You've decided that a day-care center is the best option for your child-care needs -- but how do you find a good one? What should you look for? Should the center be licensed or accredited? Focused on academics or play? Our experts give us their best tips for choosing the perfect day-care center for your needs.
Going "eeny, meeny, miny, mo..." in the phone book isn't likely to land you a dynamite day-care center. Instead, you need a concrete search plan that lists important factors you should consider. "Most parents start with location, convenience, and cost," says Barbara Willer, deputy executive director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "These factors clearly set some parameters that need to be considered, but remember that you are choosing the environment in which your child will spend much time." In other words, you'd better make an intelligent search. First, ask fellow parents for their recommendations; they can tell you the real story behind the glossy brochure and website. Keep in mind that you're looking for glowing reviews, not ho-hum endorsements. If you're new in town or are the first of your friends to have kids, you can locate quality day-care centers by searching for those that are accredited by a national organization, suggests Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America. "Providers that are accredited have met voluntary standards for child care that are higher than most state licensing requirements," Fraga says. "The National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC] and the National Association for Family Child Care [NAFCC] are the two largest organizations that accredit child care programs."
Before you make a decision, set up a time to visit the day-care center and observe it for at least 30 minutes or more. Start by checking out the room and grounds. "Try to imagine your child in the setting," Willer suggests. "Are there toys and learning materials that your child would find interesting and challenging but not overwhelming? Really try to assess the setting through the eyes of your child to see if she will feel comfortable and happy." Next, pay attention to the other children. Do they seem happy, comfortable, and engaged? Are teachers having relaxed and meaningful conversations with children? Finally, observe how the staff interacts with the children and with each other. "In my experience as a director of child care and instructor for preschool teachers and directors, the most difficult thing for teachers to learn is how to have quality interactions with the children," says Deb Moberly, Ph.D., an early-childhood development specialist and founder of Children 1st. She recommends looking for teacher interactions with children that are respectful, warm, age-appropriate, and that happen at eye level.
Though general information can often be gathered from the day care's website or brochures, you'll find more detailed answers by talking directly with the director and staff, and other parents. Set up a meeting with the director to ask about the center's philosophy on education and discipline, as well as its emergency preparedness. Fraga suggests that parents ask about the adult-to-child ratio, caregiver qualifications, and staff turnover. "It's best if children stay with the same caregiver at least a year," Fraga says. "Caregivers who come and go make it hard on your child." Chat with the classroom teachers and staff to learn about day-to-day activities, how behavior problems are handled, and what the social and cognitive goals for the children are. If you're visiting when other parents are dropping off or picking up their kids, don't hesitate to ask their opinion about the facility's communication with parents, ability to handle issues (such as food allergies or misbehavior), and overall quality of care.
During your observation, be on the lookout for any red flags. They might present themselves as a gut feeling that something's not right or as concreted evidence that the children are not being properly cared for. See if there are any "groups of children who seem listless and unengaged," Willer says, or "staff who yell or spend most of their time talking at children" instead of with them. Other warning signs may be a lack of predictable structure to the day, a refusal to let parents visit during the day, unresponsive teachers who ignore children's requests, and a lack of consistent guidance. Another red flag may surprise you: a room that is too clean at the end of the day, Dr. Moberly says. "Young children explore, create, investigate, and are active," she says. "After a day of playing, floors get dirty. Toys may not be put away as neatly as an adult would." Cleanliness is important, of course, but you want a child care that lets kids be kids -- even if that means it gets a little messy at times. If you see any of these red flags or just get an intuition that something's not right, it may be time to look for a new or different provider.