Despite the great diversity in child-care arrangements and the wide variations in state regulations governing center-based and family child-care homes, there is much agreement among professionals on the characteristics of quality child care needed to provide the safe, healthy, and nurturing environments that parents want and children deserve.

High-quality care is the result of a combination of a healthy and safe environment together with educational and social stimulation appropriate to the age and development of the children being served (Fraenkel, 2003). These features of quality child care include both structural elements relating to the physical environment and staffing requirement and process elements relating to curricular practices, caregiver qualities, and parental involvement (Wortham, 2006).

Structural Elements

The structural elements of a child-care environment establish the foundation for optimal process conditions. Characteristics of the child-care space, for example, are structural elements. The square footage required for each child, the amount and kind of outdoor space, the requirements for furniture, sinks, toilets, windows, flooring material, and myriad other details related to the classroom, kitchen facilities, bathrooms, and diaper-changing areas are included in this category. The adult–child ratio, amount of initial and continuing staff training required, plus the salaries, benefits, and working requirements for staff are all structural elements of child care.

The individual licensing requirements of each state sets minimum expectations for many of the structural elements, and a center or family child-care home can get licensed by meeting these requirements. Unfortunately, these minimum standards do not necessarily lead to a quality program, and professional organizations and individuals have established optimal structural elements that can have a large impact on program quality. For example, although the state may only require one adult for every eight two-year-olds and have no limit on the number in the total group, recommendations from the Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education at Wheelock College recommends a ratio of four children to one adult, with a maximum group size of 12 (Children’s Defense Fund, 2001). High adult–child ratios are considered one of the strongest structural elements in supporting the intellectual and social development of children in child care and are important indicators of quality.

Quality programs also set up inviting environments with an abundance of appropriate resources (furniture, equipment, materials, and toys), often far above the minimum requirements. The requirements for staff education and continued training are also above minimum requirements in quality centers.

Process Elements

Process quality refers to the experiences children have in child care and include such aspects as adult–child interactions, children’s exposure to and involvement with learning materials, and parent– caregiver relationships. These are critical components that directly affect children’s behavior and learning experiences in the child-care setting.

Teachers’ Qualities

The most important process element in quality child care is the human relationships between the teaching staff and children and their families (Uttal, 2002). Teachers who interact with children in a nurturing manner help to create attachments between themselves and the children, the foundation for further social development. As they engage children in conversation, ask questions, and respond to them when they speak, they are helping children acquire cognitive and language skills (National Institute for Child Health and Human Development [NICHD] Early Child Care Research Network, 1997). Not only do teachers need to be knowledgeable about the developmental characteristics of the children they serve, understand how to provide enriching experiences for them, and be able to communicate effectively with the children’s parents about their shared concerns, but they must also be warm and nurturing people.

Ideally, those who care for young children will consider themselves professionals and have an educational background in child development and curriculum. Continuing professional education by attending conferences, participating in workshops, reading professional literature, and sharing ideas and information with colleagues are all indications of professional behavior. Partaking in activities like these builds commitment to the field, satisfaction with the work, and a greater sensitivity to the needs of children.

Unfortunately, the low wages associated with working with children in child-care settings has had a very negative effect on the quality of teachers (Harrington, 2000). Nonprofessional entry-level salaries are rarely higher than minimum wage, particularly at national for-profit chains. Starting salaries for child-care center teachers with college degrees was approximately $15,000 to $16,000 in the late 1990s, less than half of what many entry-level public-school teachers receive. Low wages have kept the educational level of caregivers from rising and has spawned an annual turnover rate of about 30%. Programs that manage to retain their caregivers are generally of higher quality than those that have a high turnover.


Given the importance of the early years for children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development, another mark of a quality program is the curriculum. Curriculum in child care is generally understood as an approach toward learning that includes both planned and spontaneous educational experiences that occur within a predictable daily routine. Time is designated for outdoor and indoor play. Large group gatherings are used for stories, music, movement, and more, and for routines like eating, toileting, and resting. A well-planned curriculum will meet the needs of the children enrolled by considering their age, developmental levels, interests, special needs, and cultural backgrounds.

A quality curriculum in a program serving infants and toddlers requires that teachers be especially responsive to the rapid growth and change that is occurring during these years. Wortham (2006) summarized characteristics of effective teachers for this age group; they must be able to

  • Understand and appreciate children’s unique temperaments and developmental stages.
  • Meet children’s needs for care while encouraging increasing independence.
  • Frequently initiate physical, social, and verbal interactions.
  • Be responsive to children’s physical, social, and verbal behavior as much as possible.
  • Be consistent and predictable.
  • Plan experiences and interactions appropriate to the children’s level of functioning.

Play and routine caregiving activities are the fundamentals of the curriculum with this age group. A quality caregiver follows the lead of the children in determining when they sleep, eat, and need to be changed. Between these times, they interact with the infants and toddlers in an environment that has been set up to enhance their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Children’s cultures and families are represented in various ways, highlighting child care as an extension of the home.

As children reach age two and move into the preschool years, the curriculum changes to meet their developing needs. The daily schedule includes opportunities for children to work individually and in small groups most of the time, with some short periods of whole-group gatherings for stories and music. The room is arranged in activity areas, such as blocks, dramatic play, art, science, math, computer, language, and others. Each area is well stocked with interesting materials, which allows the children to make choices about what to do when they are there. Indoor and outdoor play is respected as the best way for children to learn, and teachers facilitate their play to enhance the social, physical, and cognitive benefits for development (Wortham, 2006).

