Children who have high quality early childhood care and education are more likely than those in low quality environments to enter school ready to learn and to achieve more in early elementary school. High quality can be found both in group child care centers and family in-home providers. So, how do you know that the program you are choosing is high quality?

The first step is to make sure the provider participates in your state’s child care regulatory system. This means that, at a minimum, the provider has the certification or licensing required to ensure a safe and healthy environment for your child. Your local child care resource and referral agency can help you find regulated providers in your area.  Enter your zip code at Child Care Aware to find the referral agency serving your location. In addition, in many states you can look up a provider’s regulatory history to research whether they have ever been found to be out of compliance with state rules. A list of links to state regulatory websites is maintained by the National Center on Child Care Quality Improvement.

Other organizations can help you determine an early childhood provider’s overall quality. Accrediting agencies visit and evaluate providers to assess their practices and curriculum. The websites of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Accreditation Commission, the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation, and the National Association for Family Child Care each allow you to search for accredited centers or family providers in your state. Providers with accreditation from any of these organizations are generally considered to be among the highest quality programs in the country, which means there are very few.

You may also want to check with your state’s early childhood rating agency as another source for quality information. The Child Care Aware website offers state-by-state resources for finding child care program quality ratings. These ratings will tell you how a provider’s quality compares to others in your state. The ratings are issued by a state or local government and typically cover items such as teacher/caregiver education and qualifications, staff turnover, adult-child ratios, class/group size, conditions of classrooms and outside spaces, health and nutrition, and family involvement.

Using the resources above will help you narrow down your options. You might find many conveniently-located, high-quality providers from which to choose. More likely, however, is that you live or work in an area with few accredited or highly-rated programs. In either case, your next step will be to visit your top choices. These visits are an opportunity to check out the teachers and caregivers in action—be sure to go during a time when children are present. While visiting, look and listen for signs that your child’s needs will be met.  Below is a check list of questions that may be helpful to keep in mind:

Day to Day Structure

What structured activities are offered during the child’s day?

Are the children given time to explore their own interests by playing freely?

Are the toys and books appropriate for the child’s age?

How much time is spent outside every day?

How are naps handled?

What play or nap accommodations can be made for children with physical or learning disabilities or delays?

The Tone of the Classroom

What do you hear?

Does it feel chaotic, or calm?

Are the children’s voices loud with fun and pleasure, or with frustration?

How are adults providing discipline: are they yelling or shaming, or are they firmly and respectfully guiding and redirecting?

What happens if a child cries or is fearful?

You may wish to ask how caregivers care for children with speech or language delays that inhibit their communication, or whether they have experience caring for children with significant behavioral or emotional issues.

Child Care Employees

What are the teachers’ or caregivers’ qualifications and experience?

What is the staff turnover rate?

How often does the provider conduct background checks on staff?

Are all staff trained in CPR and first-aid?

Classroom Safety and Upkeep

Do the facilities and play things look clean and well maintained?

Are there any obvious safety concerns?

Is the diaper changing area kept sanitary?

Does it feel like a pleasant, well-organized, child-friendly place?

Food Service

Is the snack or lunch menu nutritious?

How are allergies accommodated?

You may also wish to ask whether the provider has experience feeding pumped breast milk, or feeding children with developmental delays or swallowing difficulties.

Parent Perspective

Finally, be sure to find an opportunity to ask other parents what they do or do not like about the program.

Do their children feel connected to their caregivers?

Can parents drop-in to visit their children at any time?

How are conflicts between children handled?

What new skills have their children learned?

Are goals for learning individualized for each child?

Do their children seem to enjoy their time in child care?

You may wish to bring Child Care Aware’s checklist of 38 research-backed quality indicators along on your visit. These indicators have been proven to measure quality in group centers and family providers and are associated with long-term benefits to children. For children with special needs, there is also a pamphlet with additional questions to ask potential caregivers. It is important to remember, however, that not all indicators of quality can be measured. Knowing that your child’s teacher or caregiver is warm and loving is important, too.

In the end, your goal is to find the highest quality child care you can afford. In most states, child care subsidies are available to make quality care more affordable for eligible families.  Your child care resource and referral agency can provide more information on subsidy eligibility in your state.

What steps have you taken to find the right child care facility for your child?


Anneliese Dickman is the policy and program researcher at Penfield Children’s Center with eight years experience researching the indicators of high quality early childhood care and education. 

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