So, I don’t really often talk about myself (no one pays a therapist to talk about themselves), but this is a really common question that I get from folks that know that I have two small children:
“How did you find a good daycare for your kids?”
It’s a really hard question – back story is that the first place I took my first baby to received a 4-page manifesto so that they knew (down to 10-15 minute intervals) what her schedule was/what toys she liked to play with/how to make her laugh, etc. Good news is that I’ve mellowed out (kind of – second kid’s manifesto was only one page). Bad news is – I am pickier than your average bear. I not only understand how critical and formative the years from birth to age 5 are from an academic and professional standpoint, but [as a psychologist] also truly get how essential these needs are from an emotional perspective as well. I love my job, and feel very lucky to be able to do what I do, but I wouldn’t be able to focus on my work if I were spending my day worried about whether or not my children were safe, happy, and that the people caring for them genuinely cared about them.
In an effort to maybe help other nervous (and potentially equally picky) parents, I wanted to give you some of the characteristics that were important to me as I was looking.
- The very first thing I looked at, before anything else, was safety. As I started my initial searches, the first thing I did was walk up to the daycare and basically knocked on the door unannounced. I wasn’t trying to be intrusive, but I was looking at a couple things. How did the facility handle my presence? Was there someone at the front to know that I was there? How did I (as a stranger) get access to the building? Any facility that did not have a live person either at the front desk or very quickly accessible was immediately removed from my list of potential sites. I made sure that my first contact with any facility that I looked at was done in this manner to best assess how unannounced strangers were handled.
- Next, I assessed what staff did with me while I was there. Was there someone available to talk to me, or were the administrative staff part of the teacher to student ratio’s? Was I offered a tour right then, or was I asked to make an appointment? The answer to these questions were not a deal-breaker for me, but I can say with great certainty that those schools that had designated administrative staff at the desk available to talk to me that offered me an immediate tour were those ones that I felt the most comfortable with. When administrative staff were in classroom ratios, I worried about whether or not they had an adequate quantity of staff to care for the kids. If I was unable to get a tour immediately, I worried that administrative staff wanted to prepare teachers for a visitor. As there are a lot of factors that can impact the answer to these questions on a daily basis for daycare facilities (not the least of which is meetings and staff-call out’s, amongst other things), I really tried to keep an open mind within this area.
- Now let’s talk about the tour– what was I looking at/for?
- Is the teacher to student ratio adequate? I had to do some research on this beforehand, but I looked up what the federal guidelines were for these ratios based on age. When I walked into a classroom, I looked for those ratios (and yes, I counted).
- How large is the classroom? This wasn’t necessarily for any reason other than stimulation. Think about the chaos that can ensue with a classroom full of 20+ 3-year-old’s. I am overstimulated by that amount of noise and activity, and I am a full-grown adult with (usually) adequate coping abilities. A large class size was not a deal-breaker for me, but I wanted to see how teachers were managing that number of children.
- How well do the teachers seem to know their students?We all know the difference between a person who is acting and one who genuinely seems to know and care about the kids they are watching. I don’t have any specific criteria for what I was looking for here – the only thing I can say is that it was kind of like the “mommy gut instinct.” There’s a difference between a tired teacher that still cares, and one that is burnt out.
- Are they following basic safety guidelines with food and sleep? Is food cut small enough for the toddlers. How are babies being fed? Although I try to be reasonable about some things, eating and sleeping are basic necessities, and improper practices in these areas lead to deaths. These were non-negotiable for me. Any facility without acceptable cribs that failed to follow basic guidelines with regard to eating and sleeping established by the American Academy of Pediatrics was immediately crossed off my list.
- How were other basic needs handled? Kids have accidents, they fall in mud-puddles, they get runny noses. This was probably one of the areas that I was loosest on because I can barely keep up with my own two children’s runny noses and messy food-faces on the weekends. That being said, I wanted to see teachers at least trying. Noses were wiped as they were able (or they were noticing and prompting the little ones to wipe themselves) – any wet or soiled clothing was noticed and changed when it could be.
- How were crying kids handled? So – I really tried hard to keep an open mind about this one. In a classroom of up to 25 kids, there are bound to be several of them crying at a time, and there are only so many teachers. What I was looking for here was – are the teachers attending to them in some way at some point? Nothing broke my heart more than to think of one of my kids crying and ignored during the day. I wanted to know that a teacher was at least going to try to console my crying child, and would keep trying even if they needed to put mine down to attend to another before they came back and tried again.
- How much free-play is incorporated into the program, and how do they do that when it rains? Kids need down-time, especially little ones. They cannot be expected to constantly be “on” and learning in what can turn out to be up to a 10-hour day. I wanted to know how the facilities allowed their kids breaks from educational activities, and how play was also used to teach.
- Naps were essential. When you’re looking up the guidelines for student-to-teacher ratio’s, look also for nap requirements – the last I checked, naps were required in classrooms up until Kindergarten (and that includes Pre-K). Any place that stopped naps before that point was crossed off the list. Sleep is essential to development for oh-so-many reasons.
- How is discipline handled? This is a very essential one for me – not only do ALL children misbehave at some point, my day job is so very frequently helping parents (including myself) to best discipline their children. I would consider this one of the hardest jobs as a parent, and equally, if not more so, difficult if you are working in childcare. The bottom line is, there are things that just work, and things that don’t. I wanted to know that facilities were aware of basic best-practices, and strived to utilize effective means of behavioral management – this included positive reinforcement strategies, teaching/modeling appropriate behavior, and effective re-direction techniques that were not shaming.
- Last thing I really looked for was teamwork – if a teacher was overwhelmed or needed something, was it readily observable that an administrator could step into ratio in the classroom if needed. Teachers of kids this age are dealing with what I would consider to be one of the hardest jobs around – they are wiping poop, snot, and tears while nurturing very big emotions. I can barely keep my cool with my own two children and am VERY frequently tag-teaming with my husband. I wanted to know that my kids’ teachers had an opportunity to take a break too, if needed.
- When the tour was over, I lastly just wanted to see how the facility handled me from there. Beyond the personability of the staff, was I handed materials to bring home that can help me make a decision? When we were done talking, was I left to find myself out, or did they make sure I left?
You’ll notice that I did NOT mention that I was assessing the educational curriculum. Although I very deeply value education, I am admittedly no expert in terms of what kids under 5 should be learning and how. As long as a facility had a curriculum that seemed to teach the things that made basic sense for a preparedness for kindergarten (both academically and socially), I honestly trusted the school’s judgement.
Most of my visits with facilities lasted anywhere from 30-45 minutes, and I will be honest, I left all facilities with a decision about whether or not they were an acceptable choice. It was from there that I looked at logistics (location, tuition, etc.). I refused to even consider logistics of any facility that did not seem up to par for me. I was left with a very short list of possibilities that I felt completely comfortable with, which made the ultimate selection that much easier.
It’s always been important to me that my kids are cared for from day to day with people that I trust in a place that my family and I can have a long-term relationship with until we are ready for “big-kid school.” Selecting my kids’ daycare was probably one of the most stressful tasks of being a working mom. Hopefully my neuroticism in that process helps some moms and dads out there find some direction and help guide them in the process of finding the same for your family.