My wife recently had a friend who was looking at preschools for her child. This friend had never visited a preschool before and did not know what questions she should ask, or what red flags she should be looking for. As my wife was messaging back and forth with her friend with my answers, she suggested that I compile all of this information into one blog post. I worked for many years at a company that managed and helped businesses set up onsite child care centers for their employees. In that role, I needed to know everything about how a child care center would be run and what a high quality center would look like. Most parents are not necessarily savvy consumers when it comes to center based child care options and I am here to help you make the best choice for your child and for your family. Choosing a preschool or a daycare center is an extremely important decision that you do not want to take lightly. If you visit a few centers armed with the information you need, you will be surprised at how easy the right preschool is to find in your own community,. As you read through this post you will probably have some questions or comments, please leave me a comment or email me, and I will be happy to answer your questions. I have set up this post so that you can pull questions from each section (each question is in bold and italics) and use them to ask the Center Director specific questions when you tour possible schools or daycare settings for your child.
What do you and your child actually need vs what you think you want?
We all have a utopian ideal of what our children should experience while they are playing at preschool all day, but most of the time our expectations or ideals aren’t met for a variety of reasons. What I will try to do here is help you understand what your expectations should be and what you should look for in a childcare provider. Not every center is right for every child, not every approach will work well for your child. Zero- three is the most important and essential time for learning. Your child needs a space to learn and grow (mostly through play) that will put them on the right path for long term success. As you look at educational research one of the most interesting things you will find is that the most developmental growth, from a learning perspective, happens between birth and age 5 (I’ll leave the commentary on K-12 for another time). As a parent, what you are looking for is a safe place where your child will be able to grow to his/her potential. I wish there was one simple solution that would work for every child, but its important for you as a parent to find that one thats perfect for your child. It is important to know what topics are the most important for you and your child as you begin to make these decisions.
The first step in this process is to determine what it is that you are actually looking for. Is location very important for you? Would you rather have your child close to where you work or where you live? If you commute to work can you include your child for an HOV or carpool lane and make your commute easier? Is the center open during the hours that you need it to be open? Does it meet your needs for quality? Can you afford this center? Would you feel safe having your child stay there all day? When you tour each center, use your senses: smell, sight, hearing, touch and taste. Smell for things that shouldn’t be there, look for things that are out of place, listen for things that you wouldn’t want to see happen in your house, taste the food that they are serving. When you are narrowing your search down to the last two locations, visit each one again with a critical eye. You should know at this point in your search which center is the right fit for your family.
- Obviously you will want to know about tuition charges before you even walk in the door for a tour. Before you visit each center, make sure that you can afford to send your child there. Prices should be clearly stated on the website, or ask for them to be sent to you by email. Rate sheets should be provided to you by request. Read the rate sheets carefully and ask questions about what exactly is covered. Remember that quality will be highly correlated to cost. If you want to have the best teachers, then you’ll need to pay them more, which will result in a higher cost to parents. In some centers, staff costs can account for well over 60-70% of the total expenses, which means that when you hire great teachers the tuition will also be higher.
- What does tuition include? Is lunch or special activities included? What other costs will there be? Every center works a little bit differently based on the clients they serve. Some parents want an all-in tuition fee that includes food and activities. Some have everything set up a la carte. Just be aware of all the charges so you aren’t surprised at the end of the month when that first tuition charge comes in. Many centers have extras that you can pay for such as soccer, karate, music lessons or dance. These can be great additional activities for your child and all the better if they don’t have to go someplace else to do them. Find out how they allow you to pay for tuition? Can you use a Credit Card? Do they have an auto-withdrawal option?
- If I pick my child up late what happens? Most centers have a late policy. If they say you need to be there before 6PM and you show up at 6:05, be prepared to pay the fee. Remember that these teachers have been here all day and have families of their own to take care of and feed dinner to. Be respectful of the teachers and try to be on time or be prepared to pay (without complaining about it) and offer a heartfelt apology at the same time.
- Does the company you work for have a child care benefit? – Ask your benefits person or contact HR about this. This is a benefit that many companies offer to their employees and that most people may not know they have access to. Companies do a variety of things to accommodate employees who have child care needs. This can take the form of a referral group that helps you identify possible centers, to a discount program, to even an onsite center. The centers that participate in these programs might not fit your needs, but if they do, it will save you a considerable amount of money and should be under consideration by you.
