Visiting and Interviewing Center-Based Child Care Providers (page 4)
The term child care center evokes different images for everyone, depending on background and experience. You may imagine an enormous, rather sterile institution, where large, stern, matronly women are watching more than a hundred small children. Or you may think of the “Mom and Pop” center in the white house at the end of the street, where children are always playing in the fenced-in yard and your teenage daughter is hoping to find a part-time job next spring. Or maybe you remember a newspaper story about a center whose director said the three-year-olds in her care are learning to read and she feels it is important to start academics early.
These and many other images all reflect the real world. Child care centers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Don’t be confused by this diversity. To make an informed choice, you need to know what features of centers are most important for promoting care of high quality.
Legal Requirements for Centers
All states have regulations governing the design and operation of child care centers. These rules are very important for safeguarding children in the centers’ care. Unlike most other countries, the United States has no national child care regulations. In fact, we are the only nation in the Western world without such national standards. What we do have is a patchwork of different regulations, all established by the state or local jurisdictions, which vary greatly from one state to the next and even within a given state.
The good news is that more and more states are realizing the need to regulate child care. These rules set only a minimum standard. They are designed simply to protect the health and safety of the children in center care but are only the starting points for developing a good program. They are no guarantee of quality. The regulations for centers in your state are available from the local or state child care resource and referral agency or the state regulatory agency in charge of child care.
One of the best national sources for unbiased information about day care center standards is the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or one of its state or local affiliate groups. NAEYC has issued the following recommendations for group size and teacher/child ratios in child care centers:
Infants: One caregiver/teacher for every two or three children and a total group size of six to nine children.
Toddlers: One caregiver/teacher for every six children and a total group size no larger than twelve children.
Three- and four-year-old children: One caregiver/teacher for every seven children and a total group size no larger than fourteen children.
Five-year-old children: One caregiver/teacher for every eight to ten children and a total group size no larger than twenty children.
Choosing a Child Care Center
Once you have decided that center-based care feels like a good option for your child and your family, you will need to give careful consideration to the centers available in your area. Two general ways to find the child care resources in your community are talking with relatives, neighbors, and friends about their experiences with centers and contacting the local or state child care resource and referral agency for information about the centers that are registered with it. Those two strategies can be used to create a list of centers and to gather opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of each program.
Once you have created the list of centers in your immediate area, you can begin to figure out which one will best meet your needs. If your child is an infant or toddler, you should start this process at least six months before you want your child to begin care. This early start is important because center care for infants and toddlers is so scarce, and there is great demand for available places. Even programs for three- and four-year-olds have waiting lists so make sure to start shopping around six to nine months before you need care.
Finding the right program involves a four-step procedure:
Step 1: Contact programs by telephone.
Step 2: Visit programs that meet your basic requirements.
Step 3: Talk with center directors.
Step 4: Make a choice.
Step 1: Contact Programs by Telephone
Conducting a telephone interview will help you reduce the list of centers to two or three without having to spend time visiting every one on your list. Remember that you are making the calls just to decide whether a visit is worthwhile. The following questions can be used as a guide. Make enough copies of this form so that you have a fresh one available for each call.
These questions fall into three main categories: logistics (where is the center, when is it open, does it have openings), cost, and quality. At this early stage in your investigation your inquiries about quality can be limited to the number of children each caregiver is responsible for (fewer is better!), the number of children in the group, and how much education and training the caregivers have received. You will get into more specifics when you visit particular centers.
Once you have gathered this information about each center in your area, compare your notes and select two or three programs to visit. Don’t let price determine your choice at this stage. Cost may make a big difference in your final decision, but feel free to visit a more expensive program if it sounds good in other ways. This will give you a standard against which you can compare other centers. Who knows, you might be able to work out a deal on the price or a payment schedule that will allow you some flexibility.
Step 2: Visit the Programs That Meet Your Basic Requirements
The programs you visit will be those that serve children the right age, during the hours you need, with trained caregivers looking after children in reasonably sized groups. The centers’ directors should be happy to have you visit. Sometimes a particular day you propose may be hard for them to accommodate, but in general your request should be welcomed. You also should be able to pick the times of the day for your visit (although you shouldn’t choose nap time). If you sense resistance to your request to visit (at times other than nap time), be wary.
Don’t bring your child on your first visit to the center. You’ll need to observe the action closely and ask questions without also having to keep track of your child. It is also a good idea to visit for at least two time blocks, each lasting about two hours. One good time to observe is when parents are bringing in their children at the beginning of the day. Plan to arrive between 7:30 and 8:00 A.M., and stay into midmorning. If your child is a preschooler (three to five years old), try to observe during both free play and teacherdirected activities.
Another valuable observation time is toward the end of the day, after nap time but before most children have been picked up by their parents. Both children and caregivers are tired after six to eight hours together, so you will be able to see how these providers handle short tempers and low tolerance for frustration.
The following child care center visitation checklist is designed to record all the basic information you need to determine the quality and affordability of the centers you visit. The checklist distinguishes the needs of infants and toddlers from those of three- and four-year-olds.
The checklist gives particular emphasis to the person or people who would have direct responsibility for your child. The “Care Providers” section lists the kinds of behaviors you should see these key people display as they work with children of various ages. The best way to tell whether your child will be valued by the person who will care for him is by watching the caregiver at work with other children. Place yourself in the room where your child would be based. Look at how the care is being provided. Check off the items on the list as you investigate the center.
The physical space in and outside the center is also important. Look carefully at the layout and equipment in the room(s) your child would use and then take a tour through the entire facility. Look also at the outdoor play space. Check off the items and characteristics that you see. Ask questions if something important seems to be missing or in poor repair.
Licensing is an important indicator of quality. Make sure it is up to date.
Finally, there is the question of cost. We recommend that you always be willing to pay more if the result will be care of higher quality. Obviously most parents cannot afford to pay more than a certain amount. We urge you to read the fact sheet Paying for Child Care before deciding not to select a program simply because it is too expensive.
Step 3: Talk with Center Directors
The discussion with the director is your chance to follow up on some of the checklist items and get more information on policies and procedures. The director is responsible for meeting state and local regulations, hiring and firing staff, recruiting participating families, creating and balancing the budget, and ensuring the overall quality of the program. This person should be able to answer any questions that came up while you were observing caregivers and provide information about policies and procedures that govern the center and participating families. If she is unable to do so, you should view this as a weakness in the program.
It is important to be organized when you first meet with the director so that you come across as knowledgeable and concerned for your child’s welfare.
In 1997, Mon Cochran joined with Eva Cochran, Coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Degree Program at Tompkins Cortland Community College, to write a parent's guide entitled “Child Care that Works: A Parents' Guide to Finding Child Care,” published by Robins Lane Press. The aim is to provide parents with the information needed to understand quality in child care and find satisfactory child care arrangements.
Under the leadership of Nancy Torp, Senior Extension Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension, portions of the book have been adapted as fact sheets for Extension educators, parents, and child care providers across New York State.
Reprinted with the permission of Cornell University. © 2008 Cornell University
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