What to look for in a good daycare center

Before you choose a daycare center for your child, you should visit several options in your area, speak to the administration, and watch the caregivers interact with the children on a typical day.

Here are some key things to look for:

  • A schedule that suits yours: You want the center open for business when you need them to be, so find out their hours of operation. And ask about how they handle late pickups or early drop-offs in case you need them. Also look into what days the center is closed for vacations or holidays and make sure you can work around them.
  • A low caregiver child ratio, small group size: The fewer children each caregiver is responsible for, the better. You want your child to get as much attention as possible, and the odds are better if the caregiver isn’t stretched among a whole lot of children. The younger your child is, the more important a lower caregiver-child ratio is. You also want a smaller number of kids in the group overall; it’s calmer, quieter and more familial. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum staff-child ratio of three to one for children ages birth to one year, with a maximum group size of six; a ratio of four to one for children ages 13 to 30 months, with a maximum group size of eight; a ratio of five to one for children ages 31 to 35 months, with a maximum group size of 10; a ratio of seven to one for 3-year-old children, with a maximum group size of 14; and a ratio of eight to one for 4- and 5-year-olds with a maximum group size of 16. Make sure, too, that there are enough staff members on hand to ensure that the children are supervised – by sound and sight – all day long, even during naptime.
  • Licensing/accreditation/inspections: Find out if the center is licensed by the state or other local government agency, whether it has violations outstanding against it, and whether the program has been accredited by a national organization like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC), which hold centers to higher standards for childcare than most states require for licensing. Also find out if it has had a recent inspection by a health professional (preferably in the last three months) to make sure that it meets standards.
  • Good accessibility, security and communication: Not only do you want to visit the center before your child is enrolled there (make sure you check out all the areas your child will use – including bathrooms), you may wish to visit once your child is enrolled. Find out how accessible your child will be to you during the day, and whether you are allowed to visit – but also ask about security and check to make sure your child is protected from unscreened, unknown visitors during the day. Make sure that you feel like the lines of communication are open between you and the staff so that if you have a question or concern, you feel comfortable asking. Find out, too, how they generally communicate with parents about their children (chatting at pickup? letters home? phone or email?) and how they like parents to communicate with them.
  • A well-trained, experienced staff: Find out what kind of education, training and experience the daycare center staff has and what kind of continuing education and training the center makes available to them. Do they attend classes and workshops? It’s a good sign if the center is staying up to date on new information and practices and helping to ensure that their staff is trained and educated. Also, ask about the turnover rate. You want a place that treats staff members well enough that they’re happy to stick around (and happy to be taking care of your child). What’s more, it’s tough on a child when caregivers come and go. Try to avoid a center with a high staff turnover.
  • Backup plans: What happens when a caregiver gets sick or goes on vacation? Is there someone else available to take her place? Is there backup coverage available when the regular daycare program is closed? What happens when your child gets sick during the day?
  • Health/emergency policies: What are the daycare center’s rules regarding sick children? Are children/staff members required to have a medical exam? Find out how it handles emergencies.
  • Activities: Find out what sort of activities your child will participate in on a given day or week. Are the activities stimulating and age-appropriate? Ask what a typical day is like. Find out if there is outdoor play every day. Ask what the center’s policy is on TV-watching.
  • Policies on discipline, toilet training, field trips, etc.: Find out in advance how the daycare center disciplines children, how the staff handles toilet training, toileting or diapering, and how feedings and meals are dealt with. Make sure their approaches are consistent with yours. Also ask about how outings are handled: When the children go on field trips, is there adequate supervision? How do they travel? Are proper safety measures taken?
  • Cost, payment policies and extra fees: Don’t just find out how much the basic program costs, ask if there are extra fees for late pickup or early drop-off, for supplementary materials or classes, etc. And ask how payments are made: Are you billed monthly or on some other timeline?
  • Talk to other parents: Ask the center for contact info for parents whose children are in or have been in daycare there. Then ask those parents for the numbers of other parents. Check references. Get the lowdown.

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