Quality, licensing and accreditation
- Are you licensed by the state? – If the center is unlicensed you better have a really good reason why you want to send your child to this center. The center might have perfectly good reasons for being unliscensed , but generally speaking they are not licensed because of cost or an unwillingness to take the proper steps to have a high quality center. I’m sure there are plenty of good centers out there that aren’t licensed, but why would you take that chance?
- Are you accredited? Accreditation is important because it provides a third party seal of approval to what is going on in the classrooms. Accreditation looks at everything – facility, equipment, outdoor space, food, teachers, curriculum used, how its actually being implemented and so much more. Going through the accreditation process gives a center an opportunity to build out all of the pieces that they need to be successful. It is not an end point, it is a midway point – they do a huge amount of work to get accredited, but they need to keep doing it to keep accreditation and maintain that level of quality. Lets look at some of the specific ones out there:
- NAEYC – (they would prefer that you say the letters individually, but most people just say “NAY-CEE”) is the true gold standard for ECE accreditation. The process is arduous, all inclusive, and it takes years from schools to receive their final accreditation. It is also expensive to meet and keep which means that tuition levels in these schools will almost always be higher than a comparable school nearby. Less than 8% of all ECE centers will have this designation.
- There are a number of other accreditation organizations that are a notch below NAEYC that many providers will use instead. My opinion is that it is far better to have some accreditation than none at all, so don’t worry about schools that do not have NAEYC. At the very least, as long as there is some kind of accreditation, it shows that they are going through a quality checklist and are using the process as one to improve quality. Ask them why they chose a different body for accreditation.
- Eco-friendly accreditation – this one is the cherry on top of the sundae. This looks at the things that are being used in the center and certifying that they are child safe. This one takes a comprehensive look at the physical space and will focus on everything that the child comes into contact with including: building materials, cleaning products used, the food that is being served and much more.
- Its very difficult to obtain your accreditation, but it may be more impressive to RETAIN your accreditation. Once a center receives their accreditation they almost immediately have to begin the process to retain that accreditation. If you find a center that has not only received their accreditation, but has retained it, then you have probably found a center that has a commitment to running a high quality child care center.
- How many of your teachers have Bachelors in Early Childhood Education (ECE) and how many have Masters? How many have CDAs (Child Development Associate)? This is really important because it gives you insight into whether the teachers they are hiring are highly qualified or just glorified babysitters. Having a large number of teachers who have their degree shows a commitment to quality on the part of the center. Ask if they provide any tuition assistance or if they provide a free course to obtain a CDA for their teachers.
- What are the Student/teacher ratios for each class? What standard do you use to determine those ratios (NAEYC, state)? This ratio is literally the number of children per caregiver in each class. This number can vary wildly depending on a number of factors. I once walked into an infant room (every child under the age of one) and found 1 (ONE) teacher in the room with 6 little babies all under 9 months old. Technically, it met the ratio standards for that state (state ratios can be VERY high). Realistically, it was a disaster. She was unable to give any child the attention that they required and she told me how difficult it was for her to focus on each individual child. When the ratios changed to NAEYC (4:1) it made a huge difference for the children AND the teacher. You should be able to find the proper ratios for your state and NAEYC online.
- Do you have aftercare if I need it? Do you do Kindergarten readiness exams and if so, at what percentage do your children pass the exams? This is obviously only applicable if you might need aftercare. But if you might need it, find out what the options are. The 2nd question is actually important if they do this in your state (they may have an alternative assessment for this). These types of assessments are done with the 4 year olds to determine whether they are ready for kindergarten. You should expect that the center would have a very high percentage of students that pass this assessment (95% or higher).
Curriculum – What’s your educational philosophy? What curriculum are you using?
- Montessori – Montessori is a philosophy based on the research of Dr. Maria Montessori and is very popular with many people. I have seen it implemented in a variety of ways, but the basics are generally the same. What you will see upon walking into a Montessori style classroom is a level of organization that you probably will not find anywhere else. Everything has a place and there is a correct place for everything. After you do some additional research on this one you’ll really need to visit a center to see how it is implemented and whether you think it is right for your child. Many children thrive in this environment, but it is not for everyone (my kids were not a good match at all).
