Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How to Choose a Great Daycare

I have been meaning to write this post for a long time! Here is my background on this topic: First, I have a history of working with children in both childcare and public schools. Second, my toddler has been in daycare three days a week since she was about 2.5 months old and has attended FOUR daycares and had a nanny for a short time.
Daycare #1 - Closed. Was very good and I am sure we would still be there.
Daycare #2 - We lasted just a couple of weeks while the inexperienced new owners broke just about every safety rule and parent interaction rule in the book.
Nanny - We had a nanny for about a month while we were searching for the perfect new daycare. I interviewed 10 centers during this time period.
Daycare #3 - Ava was bitten so many times to type it out here would be embarrasing. It was an extremely popular local daycare too. Finally, we just couldn't get control over the biting and had to remove her.
Daycare #4 - We currently attend. We are happy with it for the most part - even though leaving your child with others is hard and you have to make comprimises even in the good situations.

So here are my tips of things to look for when picking the right daycare (besides of course trusting your 'gut') :

1. Low staff turnover. Ask specifically how long the teachers have been there in each class. Don't accept a general answer and ask about several or all classes.
2. Ability to monitor your child. I believe whether they are online or not childcare facilities should have cameras in each classroom and on the playground. Daycare #1 had online cameras and Daycare #4 has a viewing room where you can see what is going on in your child's class. Ultimately reviewing a tape can solve all kinds of problems and misunderstandings.
3. Clean, fresh spaces with new toys. If a daycare is full of old toys, carpeting and needs painting and repairs then they are not putting regular money back into the center and that is a huge red flag. Even as you attend you should notice constant updates and new gear going into the classrooms. Daycare #4 installed a very expensive splash pad on the playground this summer for example.
4. Positive interaction with the oldest children. How a center cares for the oldest children on campus is a good indicator of their overall attitude toward childcare. If you notice in the late afternoon the 4-year-old children are all sent to a blazing playground with caregivers that sit and chat or they are parked in front of a TV each day that isn't a good sign. I have noticed a lot of caregivers use very harsh tones or raised voices with the oldest children in the center.
5. Curriculum and an appropriate daily schedule for every age classroom. Ask to see the curriculum used in each classroom and to see examples of the activities done that support the curriculum. Unfortunately, I have always felt like the activities I do at home with Ava are far more suited to her abilities and interests than the 'curriculum' (aka crafts) that she has followed at school. However, there should still be a strong curriculum that is followed. Check the class schedules when you are interviewing and see if they are following them.
6. Absolute, 100% adherance to child / teacher ratio. Understand your state's laws regarding child / teacher ratio. A classroom should never be out of ratio even for a teacher to go to the restroom. If there isn't back-up to relieve teachers during lunch, for bathroom trips and at the start and end of each day then there is a problem. The center director AND owner need to strongly believe in this. Just think about it - how can even for five minutes one person safely manage 8 infants or 12 one year olds alone? They CAN NOT.
7. There should be a strong end and start to the day. Visit the center right when it opens and right after most of the children are picked up. These are the most stressful and often mis-managed times of the day.
8. Clean noses and faces. If a center's caregivers are not noticing snotty noses or dirty faces and hands then they are not noticing many other less obvious things like rashes, illness, emotional distress or even being hurt.
9. An agressive 'biting' policy. Ask for specific examples of how it is enforced and there should be stories shared of children being asked to leave. This is a very sensitive subject for me. I have even noticed that centers often ignore their policies for certain children and enforce them for others. Kids bite - they may or may not bite your child and your child may or may not bite other children. No matter what your situation is though biting can be controlled.
10. A good and clear owner / director relationship. This is hard to do before attending but try really hard to figure out the dynamic between the center owner and the director. I personally prefer a center owner that is also the center director but as child care centers become larger and more successful most owners hire a director to take on many of the day to day responsibilities. There needs to be though at the end of the day one person that is absolutely has the final say that you can go to for guidance and to help solve problems.

Once Your Child is Enrolled:

1. Request in writing to be called each time your child is bitten or they have an injury that breaks the skin. This shouldn't be a problem, even though at our current center, #4, we have had several times where we have not been called even after making this request.
2. Request to be informed on your child's daily report if they are put in time out, for how long and what for. If for no other reason than to be supportive at home of the rules at school that you might not be aware of. You also want to be aware of your child's dynamics with other children. For example, a child who is an angel at home might be more likely to join in the 'fun' of being disobedient around a group of children.
3. Make time each day to chat with your child's caregivers. Just asking how your child did that day isn't enough - you will almost alway be told that they did well. The really intimate details of your child's day won't come up unless you have forged a personal relationship with each of your child's caregivers. When Ava was an infant I would often feed her in the classroom when I picked her up and spend that time talking with her teachers and watching them interact with the other parents.
4. When things go very wrong (and they occasionally will) you should always find a supportive ear. I learned this the hard way - if your child's teacher or the center director gets a defensive tone with you when you address a problem, especially a problem that involves your child being injured then you need to be very careful. I dealt with constant defensiveness from center #3 and we should have left much sooner. Constant support and swift action when it comes to the 'big stuff' is what you should see.
5. Look for a bond to form between your child and thier caregivers. Your child's teachers should be able to recognize your child's abilities and point out their strengths to you. Your child and their caregiver should both be genuinely excited to spend time together. This doesn't mean that your child won't cry when you leave or that they won't prefer you, especially if they only attend part-time.

Finally ...

Realize and accept that just like any other close relationship you will have to comprimise. I had decided early on that I would be supportive of Ava's school schedule at home and that I would do everything I could to be supportive of her teachers' situation of having to provide care for so many children at once. I didn't realize how much comprimising I would have to do. Childcare is one of those 'choose your battles' situations. You can't nitpick every little thing or honestly the things that are really important will start to be minimized. For example, when Ava was an infant I started to notice that my feeding rules were really being bended. As a first time mom I was really sensitive about what Ava was being fed as an infant. She was being given food that I didn't bring for her or that I hadn't tried out with her at home first. Instead of getting upset I decided just to spend more time in the class observing the dynamics. The truth is that babies are very aware of each other once they reach a certain age and what was happening was that Ava was crying for the food and snack that other children had so instead of denying her and letting her cry the teacher's would give her some to try as well. She would also refuse her food if another baby had something she liked better. Another example of this would be that I have had to accept that sometimes even great teachers are going to miss things or have an off-day. I have had times even in centers #1 and #4 where I went to pick up Ava and she was fussy and the other children seemed fussy and the teacher seemed disconnected. As long as situations like these don't become a regular pattern and there isn't a safety issue I try really hard to ignore randomly lowered standards...even though it is really hard!
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