Quality of care is not related to where the care is offered but to how it is offered. It is difficult to provide high-quality care in an environment that is dirty, the equipment is in poor repair, toys are scarce, and space is cramped. But poor quality care can be—and too often is—delivered in beautifully designed settings with all the toys and materials your child could wish for.

Defining High-Quality Child Care

Our definition of quality mixes what researchers, child care providers, and other parents have learned together with a solid dose of common sense, drawn from our many years of personal and professional experience in both child development and child care. Searching for the best way to explain the meaning of quality, we found ourselves coming back to four basic words and phrases: caring, tuned in, respectful, and safe and secure.

Caring and Tuned In

These two qualities work together. A caring and tuned-in provider is one who

  • listens to and is aware of the child’s communications, both verbal and nonverbal.
  • watches for clues to how the child feels and picks up on those clues as she interacts with the child.
  • attends to the children all the time and does not spend time chatting with other adults.

The tuned-in, caring provider is not afraid to show physical and verbal affection but is not overly effusive. She can simultaneously hold one child in her arms, listen carefully to a second who is tugging at her sleeve with a question, and watch a third struggle to accomplish a task, ready to assist if the child gets too frustrated. This person does not need to say she likes children because her feelings are clear. Her warmth is obvious, and she spends most of her time directly interacting with the children.


Many adults do not respect young children. They are not particularly interested in children, and this attitude shows in their tendency to ignore children. Unfortunately, some people who work in the child care profession fit into this category.

The traditional assumption has been that all women love children and that all have a natural ability to be good child care providers. Both assumptions are myths. Many women and men who love children do not have the patience or the skills to be great early childhood teachers and caregivers.

The capacity really to listen to very young children and to understand the ideas they are trying to express is central to showing respect for them. Listening and responding sensitively shows real consideration for the feelings and needs of the child. Children feel valued when they receive such undivided attention.

A respectful caregiver values children’s ideas, is considerate of their feelings, and demonstrates high regard for them through her warm and affectionate manner. Teachers and caregivers who can appreciate children in these ways often show the same respect toward the parents and co-workers they interact with.

Safe and Secure

Everyone agrees that safety and security are the foundations of high-quality care. Your child has to be safe (physically) as well as feel safe (emotionally), both with the caregiver or teacher and in the child care environment.

All rooms must be clean and uncluttered and free of hazards such as uncovered electrical outlets and poisonous chemicals. Furniture, materials, and toys should be age-appropriate. For example, the toys within reach of infants and toddlers, who put everything in their mouths, need to be large enough so that the children cannot choke on them.

The outdoor environment must be inviting and secure— safe, easily accessible, with age-appropriate outdoor equipment and lots of space for running and other large motor activities.

The play area should be free of broken toys and hazardous trash. In some neighborhoods this requires great vigilance on the part of the staff because bottles, old newspapers, and other debris are tossed into the yard at night. The play area must be enclosed, either by a fence or a natural border. The outdoor space should be designed so that the supervising teacher or caregiver can observe all the children at all times to be sure they are safe.

Emotional safety is more difficult to evaluate during a short visit. Emotionally safe children dare to explore and try out new things. They are spontaneously affectionate with their caregivers and each other. If they have done something they were not sure they were allowed to do, they don’t hesitate to admit it and accept the consequences. These are ways children show trust and confidence that their caregivers or teachers are really concerned about them and will help them through the day in a caring, affectionate fashion.

Any discussion of safety must include the issue of child abuse and maltreatment. A few highly publicized cases of suspected child abuse in child care settings have inflamed public opinion. Actually, children are comparatively safe in child care settings. Parents and other relatives are responsible for about 90 percent of child maltreatment incidents, other caregivers for only about 1 percent. The best way to protect your child is to make unannounced visits to the program he or she attends. A high-quality group program will encourage you to visit unannounced at any time. Even if you decide to have a caregiver come to your home, it is wise to drop in unannounced occasionally to indicate how important your child’s care and welfare are to you. All care should be monitored. In addition, you need to tune in to your child’s feelings and moods on the way to and from the child care setting so you can be as aware as possible of how emotionally safe your child feels there.

Staff Qualifications and Practices

For Infants

Although the qualifications and practices of child care staff are important for all age groups, they are particularly important for the care of infants. Your infant needs lots of love and attention in order to develop optimally. Consistency and emotional support are essential, along with good physical care and a safe, healthy environment. Before you even visit the infant room for the first time to observe the caregivers in action, spend some time with the director learning about the staff’s educational backgrounds and how long they have been working there. The director can also tell you whether they have been attending workshops or other continuing education opportunities to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. Ideally, a caregiver should have a combination of a solid educational background in early childhood and some practical experience in working with young children. Providers who work with infants also need specialized knowledge of infant development, health, and nutrition.

