Criteria for Choosing High Quality Daycare
This mamabare has had the incredible good fortune of staying home with our littlest one for the past 17 months. We have been anticipating, however reluctantly, that moment when timetables will shift and responsibilities will be renegotiated. Yep, mamabare will soon return to a structured work schedule. Plans for this shift in family dynamic have not been taken lightly. We discuss at length, first prioritizing and then weighing the pros and cons of each childcare option available to us.
Of course cost of daycare is a huge issue. It does, however, vary too much from area to area and family to family to discuss here. Cost is by no means the only standard to look at when considering your choices though.
Here are the criteria we are using for choosing a high quality daycare in our area:
Relationship is one of the words that takes center stage here at mamabare.co. You’ll be hearing plenty about relationship and attachment. That’s because we think relationship matters. Lucky for us, there is plenty of research to back this up.
When meeting early childhood providers, we want to ensure that relationship is a focal point. Just like being welcomed into a home by friends or new acquaintances, you want to walk into a daycare center and feel like your kid is wanted, accepted and belongs. Paperwork, firm handshakes and state of the art equipment take a backseat at a time like this.
Like in the 80s sitcom Cheers, we just want a place where “everybody knows your name”. (Hopefully your child won’t be walking into a dark albeit friendly bar…)
Clues that your potential daycare staff prioritize relationships as much as you do:
- you sense that the team trusts each other as staff members and that they foster a sense of trust from the kids.
- you notice during your visit that the other kids are happy and relaxed upon arrival. Research shows that there is no room for learning when our bodies have a physiological response to fear. You want to see kids free of anxiety – optimized for learning, both academically and emotionally.
- children are welcomed by name and the staff light up when they greet each one.
- you see adults who are attuned to the children, reading baby’s cues and responding with care and empathy.
My grandmother always used to say: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” All religious beliefs and humor aside, your daycare place of choice should pass inspection when it comes to being clean. Babies and toddlers are drool machines and we need those germs tidied up before the next smallpox outbreak! In most American states and Canadian provinces, official government inspections are required in centers in order for them to receive funding.
Here are some questions to ask during your visit:
- How often are toys and surfaces disinfected? What type of products are used for this cleaning? (At this point, if you prioritize a green lifestyle, ask openly about cleaning products. This might be a deal breaker.)
- What is the protocol for handling stray poop and exorcist-style vomit?
- Do kids share bedding? How often is it sent home to wash?
- Is there an indoor/outdoor shoe policy? (so no dog poop and wads of gum are scuffed in…)
Pay close attention to:
- distance between diapering station and food preparation area.
- staff washing their hands while you’re there.
- children having access to a sink and soap to wash their own hands.
- cleanliness of cubby areas where outdoor shoes and boots are stored.
Ah… the elusive nap. Daycares have a way of snake charming even the most reluctant of sleepers into napping. What’s important here is that children are not strongly forced or bribed into sleeping. Be clear about your expectations and, chances are the daycare provider will have some great tips for you to try at home too. Keep in mind that many early childhood educators have been at this for a long time and have some tricks up their sleeve!
If the kids nap in cribs, be sure to ask about any safety concerns. If the kids nap on floor mats, ask about the daycare’s method of motivating kids to stay put.
- Do they play relaxing music?
- Do they rub backs and sing?
- Do they practice baby yoga before naptime?
- If a child is really struggling to nap every day, do they offer alternate activities such as resting, reading, or quietly doing puzzles?
You want your child fueling his or her day with the healthiest options out there. One or two meals will be eaten at the daycare, along with several snacks and drinks. It’s best to check early on about food preparation standards, mealtime routine, food options, allergy awareness, and overall health philosophy.
Keep in mind:
- Are the kids offered juice throughout the day? Milk? Water?
- Is it a priority for you that your kids eat organic food? If so, stick with it. Either find a place that offers these choices or provide your own meals.
- Is the center alert to allergies (including less common sensitivities to food coloring and additives)?
- Is the food preparation area clean and far away from high traffic, dirty areas?
- How much processed sugar is included in the foods and liquids throughout the day? How much natural sugar is included? Does the staff understand the impact that sugar has on a developing body and brain?
Approach to Behavior
Different strokes for different folks in the context of each family’s home, but a daycare’s approach to behavior is a non-negotiable. Intervention with children needs to be kind, constructive and, above all, safe. A young child is so impressionable. Brains are still in the critical stages of early development. Besides their own home, babies and toddlers will likely spend the majority of their time in the care of these workers. It is essential that these spaces and places be infused with gentleness and care. Babies will test limits and toddlers will throw tantrums. It’s a tale as old as time. But reactions to these behaviors speak volumes about a daycare’s quality.
To gauge a daycare’s ability to handle challenging behavior, it’s worth asking the following questions:
- Are timeouts, time”ins”, sticker charts or praise used?
- If a child is in crisis, is there any physical intervention?
- What happens if a child hurts another child or a staff member?
- What would happen if a child were to run away from the park or refuse to leave a center? (Offer a scenario and pay close attention to the answer. See if their approach is in line with how your family deals with behavior.)
- How are parents informed if a child has had a difficult day?
