Finding the right early childhood program for young children is one of the most important and stressful decisions families face. Looking for a quality early childhood program while recognizing the reality of a family budget can be a balancing act. Research shows young children develop to their full potential when they have positive experiences in safe environments supported by adults they trust both in and out of their homes. These markers of quality exist in many early childhood programs, but the programs can be expensive, often costing more then a year at a state university. By going into the search process prepared with questions and knowing what to look for, families can find a great early childhood program that meets everyone’s needs.
It is important to begin to search for an early childhood program well before it is needed, especially for infants, as many of the best options will have waiting lists. As a first step, families must consider what type of child care environment would best fit their needs, a nanny, a family child care home or an early childhood center. Each option has benefits and challenges that should be taken into consideration. The next step is to identify providers and programs to be interviewed and visited. A list of licensed family child care homes and early childhood centers can be obtained by contacting the local childcare resource and referral agency for the area which can be identified using the ChildCare Aware website http://www.childcareaware.org/parents-and-guardians/resources . Finally, schedule visits to each program to observe and interview the director or owner. This visit can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as an hour, but it is important it is long enough to ask the right questions and get a feel for the environment.
To help families with this process, the following is a list of recommended questions that go beyond hours of operation and cost to help with the decision making process. They can be adjusted to use in nanny candidate interviews.
1 – Is the program licensed or accredited? If not why and how are you regulated?
When family child care homes and early childhood centers hold a current State Child Care License they have met basic health and safety standards including, background checks, health and fire inspections, current CPR and First-aide certification, basic ongoing professional development, and annual monitoring by local government agencies. There are also required teacher to child ratios and regulations such as supervision of children by sight and sound at all times including while they sleep.
Typically nannies are not licensed or regulated so it is up to the individual family to require basic health and safety qualifications such as background checks and CPR.
2 – How long has the program been in operation and do they have a policy manual for you to review?
Strong candidates have been in business for a while and have solid, up-to-date credentials, clear rules and regulations, and firm policies on operating hours, pickup and drop-off times, safety, hygiene, nutrition, naptime practices, toileting and when children are too sick to attend. References should be available upon request.
3 – What type of credentials does the staff have?
All staff including directors and owners should have had a thorough background check. All staff working directly with children should be educated in an area specific to early childhood development and education and hold a minimum of a CDA. They should have current CPR and First-aide at all times and be expected to participate in ongoing professional development. Staff should be able to talk about the activities they prepare and do with the children and how these activities support positive development.
4 – What methods does this program use to guide children’s positive behavior?
Strong candidates should have clear behavior management policies and procedures that are not punitive, but are respectful, focusing on positive behavior and encouraging children to learn how to express themselves appropriately.
5 – How big are your group sizes?
Strong candidates should maintain small group sizes. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends child care center’s have one caregiver for every three to four babies, and no more than eight babies in a group; one caregiver for every four to six children between the ages of 2 and 3; and a staff-to-child ratio of 1:8 to 1:10 for 4- and 5-year-olds.
6 – How will my child spend her day?
Strong candidates have a set routine with a well-thought-out daily schedule including a variety of activities. The topics and equipment should rotate regularly so children have a chance to learn new skills and don’t get bored. There should be regular outdoor times for fresh air and large movements. Television and other forms of screen time should play little or no part in the day’s routine.
7 – How do you engage with families?
Strong candidates encourage visits from families, maintaining regular two-way communication in many forms (phone calls, newsletters, conferences, daily check-ins), and understand the importance of working as a team to support a child’s positive development. You should always feel welcome and respected.
As important as the answers to these questions are, the feel of the program when touring and observing is just as important. Do the children and staff seem happy and engaged? Are the babies being held? Are the adults talking with the children? Is the equipment clean and well maintained? Are the bathrooms and sleeping areas pleasant? Does it feel safe?
Keeping in mind a child care provider will never do everything exactly as the family does it at home and it is always hard dropping off on the first day, it is imperative to pay attention to intuition. Families should only choose a child care program in which they feel at ease knowing their child will be in that setting without them. When families take the time to do a thorough investigation ahead of time and pay attention throughout their relationship with the program, their child should be off to a great start.