- Reggio Emilia – Reggio is named after an actual Italian city where this originated. The curriculum is steeped in art and projects. Every Reggio center will have a “Studio” and dedicated Art teacher. Its rare to find a center that is truly a Reggio center, but you may find one that is “inspired” by the approach. I’m a big fan of this approach and have found that the schools that run Reggio programs are usually some of the best quality centers I have toured. If you are looking for an approach that fosters creativity, art and imagination then you’ll probably really like Reggio.
- Creative Curriculum and other play based/center based learning approaches – These are far and away the most popular approaches you will find in centers. They are easier to implement and train for and they give you a method of setting up your classroom and daily activities. They also actively tie together the assessment into the activities which is incredibly important. So what is the downside? Implementation. If the teachers are receiving proper instruction and ongoing staff development, then it can be a great model. I’ve also seen the other side of this where the center will buy every teacher a copy of the guide and it sits on the shelf and gets pointed to whenever someone asks which curriculum they are using. Make sure you see evidence of the curriculum being used in the classrooms. Look for the student’s work that will show the lessons they have worked on and their efforts. Teachers should be able to show you their lesson plans both for that day and for that semester.
- Staff development – How much training do new teachers receive? How many hours per year do teachers participate in SD activities? Are they on-site/off-site? Do you bring in professional trainers? Is it related specifically to the curriculum implementation? Having a curriculum is great, but often it becomes a book on the shelf that people point to and not something that teachers are actively implementing on a daily basis. Staff development is critical to a center being able to execute on their stated mission and level of quality. If they aren’t supporting teachers in this manner you should question what other corners they are cutting.
- Do you do regular authentic assessments? How often do you hold parent/teacher meetings? Authentic assessment is usually tied directly to the curriculum that the school is using and has developmental milestones associated with it that the teacher can monitor and track. The authentic part is based on how the teacher makes the assessment. Basically, the teacher through her regular activities, will watch the children and make notes of things they do that meet the specific developmental milestones. For example, the teacher may witness your child building a tower out of blocks with a friend, which will allow her to identify certain milestones that your child is reaching. She might take a digital photo to include in the child’s portfolio. She can also see on the developmental chart that this activity meets requirements in areas of fine motor skills, emotional social development, language/communication and problem solving. These become very important when it comes to parent/teacher conference time since you then have a very specific conversation about the areas where your child is doing well and areas where they might require some assistance. Good centers will have this all incorporated into their daily lesson planning and teacher/parent communication. One of the things that ECE does better than any other level of education is this form of assessment. Make sure you see this in action at your child’s potential school. Parent teacher conferences should be scheduled at minimum twice a year. If you child is having any sort of problems learning or social problems, more conferences should be offered.
- How do people access the center? – Typically you should see either a card key system, numeric punch code, or some other type of security at the Main door to enter the lobby area. In many cases this is also where you will see a computer used to check students in.
- Is there an inner and outer door that limits access initially to the lobby area and NOT to the classroom area? I prefer to see that there is also an inner door that has a security system on it which will not allow access to the classroom area without someone using their card key or log in. If they have a receptionist or Assistant Director that sits at the Front Desk area, they can usually buzz people in the main door without giving them access to the children in the classroom area.
- How do parents sign their children in and out? How do you determine if someone you don’t recognize comes to pick up my child has the authority to pick them up? The last part of this is incredibly important. Centers should have clearly defined rules and procedures in place for who is allowed (and who is NOT allowed) to pick up your child. If you want their grandparents to be able to pick them up occasionally, then make sure they are properly registered. Remember, while these procedures can be annoying at times, they are in place for a very important reason – the safety of your child. Learn these procedures and follow them for you child’s sake.
- Who has access to the classroom area? This should be a very small list for obvious reasons.
- Is there a camera monitoring system? I am a big proponent of having cameras that record every single person coming in and out of a center. I am not a proponent of having a camera in every single classroom. Here is why: they aren’t valuable since the teachers know they are being watched and know where they can go to not be watched when they want to do something they aren’t supposed to do (like use their phone). It is far better to have an active management team that is in the classrooms on a regular basis and who work well with their teachers. I could always tell which Center Directors were active in their centers by how the children in each classroom responded to them. If children are coming up to the Director and asking questions or telling her about their day or giving her a hug then you know that Director is fairly active and in those classrooms on a regular basis. Also, cameras can lead to an antagonistic management style which never works well in schools. The idea that parents are going to be able to log in anytime and see their child doing something great is probably not going to happen very often after the first few weeks. When you have systems like this, you also have to be aware that other people who should not have access will try to login to this feed as well. I’d rather have great teachers that I trust being managed by a great Center Director than rely on a camera.