- Is there support for any child struggling with psychological challenges or unusual behavior? (example: a social worker, psychologist, family therapist, etc)
As parents, we all want our kids to grow into kind, empathetic young men and women. When children are small, they need adults to help them regulate their emotions. As their brains mature, they will become more and more in charge of their own feelings. This involves how they choose to act upon their feelings and how they communicate emotions with others. We hope that children from a young age will learn to engage with themselves and with others in the healthiest ways possible. We are building lifelong habits.
A daycare plays an essential role when coaching kids as they develop self-regulation and emotional literacy. Much can be done to identify, label and explore feelings. Keep in mind:
- How does the daycare explore the notion of empathy with children?
- What methods do staff use to label and explore uncomfortable emotions, such as jealousy, anger and disappointment?
- Is active listening encouraged?
- How does the daycare use emotional literacy in building a sense of community?
The concept of montessori was created by Italian educator Maria Montessori in the early 20th century. In this setting, emphasis is placed on fostering a child’s independence and letting them explore a sense of freedom to make their own choices. Montessori daycares have gained increasingly in popularity over the last 15 years. But whether a daycare aligns itself with montessori-style teachings or not, the main idea to focus on is that children thrive when being challenged just beyond what they’re capable of doing without assistance. Coined the “zone of proximal development” and elaborated by Russian psychologist Vygotsky, we want to see children attempt challenging tasks that are just past what they can do completely on their own but just before needing constant adult intervention. That sweet spot of learning is where independence grows and thrives!
Make sure to find out:
- if kids are expected to dress and undress themselves.
- put on their own shoes with minimal assistance.
- learn things like buttoning, using a zipper, etc.
- move to new tasks when they have mastered something or if they must wait for the entire group to move on.
- if there are any enrichment activities for children who advance more quickly.
- likewise, if there is any additional support for children who continue to struggle with a certain task.
Research repeatedly concludes that young children need physical activity to ensure their physical and emotional wellbeing. Things like screen time, urbanization and long commute times have drastically reduced the amount of time kids spend engaged in movement. If we want to see our kids thrive, we need to make sure to ask these questions:
- Where do the kids play on rainy days?
- Are there spaces in each classroom that allow for movement?
- How does the daycare explore movement with children who are more active than usual?
- Likewise, how does the staff encourage movement for those kids who are reluctant to get up and go?
- Are there fidget toys, stationary bikes and/or trampolines available for kids to use when they need a boost of endorphins?
There’s nothing like a breath of fresh air to get the blood and creativity flowing. Much like the research on physical activity, there is substantial research demonstrating the multiple benefits of kids getting outside. In many daycares, preschools and primary schools, recess time is scheduled in 15 minute blocks. This does little to satisfy the brain and body’s need for the great outdoors. Important factors to keep in mind:
- What outdoor space is available to kids?
- How is this space kept secure?
- Likewise, if children go on group walks outside of these designated areas, what is the safety protocol? Do the kids wear jerseys/daycare t-shirts/identifying bracelets?
- Are outings regularly integrated into their day for long enough periods to allow for kids to get fully immersed in creativity?
- How does inclement weather affect the children’s time outside?
Bathrooms and Toileting
Chances are your child will still be in cloth or disposable diapers when they start daycare. If this is the case, check to see where the diaper changing station is and if it’s clean. Also inquire about how the workers dispose of soiled diapers.
Children are likely to begin exploring toilet training while in daycare. First, there’s interest. Then, there’s a desire to test out eliminating in an actual toilet. Accidents will be plentiful in those early days, both at home and in daycare. The important thing to stay focused on here is that your child has a positive first experience with becoming independent in the bathroom.
Things to look for:
- Are the toilets in a private area?
- Are kids closely supervised?
- Do they visit the bathroom in small groups or alone, as needed?
- Are there toilets that are low enough for a little one to easily access in a safe manner?
- Are there sinks and soap nearby for kids to practice self-care routines?
- Back to cleanliness, how are the bathrooms (and more specifically, the toilets) cleaned and how often?
Families have enough stress these days that they don’t need anything additional unless it’s absolutely necessary. This is a big subject for discussion: do you prioritize a specific kind of daycare program that might be further from your home or an older daycare that is a 3 minute walk away? It really just comes down to this: What do you value?
In this dialogue, consider the following points:
- Is your family already overstressed? If yes, is adding a 15-45 minute car ride twice a day something your family can handle?
- Would walking your child to daycare once or twice a day be physically beneficial to you both and a time for building relationship?
- Does the daycare option that’s further away offer late pickup for when you’re stuck in traffic or a late work meeting? If so, how much does this service cost?
- How do your kids handle transitions? Can they easily travel in the car and quickly get to and from the daycare?
- What will dropoff and pickup be when the weather is bad? Is there parking available? If so, do you have to pay?
In Case of Emergency
Heaven forbid the worst case scenario occurs when you’re not around. Better safe than sorry, so make sure to ask these questions:
- What is the daycare’s protocol for dealing with an emergency?
- How do they handle fire drills, intruder safety, and individual accidents?
- What is the evacuation procedure?
- Where is the closest hospital?
- What are their standards for calling an ambulance?