Shyer children may look to the teacher or other kids for reassurance; more outgoing kids may come up to you and say hello. Both reactions are signs that the kids feel at home at the center.

8. Don't ignore your gut feeling. Not every daycare is right for every family, points out Goldstein. "Each family has its own culture and wants to find the match that meets its particular child-rearing style," she says.

If you find yourself deciding between two or more high-quality daycares, go with the one that feels right. As Atlanta mom Sharyn Mulqueen puts it, "I saw other places I knew would be fine, but the place my daughter's at now -- when I visited, I knew she'd just love it."

What daycare features promote child development? The following are important.

  • Low child-to-staff ratios and small group sizes For daycare centers, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends a child-to-staff ratio of 3 to 1 and a maximum group size of 6 for babies under 1 year; 4 to 1 ratio and 8 maximum for children from 13 to 30 months; 5 to 1 ratio and 10 maximum for children 31 to 35 months; and 7 to 1 ratio and 14 maximum for 3-year-olds. For family daycare, one adult for six kids when there are no children younger than 2 years; one adult for four children when there is one child younger than 2 years; and one adult for a maximum of two children younger than 2 years.
  • Trained caregivers who love children Ideally, providers should have a child-development associate's credential so they know the kinds of interactions children need. Loving their job counts, too. A National Institute of Child Health and Development study found that when caregivers were loving and responsive, kids had more positive interactions with one another.
  • An environment that builds creativity That doesn't mean the latest electronic gizmos. "One parent asked if she could purchase a DVD player for us," says Lynn Wiener, assistant director of the Yale-New Haven Hospital Day Care Center, in Connecticut. "But children need creative activities, such as using blocks and dress-up clothes. They should experience things they can't do at home -- squishing mud through their fingers, building sand castles, or watching hermit crabs."
  • Minimal turnover It takes time for caregivers and children to develop a connection to the point at which caregivers can truly understand their charges. Yet by some estimates, yearly turnover rates among daycare providers are more than 40 percent. "Children build trust by staying with one primary caregiver over time," says Goldstein. "With continuity of caregiving, there's one person who's attuned to your child's temperament."

Barbara Solomon is a mother of three and a writer in Scarsdale, New York.

Originally published in American Baby magazine.