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Choosing Childcare: What Should Parents Look For?

Parents are often at a loss about what makes high-quality childcare.

Image by Gerd Altman from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altman from Pixabay

Most American children spend some time in nonparental care. For parents, choosing the right care arrangement is important because high-quality daycare is linked to improved developmental outcomes for children, while low-quality care may hinder child development. Yet, when choosing childcare, parents are often at a loss regarding what they should watch for, or focus on, in making the decision.

Now, granted, parental choices when it comes to childcare are often quite constricted. Quality childcare may be too expensive, too far away, or absent altogether. Yet to the extent that choices are available, knowing how to choose among them is important.

Parents often worry most about their child’s safety. You want your child to be protected from injury and harm. Clearly, a physically unsafe space is a deal-breaker when choosing daycare. Yet as a rule, more children are injured and harmed at home than in daycare. Moreover, the fact remains that keeping a child alive, uninjured, comfortable, clean and well-fed is—while necessary—grossly insufficient. When it comes to child welfare and development, custodial care alone is not enough, and may even be harmful. For your child to thrive, they must feel (and be) safe not only physically but also emotionally; they also need to be socially engaged and cognitively stimulated. In high-quality childcare, your child receives love and guidance, not merely protection.

So, how can one tell high-quality care from low? Here are a few pointers based on the available research:

Daycare quality overall consists of ‘process’ aspects—that is, human interaction and the child’s subjective experience—and ‘structural’ aspects, i.e., the objective conditions such as floor space, group size, teacher-child ratio, teacher training, etc. Generally, good structure facilitates good process, good process facilitates high-quality care, which in turn predicts positive child outcome. Yet as a rule, process variables are more important than structural variables. A cramped space with loving, competent caregivers is better than plush accommodations with cold and distant staff.

The most important 'process' variable is, by far, the caregiver-child relationship. In general, caregivers whose personality is warm and whose dominant affect is positive, who are sensitive and responsive, and who are trained in early childhood education, are more able to develop productive bonds (“secure attachments” in science parlance) with the children in their care. Conversely, a cold, aloof, rigid, or stressed-out caregiver is unlikely to create a positive bond with your child. Parents are well-advised to weigh the caregiver’s characteristics most heavily in their childcare decision. It goes without saying (and hence bears repeating) that you must stay away from any caregiver or facility employing harsh, punitive, or physical discipline with children.

By and large, childcare arrangements of high quality differ from those of middling quality in their emphasis on structured teaching activities. To develop properly, children need a positive relationship with a competent, caring adult; they also need to be intellectually stimulated and taught things. Human beings are learning animals. Human offspring rely on being taught, directly and intentionally, to a much greater extent than any other animal.

Children learn most by exploring their physical environment, modeling (imitating) others’ behavior, and from scaffolded (guided) interaction with caring, competent adults. Of course, educational activities must be tailored to the child’s developmental stage. Generally, in infancy, the caregiver-child relationship itself constitutes the curriculum. As children mature, structured learning activities should morph to accommodate and challenge their new skills, abilities, and interests. A childcare arrangement that lacks a curriculum of structured learning activities to balance free play and custodial activities is not a high-quality environment. As a rule, the kind of structured educational activities that are associated with a better outcome for children occur more often in daycare centers than in family childcare homes or with relatives or nannies. Not-for-profit daycare centers are generally of higher quality than for-profit centers.

When it comes to the ‘structural’ side of the quality equation, several considerations are paramount. A notable one is caregiver stability. Turnover rates among childcare staff are high, upward of 30% annually on average. Older, married staff are less likely to leave than younger, single ones. Caregivers who like their boss are also less likely to leave. Staff turnover creates harmful stress and instability for children. Thus, high turnover rates signal poorer quality care. Parents are well-advised to inquire about staff turnover.

Two other structural variables found in the research to relate to the quality of care are adult-child ratio and group size. As a rule, the former is more important than the latter. A high adult-child ratio predicts a higher quality of care. States and experts may vary some in their regulations and recommendations, but generally, a 1-3 ratio for infants, 1-4 for toddlers, and 1-9 for preschoolers are reasonable quality markers. Lower ratios should raise parents’ concern. Group size appears to be less important than ratio in terms of child outcomes. A useful guideline: group sizes at or under 6 (infants), 12 (toddlers), and 18 (preschoolers), respectively, tend to signal better quality care.

Another useful measure of quality relates to the concept of ‘affordances.’ An affordance is what a given object lets you do with it. Monkey bars afford climbing; a ball affords throwing, but not vice versa. Children learn much through interaction with objects. Thus, a high-quality childcare environment will provide multiple affordances. When you inspect a childcare setting, it’s useful to look at the overall space with an eye for affordances: Does it afford children the opportunity to interact with objects soft and hard, large and small? Does it afford opportunities for social interaction as well as solitude? Does it afford varied sensory stimulation (music, color)? Does it provide opportunities for different tactile experiences (water, sand, etc.)? Does it allow for varied types of physical movement (running, crawling, hiding, climbing)?

Finally, an important feature of care quality is parental involvement. High-quality facilities welcome and foster parental involvement and communication. At the same time, parents must do their part. Many don’t.

Most parents are quite ignorant of their child’s daily experience and routine in daycare. Parents are often content to keep a ‘bumper relationship’ with caregivers—you don’t think about (or thank) your car’s bumper until you have a fender bender.

Parents most often interact meaningfully with caregivers only when some daycare-related issue has negatively impacted their child. Here a different, more positive and proactive approach will work better for your child. Treat caregivers as professional educators they are. Check in with them routinely. Ask about your child’s day, and about their day. Ask what you can do to help them help your child. And give your child's caregiver a nice holiday bonus. Childcare workers are grossly underpaid, even though the work they do is difficult, demanding, and crucially important for children, parents, and society at large.

In sum, the important things to watch for and ask about when selecting childcare are as follows:

What parents should watch for:

1. Is the caregiver warm, sensitive, and responsive to children?

2. Does the place appear stressful and chaotic or relaxed and well organized?

3. Are there multiple affordances in the childcare space?

4. Is the focus custodial or developmental?

What parents should ask:

1. Has the caregiver received any level of early childhood education?

2. What’s the yearly turnover rate?

3. What’s the adult-child ratio in my child’s group? how big is the group?

4. Are daily, structured, caregiver-led educational activities offered?

5. What is the policy on discipline?

(Additional useful resources for help in choosing childcare may be found here, here, and here).


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