A reader suggested that it might be useful to have some insider tips on what to look for in daycare. When your well of inspiration has run dry, it's wonderful to be given a topic!
I've taken some of the most popular bits of advice and added an insider's 'tip' or perspective. In addition, I've added three interview questions that I feel are particulary important.
There are many resources for parents seeking childcare. Most governments (state and provincial) produce guidelines for parents. There are a gazillion websites. Community centres may have publications, or even offer workshops. Tip: The best information sources will offer you a comparison of the pros and cons of all childcare options: in-home care (nannies, au paires); small group home daycare; large daycare centres (for-profit, and non-profit); cooperative centres.
Of course you will visit the home or daycare centre before sending your child there, and you will have the nanny into your home. But what are you looking for, precisely?
- warm, welcoming staff. Whether it's a single care provider, or an entire staff, they should be warm, calming, respectful, and authoritative. ('Authoritative', meaning exuding calm authority, not bullying the tots into submission - that's 'authoritarian'.) They should be kind and loving to the children. Tip: Trust your gut. Do you instinctively warm to this person? You need to like your provider. Sometimes parents feel they are being 'irrational' when they take a strong, but seemingly groundless dislike to a person, but your gut feeling is an important indicator.
- staff who understand the development of a child. This may mean they have ECE or other education, but it needn't stop here. Some parents might not even consider leaving their child with someone who has no formal training. Others may prefer a woman with 15 years experience and no certificate over a 20-year-old with the certificate and 6 months' experience. Whatever her training, the caregiver should have overall understanding of child development; she should be aware of different approaches to common issues (sleeping, potty training, aggression, discipline, etc.), and be able to speak about them intelligently.
- a clean, welcoming environment. A note here: 'clean' and 'tidy' are not the same. There will almost certainly be toys strewn about; but the floors on which they are scattered should be clean. Tip: In fact, a too-pristine environment might mean that your child's play is being unduly restricted in the interests of tidiness. As one of my favourite child development gurus has stated, "a tidy home and a happy ten-month-old are mutually exclusive".
- toys appropriate to the age of the children in care. This does not mean there have to be hundreds of toys available at all times, indeed, toy shelves may appear a bit spartan. The important thing is that the toys are of good quality, developmentally appropriate, and safe for the age of the children in the room. In a larger centre, where big and little folk are tended in separate rooms, this is relatively straightforward. How does the home daycare lady keep the under-ones from ingesting the three-year-olds' puzzle pieces? Good caregivers will have a system!
Those are all basic. You can find this information anywhere. I have a further three points that apply particularly to home care, but are applicable to others.
1. Ask the caregiver how long children stay in her care. Optimally, you will hear that they stay from infancy to school age. I once led a network of childcare providers. One of the women in my area constantly complained how fickle parents were: nobody stayed for longer than six months! Outrageous! I looked at her home and saw the untidy, litter-strewn front yard, her chain-smoking (in the house) husband, and her unruly, aggressive 9-year-old, and I was astonished anyone would sign on in the first place!
(The equivalent question to ask of a larger centre is how long the staff tends to stay. High staff turnover is a real problem for large centres, and it is probably the single most significant issue for young children, who need stability of care.)
2. Ask if you may drop in unannounced. The answer should be an unqualified 'yes'. No ifs, ands, or buts, parents should be welcome at any time. If she offers a restricted time frame (between a certain small window of time) or requires a phone call in advance, this should be a red flag. It may be benign, but it should cause you to consider carefully the reasons for the restrictions.
Now, your provider might appear less than thrilled at the thought of spontaneous droppings-in. Even if she's responding graciously, you may detect reluctance. In this case, it's not likely anything sinister. Her reluctance is almost certainly because, frankly, some parents are a pain to have underfoot. They may distract the children. They may disrupt the routines. They may even contradict you in front of the children. It is almost certain that the children will behave differently with a new adult around. In short, very often that extra adult around complicates things.
Of course, many parents are an utter delight - helpful, careful to follow your direction and stay within the patterns of the daycare, and to discuss any concerns privately. Thing is, you can never tell until they are in your home if they're of the helpful or the horrible variety.
However, helpful or total nuisance, the parent always has the right to free access to their child. "May I drop in now and then?" should be answered, "Yes, of course. Parents are always welcome."
3. Ask for references! You would be astonished - I know I am - how very rarely I'm asked for references. The provider, unless she's very new, should be able to provide at least three. Tip: make sure at least one of these is from a former, rather than a current client. A current client may not want to be too blunt - after all, this person is caring for their child! A former client may be more willing to be honest about any shortcomings he or she noticed, even if, overall, they were happy with the caregiver.
There. I don't know if any of this was new to you, but perhaps I've offered a perspective you may not have considered, that will help in your hunt. All you childcare-experienced parents out there: Do you have any tips? Any particular questions that gave you critical information? Any questions you didn't ask, but wish you had? How did you find your good care - or screen out some bad care?