The curriculum in the quality before- and after-school age program tends to be more informal than those for younger children and will vary greatly, depending on the needs and interests of the group. Centers or family child-care homes of high quality provide many toys and materials appropriate to the children’s ages and interests, and lots of free time for children to participate in self-directed activities. In a center, the room is set up in activity areas with space set aside for computer use and homework and other areas devoted to construction, games, music, art, and other interests. The best programs for this age group are seen by the children as clubs where individual interests can be pursued. Generally, the time before school is low-key, with breakfast available and time to participate in individual and small-group projects. After-school usually begins with a period of vigorous outdoor play and is followed by snacks, some time for homework, and individually chosen activities. Allowing children as much choice as possible and providing lots of opportunity for socializing and pursuing interests are hallmarks of the most successful programs for school-age children.

Full days in school-age care that occur during inclement weather, school holidays, and summers are characterized by a camplike atmosphere. School-age children are developing many interests, and the more the program can support the children’s choices, the more eagerly the children participate. In the highest quality programs, child-care staff and the children’s school teachers confer regularly and communicate issues of mutual concern.

Although quality child care programs may have somewhat different philosophical orientations, all will offer a curriculum that extends the cognitive and socialization processes that have begun in the children’s families. For many children, child care is where they first learn to interact with children and adults outside their families, and this marks the beginning of community socialization.

Parent Involvement

Quality child-care programs recognize the importance of parental involvement and the strong need that families feel to be fully informed about their child’s progress. In a quality program, parents are asked to share detailed information about their child as they come into care so that teachers can provide continuity with the home. Meeting prior to the child’s beginning the program can help to build the rapport between parent and teaching staff, which is essential to the success of the child-care experience. Continuing collaboration facilitates the continuity of experiences for the child and enhances the potential for meeting the child’s needs.

Collaboration relies on communication, and it is the teacher’s responsibility to establish many ways to keep families informed about their own child. Because most parents actually bring in and pick up their child at the child-care setting, every day presents an opportunity to establish a relationship between the parent and the teaching staff. Once such a relationship is established, information about what is going on with the child can be regularly shared. In infant–toddler programs, parents and teachers often record information about the child in a book that is passed back and forth between the child care setting and the home. Quality programs also schedule formal parent conferences throughout the year.

Parents also welcome opportunities to become involved in the child-care program in ways that don’t interfere with their work schedules. Making phone calls to other parents, donating recyclables, sewing smocks, or washing the sheets used at nap time are all tasks parents may be willing to do. By becoming involved in these ways, parents feel more connected to the program and more committed to supporting it. Potluck dinners, family breakfasts, workshops on parenting, and other events can also build family involvement.

Characteristics of Quality Child Care

Exemplary child-care programs do share certain characteristics that can serve as a model for others seeking to improve the quality of care for children. According to Kinch and Schweinhart (1999), a high-quality program includes the following features:

  • Financial resources. Uses financial resources beyond fees from parent, such as subsidies for low-income families and donations from individuals and foundations.
  • Creation of alliances. Forges a variety of alliances with organizations to bring additional resources. For example, a center might collaborate with a community organization on fund-raising efforts.
  • Parent education. Seeks ways to educate parents about the value of early childhood education. In doing so, parents become better consumers and are more likely to support programs.
  • Staff benefits. Seeks additional salary and other benefits for their staff. In addition, they secure adequate planning time and arrange opportunities for professional development.
  • Establishment of advisory committees. Strengthens relationships with the community by establishing a board of directors or a community advisory board.
  • Recognition of needs. Recognizes family needs and stresses, and works flexibly with families, making a program viable for parents.
  • Institutional structures. Plans for future existence through structures that promote quality, compensation, and affordability.
  • High standards. Has established policies and clearly written standards on mission, philosophy, and educational approach.

Child-care quality is essential in terms of children’s everyday experiences and their later school achievement and social interactions. When every child receives the highest quality care possible, the beneficial effects of child care will increase dramatically.

Effects of Quality Child Care

Research indicates that although the family remains the major influence on child outcomes, the quality and stability of the child care that young children receive have important effects, as well. The results of three recent longitudinal studies (Vandell & Pierce, 2003) confirm that high-quality child care can have positive effects on children’s development in a number of areas. One of these studies, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2000) reported that the cognitive and language development of children and their social and emotional well-being are positively impacted by high-quality child care. Another of the studies (Burchinal et al., 2000) concluded that higher quality child care was associated with better cognitive development, better receptive and expressive language skills, and better functional communication skills. The third study (Peisner-Feinberg et al., 1999) followed children through two years of child care and the first 3 years of school. Their findings suggest that children from high-quality child care demonstrated better receptive language and math skills. This study and other research indicates that these positive effects on children’s development are especially significant for low-income children and those at risk for failure in school (Children’s Defense Fund, 2001). Studies have also shown that quality school-age programs play an important role in children’s school achievement and long-term success, as well as in their safety and well-being. As we have pointed out in other chapters, those who care for children make an important contribution to their lives.