Choosing a Childcare Center - Questions to Ask
As some of you may know, my Masters degree is in Education with an an emphasis in Early Childhood Development. In addition to my time as a classroom teacher, I spent four years working as an administrator for Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a leading corporate-sponsored childcare provider. I was responsible for opening and managing the childcare center for P&G’s downtown Cincinnati headquarters. During my time at Bright Horizons, I learned a lot about the inner workings of a quality childcare program.
I have several friends beginning families of their own and starting to look at childcare centers. Some have asked me for my advice when choosing a center. I decided to put together a list of questions to ask to potential childcare providers, as most first time parents don’t know where to begin. The list is a compilation of several resources as well as my own experiences. It is rather lengthy -- don’t let that scare you. If it is a quality center, the majority of these questions will be addressed during your visit and/or in the packet of information provided to you.
About the Childcare Center
- How long has the center been in business?
- What are the center's accreditations?
- What is the center's licensed capacity?
- Do you have space for my child? If not, can we get on a waiting list, and how long is it?
Days and Hours
- What are your hours?
- What's your holiday schedule?
- On what other days is the center closed/Inclement weather policy?
- How flexible are you with pickup and drop-off times?
- What are the fees?
- Is there a late-pickup fee?
- Do I pay when my child is ill or we're on vacation?
- How and when would you bill us?
- Do you supply diapers, or is that up to the parent?
- What other supplies would I need to bring for my child?
Interacting with Parents
- Do you encourage visits from parents?
- What do you expect from me as a parent?
- How do you communicate with parents? Is there a regular newsletter or a notice board? Is there a daily report or another way you inform parents of what children did during the day (naps, bottles, BMs, etc.)?
- Do you encourage parent/provider conferences?
- Can I bring my child in for a pre-enrollment visit?
Look for a center with small groups of children and plenty of staff. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends having one caregiver for every three to four babies, and no more than eight babies in a group; one caregiver for every four to six children between the ages of 2 and 3; and a staff-to-child ratio of 1:8 to 1:10 for 4- and 5-year-olds.
- Are the kids grouped by age or are the ages mixed?
- How large is the group my child would be in?
- What's the caregiver-child ratio in each group?
Employees should be educated, with at least two years of college, a background in early childhood development (although many states don't require this), and CPR and other emergency training. The center should provide ongoing staff development in early childhood education. Caregivers should be responsible, enthusiastic, and well prepared, sharing your philosophies on key child rearing issues such as sleep, discipline, and feeding. A center with good staff benefits is likely to have less caregiver turnover, which means consistent care for your child.
- How many full-time caregivers do you have?
- How many are part-time?
- Turnover rates?
- How do you screen staff? Do you perform background checks before hiring?
- What are the staff's credentials and training?
- Does the staff have emergency training?
A good childcare center will have a well-thought-out daily schedule with a variety of activities. The program should be changed regularly so children have a chance to learn new skills and don't get bored. Television and other forms of screen time should play little or no part in the day's routine.
- Are your toys and activities age-appropriate?
- Do you have a comfortable, childproofed indoor play area where babies can safely explore and develop physical skills?
- Do you have a safe, enclosed outside play area that encourages large-motor skills (climbing, running, riding wheeled toys)?
- For toddlers and older kids, do you have inviting and well-defined areas for different kinds of activities (art, music, blocks and toys, quiet reading, etc.)?
- What will my child’s activities be on any given day? May I see the daily schedule?
- Do you take the children on walks through the neighborhood?
- What role, if any, does screen time have at the childcare center?
A good childcare program teaches children to begin to take care of themselves and to respect other children and adults. Providers should help children learn how to express themselves appropriately, discipline them kindly, and encourage their good behavior.
- How do you discipline children?
- How do you comfort children?
- How do you handle teasing, bullying, and inappropriate group behavior among the children?
Health, Hygiene, and Safety
A quality center is clean and sanitary and observes basic safety rules. If you see poorly maintained equipment or the place seems dingy or cramped, keep looking.
- Must children be immunized in order to attend?
- What is your sick-child policy?
- What if my child needs medication during the day?
- Do caregivers wash their hands after changing diapers and before feeding the children?
- Are children taught/required to wash their hands after using the potty?
- How often are the toys cleaned and replaced?
- Are indoor and outdoor play areas childproofed and escape-proof?
- How old is your play equipment? When was it last inspected?
- Are the children ever left unattended?
- Do you have a sign-in and sign-out sheet? Are the doors secure so strangers can't just walk in?
- What is your release policy?
- Who may pick up my child?
- What is your disaster plan? Do you have procedures for handling fires, earthquakes, intruders, and other emergencies?
- Is the staff well trained for these situations?
Food and Sleep
If the center provides food, make sure it serves nutritious meals (covering all major food groups) and snacks. For sleeping, bedding should be fresh and firm (to reduce the risk of SIDS for babies) and nap areas should be clean and quiet.
- Do you provide breakfast, lunch, and/or snack?
- If yes, what kind? Ask to see a sample menu.
- If not, what kind of food should I bring for my child? Are there any food restrictions?
- Do you have a refrigerator for storing bottles of breastmilk or formula?
- Do you feed babies on demand or on a schedule?
- What is the nap schedule?
- Where do the children sleep?
- Do you place babies on their back to sleep and follow other safe sleeping practices to reduce the risk of SIDS?
Be sure to take a moment to ask yourself the following questions when you visit.
- Do the staff and children seem happy and engaged?
- Do caregivers cuddle babies? Talk directly to the children? Is their tone friendly and caring?
- Are crying children responded to immediately?
- Is the childcare center clean and pleasant?
- Is the bathroom a pleasant setting, encouraging children to use it?
- Are appropriate safety measures (fire extinguisher, first aid kit, fences, etc.) in place?
- During the hours you and your child are apart, will you feel at ease knowing your child is in this setting?
Ask each childcare center you're considering for a list of past and present references and contact them.