The first thing to look for in an infant care provider is the way she interacts with the babies. Does she respect each infant as a unique person, seeming to understand that each baby is different from the others? One infant may need to be held quietly, while another really likes to be bounced around, and a third might not want to be touched much at all. Does she take time to observe the infants and take her cues from what she sees, or does she follow her own adult routines without regard for how the baby is feeling? Is the care provider in tune with the babies’ rhythms? For instance, does she listen to a baby vocalizing, respond with a sound or a word, and then wait for the baby to coo or chuckle again? Does she interact with the quiet babies as well as the more noisy, attentionseeking ones?

You should never hear a caregiver call a baby “bad” because of its behavior. Very young children cannot understand the difference between right and wrong or how their behavior affects the adults around them. Therefore, they do not act bad on purpose. There may be times when we wish they would stop doing something, like crying or tossing food on the floor. But babies are not doing these things with us in mind, and they do not understand that they are wrong.

Caregivers of infants must spend a lot of time on routine things like feeding, diapering, and putting babies to sleep. They should also read to the infants, play games like peek-a-boo and “This Little Piggy,” exercise each child’s arms and legs, sing, hand toys and receive toys back, and simply hold children in their laps and converse with them (not just talk to them). The caregivers should encourage older babies to move around by organizing the space so that they can safely pull themselves to their feet and walk around holding on to furniture and larger pieces of equipment. Different toys need to be added as the babies grow older—toys that link cause and effect (like jack-in-the-box) and small baskets with a few blocks or other items that the children can dump out and then refill (over and over again). Mobile infants like push-and-pull toys, balls, and large wooden trucks and cars. A child care center that provides this range of toys is well prepared to promote the optimal development of your child. When you observe staff in the infant room, you should also look for some basic care routines. Caregivers should hold the babies and talk softly to them as they give them their bottles. Infants should not be sitting in high chairs drinking from bottles that caregivers prop on pillows. Babies should also be talked to while their diapers are being changed, as they are rocked to sleep (a lullaby or soft humming would be appropriate), and when they are lying on the floor on a blanket, exploring a rattle.

Caregivers should be dressed in comfortable, easy-to wash clothes so they find it easy to spend time on the floor with the babies and won’t worry about drooling or overflow as they burp them over their shoulders or carry them in their arms. Check to see that the caregiver washes her hands and cleans the changing table after each diaper change. High chairs, toys, and other equipment also need to be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Remember, risk of infection is a significant concern with center-based infant care. One way to reduce that risk is through scrupulous hand washing and frequent cleaning of everything in the room.

At first, it may be difficult to tell the difference between one caregiving style and another. As you spend time watching adults with young children, you will begin to see who is comfortable with and knowledgeable about them and who isn’t. Careful observation does take time, however. Plan to set aside at least two hours the first time you visit a center just to observe the work of the caregivers who would be responsible for your child.

For Toddlers

A caregiver of toddlers has to be an exceptional person because the toddler time is such a special period in a child’s life. Toddlers want to be “big” and independent, but they easily crumble and fall apart, needing your love and comfort. This is the time of biting and temper tantrums, the age when “mine” and “no” are the two most prominent words in the child’s vocabulary. Toddlers have very little control over their emotions and actions. They try very hard to follow your wishes and instructions but are often frustrated when they fall short of even their own expectations.

Toddlers are growing rapidly in every way. Their bodies are learning to do many new things, like running, hopping, and throwing. Their language development is amazing. New words are being added every day. Yet at the same time they often cannot find the words they need in an emotional moment— suddenly you hear a scream and realize a child has used teeth instead of words to make her point.

As they grow and learn, toddlers test everyone and everything. Teachers of toddlers have to know all this and more to be good caregivers. They have to understand and appreciate that every child goes through this stage. They also need to be able to pick their battles because toddlers will test most of what you and they do. The solution is not to respond to every challenge but to guide the child firmly in the right direction, toward increased self-control, competence, and self-sufficiency.

To learn more about the teachers of toddlers in a center you must watch them at work. It is a good idea to observe a teacher for at least two hours, longer if possible. You should ask the director about the caregivers’ educational background and experience. Ideally you want them to have both experience and some theoretical knowledge about toddlers. If they have not had specific education or training related to working with children under age three, ask the director whether there is interest in continuing education and what plans are under way to make this possible.

For Preschool Children

Preschool children learn through play. Good early childhood professionals understand that children are not “just playing”; play is the way they learn.

Caregivers are important in this process because they help children get access to the materials and toys that they need for playing and learning. Caregivers also guide the children when they don’t know what to do next, help them resolve interpersonal conflicts, and teach them how to get along with one another.

Preschoolers are old enough to begin playing more group games. For these they need balls of all sizes. Simple hoops and goal posts will be all children will need to imagine themselves as basketball, football, and soccer stars.

Preschool teachers should have both a degree or considerable training in early childhood education and experience working with children this age. This preparation and experience provide caregivers with a solid understanding of what three- to five-year-old children are capable of and why they think and behave as they do. The center director should be able to tell you about the educational backgrounds of the staff members and how much on-the-job training they have had.

