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Parents: How to Evaluate a Day Care Center (An Insider's View)

There are so many horror stories out there about things that can go wrong in a day care. As an expert in this field, I can understand why gathering as much information as possible about the teachers, policies and center itself is extremely important.
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You just found out you're pregnant. Congratulations. Over the next several months, you'll have a million questions to answer. What color and theme for the nursery? Breastfeed or formula? Names? Then comes one of the most daunting questions of all, where will I take him/her for childcare when I go back to work? You have spent six weeks (or more) taking care of this little peanut and now you have to leave them in the company of strangers. For most parents this is a very stressful question. There are so many horror stories out there about things that can go wrong in a day care. As an expert in this field, I can understand why gathering as much information as possible about the teachers, policies and center itself is extremely important.

* Is the lead teacher in the classroom qualified? In other words, who is the person with a degree in the room and acts as the lead teacher? This is the person who runs the room and is there on a daily basis. Teacher aides are just as important, don't get me wrong. They are an integral part in the equation. However, sometimes things come up and other staff have to fill in. Having a good relationship with a lead teacher is important. They are the one to go to for questions and concerns. A high quality day care will hire teachers with Early Childhood Education degrees as well as those going to school to be in the field.

* Staff/Child ratios: Pay attention to how many children are in each room. Does it seem crowded and chaotic, like there are too many children? Or is it calm and structured, with several activities going on at one time? (Ex: Block center, art, kitchen center and books.) Ask what the child/teacher ratio is in the classroom your child will be in. If you notice a lot of crossover between classrooms, the center may be over-enrolled and have too many children for it's capacity. A high quality day care will keep a close eye on enrollment numbers as not to compromise the quality of care due to an over abundance of children. They will also be conscientious not to violate DCFS ratio regulations.

*Staff/Child Interaction. How do the staff interact with the children? Do they speak in firm voices to correct an issue or do you hear yelling and screaming as you walk down the hall? Are they loving and supportive? Or do they act as if the child is a pest and they don't want to be bothered? Another important thing to look for (although I haven't known of a day care yet to do this) are there special needs teachers on staff? I feel this is very, very crucial. It is important that a day care not discriminate against children with disabilities, mental issues and the like. But it is just as important to have support staff on a daily basis who know how to handle children with these issues. I feel it would make a calmer, more cohesive atmosphere in the classroom for all involved. A high quality day care will hire teachers with genuine, loving personalities.

* Stimulating Curriculum. Do the children have lots of options each day or do they seem to do the same thing all the time. (By this, I don't mean structure and routine, I mean activity wise.) Various activities can include circle time (learning), art, outside play, games, puzzles, science experiments, etc. Of course this also depends on the child's age. High quality day cares have varied curriculum that is posted in the classroom and online.

* How often is the owner/director there? This is a big thing to look for. Who is the owner? How often are they there? Who are the director or directors? How often are they there? Is it easy to set up a meeting about a concern? How does the 'managerial' staff treat you? Do they help back their employees and work out resolutions with all parties involved? Is there somewhere in the front lobby where the 'managerial' staff sits at a desk and greets you when you come in? Or do they sit in an office with the door shut? These questions are very, very important. If you have any issues with the answers you receive to these questions, I would be wary and look elsewhere. If the management (especially the owner or co-owner) doesn't care enough to be there, then they obviously don't care what goes on in their place of business. In a quality center, the owner will make it a point to be there on a regular basis and socialize with staff and clientele.

* Open Door Policy. Make sure the center has an open door policy. This means that a parent can come in at any time to check on/see their child. Ask about the same policy in your child's classroom also. One more thing to make sure of is that every parent has a different code to get into the building. This is very important for security issues. If you feel the policy is sketchy, look elsewhere. A good center will have a very open atmosphere.

* Camera Placement. Is the building equipped with cameras? If so, where? Where are the cameras located in each classroom? Are these cameras always running? Who do I speak with if I feel I need to see something on the camera? Does the center have a web site/web cam portal where I can log in and watch my child during the day? Upon entering, look in the lobby to see if there is a television and if it is on. Good quality centers will have camera's on at all times and not act sketchy or give excuses to why you can't look at a recording if you feel the need to.

* Food Allergies. What is the policy on food allergies? (For example, is it a nut free center?) Do I have to bring my child's lunch? Does the kitchen staff need a list of my child's allergies? Who is the cook and cook's assistant if I have a question or concern? Where is my child's epi pen/medicine kept? Conscientious centers will be 'nut' free and accommodating to various other allergies.

*What is the potty training policy? Is a certain room in charge of 'potty training central' before your child can move up to the next room? Do you need to bring extra clothes or do they have extra on hand? Underwear or pull-ups? Will the teachers in your room abide by your potty training wishes? The staff at a well run day care will respect your wishes and concerns and work with you to establish a training routine that works for your individual child.

*What is the policy on diapers and wipes? Are diapers and wipes provided or do you have to bring them? How do you know when your child is out or running low? What happens if you forget and they do run out? Staff at a competent center should be on top of this issue at all times.

*Pickup Policy. This goes hand-in-hand with security. How do the teachers know who can and cannot pick up a child? Do the parents make up a list? Where is this list kept? Do they need to call that day and let the teacher(s) know or should they leave a note on the counter when they drop off? Is there a staff member at the front desk they should talk to? When a new person picks up, are they asked for their photo ID? These questions are especially important. If a photo ID policy is not in place for pick up, look elsewhere.

*Seek references. Ask to speak to parents that have children currently enrolled. Ask to contact former parents who are no longer enrolled in the center. What pro's and con's do they have to offer. If the staff at a center seem nervous to have you talk to someone or can't put you in touch with someone, walk away. They have something to hide.

As an expert in the field, camera placement, staff/child interaction and how often is the owner/director there would be the make or break concerns for me. Although these questions are just the tip of the iceberg, keeping these things in mind will help you pick the perfect day care for all involved.