What Is High-Quality Child Care?

By — Cornell University, College of Human Ecology
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

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.

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