Preschool-aged children should be following a predictable daily routine. A written schedule should be posted in the classroom to orient visitors. This schedule can contain some flexibility, but children this age like the feeling of being able to predict what will happen next. Serving snacks and meals at a regular time and having a regular nap time helps them feel secure in their environment.

Here are some specific things to look for when you observe the staff in action in the preschool room:

  • How do the teachers and caregivers handle transitions from one activity to another, such as getting everyone dressed to go outside during the winter? Children often get antsy and frustrated when they are kept waiting for something to happen. An experienced caregiver anticipates these moments and eases the tension with a song or an activity.
  • Do the caregivers sit and work with the children as they explore new activities and try out new skills? Or do they simply start the children out on projects and then stand back and watch? Adults should actually engage with the children during these activities to give them confidence and ease them through frustrations.
  • Are the daily routines and activities set up in ways that allow children to make choices? If the room is organized into different activity areas, children should be able to choose among those opportunities during free play time. Having materials and toys stored on shelves that are clearly labeled and easily accessible also helps children choose among various alternatives.
  • Are caregivers alert and ready to assist children with personal care routines such as eating, going to the bathroom, and dressing themselves if they show need for that assistance?
  • Do you see indications that staff members respect each child’s individual needs and characteristics? Caregivers should recognize and respond to the unique personalities and particular habits of individual children, even while they are careful not to play favorites or discriminate against anyone.
  • Do the caregivers set appropriate and consistent limits on the children’s behavior? Children and caregivers can together establish the rules they all need to follow and list them for all to see. The rules should be stated in positive terms (e.g., “We use walking feet inside” or “inside walking!”). “Time out” should be used only if the child needs to calm down and collect herself. The caregiver should stay with the child during the time out period, rather than leaving her in a corner by herself.
  • Are children treated the same way regardless of special needs, social class, sex, racial background, or ethnic origin? Watch to make sure that they are receiving an equal amount of positive, supportive attention from the caregivers. Is the classroom set up to accommodate children with special needs? Is the staff expecting the same things of girls as they do of boys?
  • Do the caregivers/teachers greet the children when they arrive in the morning and then make an effort to integrate them into the play of the children already in the center? This is a difficult transition for some children, who need special attention from the caregiver in order to adjust smoothly to the new environment each day.
  • Watch what happens at snack time and outdoors. Are the teachers actively involved with the children during these times, or do they see these as “time off” periods for themselves?

Good preschool caregivers are explorers. They delight in “playing along” as the children lead them into worlds of fantasy and imagination. Along the way they assist the children in finding new props for the plays they are creating. They also offer advice when conflicts occur and ask good open-ended questions that help the children expand on their ideas. Look for these interactions. If you see them, you will know you have found a talented early childhood professional.

Good caregivers are comfortable expressing warmth and caring toward children. They are not afraid to hold or hug or simply touch the children they work with. All human beings need physical contact with others. Ensuring that this need is met for children who spend a large part of their day in a child care setting is especially important. Of course, certain kinds of touching are inappropriate, but preschool children can be taught what kinds of contact are good and what kinds are not right. Caregivers should feel comfortable scooping children up in their arms and hugging them. Smiles, soft voices, and caring and encouraging words are also a regular part of the child care environment. As a parent, you may feel jealous or envious at first, knowing that an adult other than you is holding your child’s hand and receiving her hugs. It is important for you to work through those feelings and move beyond them to appreciate the wonderful contributions these special people can make to your child’s development. Know that you are not alone in feeling envious or jealous, but know too that these feelings can be overcome.

Things to Look for Regardless of Your Child’s Age

Staff turnover and staff schedules are additional issues to investigate before making your final selection.

Staff Turnover

Staff turnover is a big problem in many child care centers. Children need to become attached to their caregivers and to feel secure that these special adults will be there for them when they are upset or in crisis. This is especially true for infants and toddlers but is a real concern for preschoolers as well.

If the staff turnover rate is high at the center you select, try to learn why. Perhaps you and the other parents can find ways to encourage caregivers to stay with the center. Unfortunately, the most common cause of turnover is low pay. Parents are often already too strapped financially to be able to pay the teachers enough to keep them in the child care profession. But sometimes the problem involves working conditions that can be changed, especially if you are willing to push a little. It is worth your while to find out why caregivers are leaving and think through possible ways to keep them involved with your child.

Staff Schedules

Staff schedules can also be a problem. Getting to know your child’s caregivers is very important, both to help you feel comfortable while away from your child and to ease the process of sharing information about the child. It is easier to build this cooperative relationship if the same person is waiting for you each morning when you drop off your child. Because caregivers typically don’t work more than an eight-hour day, usually someone else will be with the children when you arrive at the end of the day. The early and late caregivers need to take the time every day to talk with each other about your child so that the care they provide is consistent and so that the afternoon caregiver can pass along anything that the morning caregiver wants you to know about your child’s day. Ask the center director how the staff addresses the issues of consistency and continuity.

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.