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The Questions Parents Need to Ask to Identify High-Quality Child Care

Kids can be in daycare for the bulk of their waking hours – parents need to ask sharp questions and receive honest answers.

Kids in preschool or daycare often do just fine, but that doesn’t mean any slob off the street is qualified to be a decent care provider. Parents need to be able to ask the questions necessary to discern a good child care center, and fun decorations are not enough to draw an accurate conclusion.

“There’s a very big book called Caring for Our Children,” says Elaine Donoghue, M.D., a pediatrician and a past co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Early Childhood. She explains that the publication was created through a partnership of government agencies like the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, in partnership with groups like the AAP. The book essentially establishes a national standard for care.

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However, Donoghue notes, “Not every child care center needs to meet that standard to be licensed. Standards vary on state to state, and the way they’re enforced varies by state to state, too.” She is quick to point out that many child care facilities are only as good as the local enforcement of the standards. “If you have a state that doesn’t have a very good regulation enforcement team, they may only get around once every ten years to look at a child care center.”

That’s why parents need to do their own research, beyond cost, hours and location. The American Academy of Pediatrics has put together a fairly comprehensive list of questions to ask potential early child care providers, but there are some fundamental – if not readily apparent – questions parents should ask to uncover how a child care operation really works.

Donoghue stresses parents should inquire about the illness exclusion policy. “There are very clear criteria for illness exclusion, but we consistently find that children are excluded from attending childcare for irrational reasons, and are not excluded when they should be,” she explains. “That is something I think is an indicator – it tells you, if they have a good illness exclusion policy, they’re kind of savvy when it comes to your child’s health.” Not to mention, a detailed illness exclusion policy can help parents avoid the disruptive inconvenience (and expense) of trying to arrange last minute care for a sick child.

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Parents should also ask about what kind of communication plans the center has – what kind of information do they convey to parents and how, and what kind of communication do they convey to each other? A comprehensive communication plan can also make it easier for parents to steward their toddler’s health. When parents pick up their kids, they need comprehensive information to make informed health decisions. At the very least, if a toddler doesn’t eat their snack and their parents don’t know about it, a messy hunger tantrum an hour before regular dinnertime can be an unpleasant surprise. And when parents need to convey information to health professionals, a good communication system is vital.

“As a pediatrician, a lot of times I see patients late in the day, and their parents say they had a fever, and I say ‘well, how high’ and the parents say ‘I don’t know. I picked them up, they didn’t tell me.’” explains Donoghue. “I will ask if they threw up – ‘I don’t know, they didn’t tell me.’ Did they have a loose stool? ‘I don’t know, they didn’t tell me.’ So a good communication system is important.”

Parents shouldn’t feel reluctant to ask about staff training and turnover rates. Wide-spread first aid and CPR certification, at the very least, implies a daycare center takes safety seriously. Early childhood education or national certifications can indicate a certain level of professional development.

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“Staff training, if you ask about what kind of training the staff gets, and staff turnover, are other two pretty sensitive indicators. If they don’t do any training – any official training – if they’re just doing homegrown things or they don’t go by national training programs that are available, that suggests they are also not up to date,’ says Donoghue. “Staff turnover is sensitive, too, because if you are constantly turning over staff does that mean there is something not functioning well at that center. And it is also difficult to keep your staff trained if they are constantly turning over.”

Daycare is a business, like any other. Poor communication, poorly-defined policies, low ratings, low training and staff turnover are often symptoms of poor business practices, and that doesn’t change when the business is child care.