It's finally time to put your precious little one in day care, or to switch day care centers after a not-so-positive experience. It's okay to be nervous; it just means you'll be more cautious. Don't let the task become daunting, however. It's as easy as looking for a few simple signs. To be the best critic of any facility your child attends, start using your senses...including your sixth sense!
Observe your surroundings -- right down to the smells and sounds--to get a feel for the type of care your child will receive and the people your child will interact with. And always listen to your little one if he or she comes home with concerns; kids pick up on subtleties that parents may miss. According to Linda Hassan Anderson, M.A., senior director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), there are eight red flags to look for when deciding on the best day care for your child.
A Non-Stimulating Environment
Without enough interesting interaction, your child could be stunted in development, both emotionally and mentally. Look for up-to-date toys and play areas, and don't be afraid to ask about how often toys are switched out (and cleaned!). Also discuss how the center chooses age-appropriate activities, if it follows any specific educational philosophies, etc.
No Emotional Support from Caregivers
Kids need love, and when a parent isn't around to provide it, day care workers should step in. Look around the facility during your visit. If children are unattended, brushed off when they ask for attention, ignored when crying, or bullied by caregivers or other kids, it might not be the best fit for your child. "Look for a program that uses positive guidance with children, verses discipline and punishment," says Carolyn Stolov, family life expert at Care.com. "When a child is having a behavior issue, does the teacher yell or belittle the child, or does she redirect the child and focus on what she wants the child to do verses what she doesn't? Their main goal is to teach children, not punish."
Too Many Children
If you see more than 14 kids running amok -- the maximum amount for a large day care facility -- be aware that there may be illegal practices going on and children are likely receiving inadequate care.
An Unsafe Environment
There are countless dangerous situations that can happen at an unfit provider, with enough horror stories in the news to make for sleepless nights for a worried parent. Confirm that all health and safety procedures are in place before handing over a check and your child to a day care. Look around for subtle clues that can be warning signs when you're testing the waters. Do they change diapers with gloves on and wash their hands frequently? Is there proper labeling for any special foods for children? Do caregivers smoke near children or do you smell like smoke? Are there safety bars on windows?
"I would definitely look inside their cars--something they would not expect to be inspected," says Maritza Fig, a Carson, California mother of four who observed a bad day care first hand. Check for signs of trash on the floor, cleanliness, child locks and proper safety seating. Because they likely won't expect vehicles to be inspected by a parent, this is where you get a feel for what these caregivers are like behind closed doors. Also, find out if the facility has the means of transporting all of the children away from the daycare in the event of an emergency.
An Unhealthy Environment
If you detect sick children being cared for, then your child also risks getting sick. The right provider will request that your child stay at home when he or she is feeling ill. Ask about sick child policies: Even though they're often a bit of a pain for parents, having sick babies is even rougher. Ask what will happen if your child isn't feeling well and what happens if your child has a toileting accident, says Anderson, and look for responses you feel are appropriate for your child and family.
Activities Don't Promote Mental, Physical, Social and Emotional Growth
Look for children to be involved in educational advancement, either through class instruction or educational toys and reading materials. A good provider takes care to have children interact and become participants in daily activities. Ask if each provider is accredited by NAEYC. Members must apply individually and commit to promoting healthy growth in children's care and education. Ask the day care provider what kinds of activities it offers children -- movies and free reign outside versus educational, engaged games with care providers -- and browse any reading material to get a feel for whether it's truly engaging young minds while keeping them entertained. Keep an eye out for an overall lack of engaging toys and materials, and for care providers that appear disengaged when it comes to interacting with children.
State Licensing Requirements Aren't Followed
Know what is expected of your day care provider, and be proactive when it doesn't follow proper procedures. The law requires that anyone who is caring for more than one family (aside from his or her own) needs a license. Requirements for licenses vary from state to state, so do your research to see if your provider is following state and local rules. Child care licenses should be displayed on site, including in family homes. Pay close attention if your child describes unusual treatment, abuse, signs of being neglected or scared or concerned statements about particular care providers, or if you notice behavioral changes or physical injuries that may not have been caused by rough play.
If you observe neglect or abuse on site, or if your child reports physical harm, bullying or anything that just doesn't sit right with you as a parent, talk to the provider immediately about your concerns. If they don't comply with your requests, you can file a complaint with the licensing agency. To save yourself the frustration, research possible providers by visiting their licensing agency early on to see if any other parents have filed a complaint.
A Lack of Open Communication
This includes an area for parents to meet and discuss their experiences or issues with other parents. Also be aware of how readily available the director is in communicating with you, as well as how openly your child can be in contact with the caregiver. Difficulty in scheduling a visit with staff or management could be a red flag of poor business practices. Stolov suggests looking at how teachers or providers handle children both on the playground and in classrooms. "If a provider does not allow you to drop by unannounced anytime, that is a red flag," she says.
Sheila Szabo is a freelance writer in San Diego, California. Her work can be found here.