We would often be asked to take over the operation of a center from another provider that was not doing a good job or did not meet the quality standards for our client and their parents. What I would find when inspecting these centers usually allowed me to understand immediately what the issues were. The physical space is the glue that holds the center together and if a provider can’t maintain that aspect of the operation then it is highly unlikely that they are doing a good job in all of the other areas. I’ve never seen a center that is being run exceptionally well, while the physical space was left to deteriorate. If you walk into a center and smell something that you wouldn’t want to have to smell all day, then your child probably won’t want to either. Trust your nose when walking through the center. If you smell urine, dirty diapers or garbage, that is not a good sign. If there is an overwhelming smell from a plug-in air freshener, they are trying to hide another smell. Look around. Do you see things that appear dangerous or unsafe? Listen to what is happening in the center. Do you hear teachers interacting with children? Do you hear music? Do you hear KIDS singing (a really good thing to hear). Do you hear older children laughing and having fun? You should hear children – playing, interacting with each other, reading, playing, etc. The only time it should be quiet in a center is when the children are outside playing (which they should do nearly every day) or rest time when they are napping.
Tell me about your outside space. Do the children have direct access from their classroom? Are there developmentally appropriate spaces for the different age groups?
You should expect your child to have at least one session outside every single day (weather permitting). The center should have a variety of areas that have age appropriate equipment for each level including infants/toddlers. If the school has a school-age aftercare program, they should also have an outdoor area specifically for school aged children (elementary). The equipment should be real playground equipment like you would find at your neighborhood playground. Having secondhand Little Tykes large plastic structures is not optimal, but can be acceptable. Also, look at the material they use on the ground. What is referred to as “pour and play” surfaces are quite often used, but are expensive to repair which is why many choose alternative fill. Large piece mulch or shredded recycled tires are popular options as well. If you are in a climate where it is hot, ask about whether they have a splash zone or if they have sprinklers or other types of water play. Outdoor play is very important for young children and it is important that they have a great space to play in.
Infant and Toddler care
Far and away the biggest need for child care services is at the younger end of the spectrum. When we were surveying employees about their needs, infant care was always one area that was lacking for spaces and quality in most areas of the country. It is also the place where you find incredibly dedicated teachers, the lowest ratios and the lowest profit margins for the centers themselves. Many centers choose not to even have an Infant/Todd program for some of these reasons. If you require infant services, your search for the right center is going to be that much more difficult. Since there are far fewer spaces, but plenty of demand, most centers will have long waiting lists for these spaces. In some cases the list can be years long. What this means for you is that it may be too late for you to find a space for your infant if you wait until after they are born. I would highly suggest that you look into these options while you are getting pregnant or right after you find out. Depending on the center and their waitlist, you may have to get your child on a few different center’s waitlists. You can also look for home based care for your infant with companies like Care.com providing referral services. Again, check in with your company’s HR department to see if they have an outbound referral service who can help you in finding a space for your child.
Thanks for coming to visit my new blog and I will assume that you found your way here from my recent review of the Mazda CX-5 at Cook With 5 Kids. I’ll have more reviews to share there as well as here in the upcoming months.
Having been a Dad for the past 20 years I’ve learned a thing or two and my beautiful wife thought I should share some of that knowledge with you. I have tons of information to help you accomplish some very important tasks and answer some topics that you may need help with. Are you looking to lease or buy a new car? I can help with that. You have a trip planned with your kids and you are dreading the travel portion – been there and done that with 5 of them.
Do you want to buy your first home and you are overwhelmed with the process? I have bought and sold many of my own homes and I can guide you along the way and give you advice about what has worked for us.
Ever buy or lease a new car? As someone that has done this many, many times I will give you some great advice on how to get a great deal without spending the better part of your week waiting for the salesperson to walk back and forth to the back “talking to the manager”.
Are you looking at preschools? Do you know what questions to ask and how to find your perfect preschool or daycare? As someone that used to build and operate them I can give you a list of important questions to help you find the right fit for your child and a high quality child care center.
Do you know what an EV (electric vehicle) is? Do you know how they work and how much money they will save you? I have owned 3 electric cars and you would be surprised at how economical they can be as well as super fun to drive.
These topics are just a few that I will cover on this blog. If you would like to email me with specific questions or have a topic that you’d like to see addressed please let me know and I will be happy to try to answer them.