We've all heard the horror stories of what goes on at some daycares. How can you tell the difference between a quality care center and one that's mediocre? (we'll just skip the terrible ones, thank-you.) It's not easy. This week, learn what to ask and look for to spot child-centered, mindful care.
Sadly, finding quality full time care for infants is becoming a necessity for families, as they are left with very few options after having a baby. Right now in the US, expectant moms can take 12 weeks unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Except, you have to have at least a year with your current company, and that company needs at least 49 other co-workers. This leaves many families with even less protected leave, paid or not. Don't get me started on how absolutely terrible this is. A few states are passing laws to improve this situation, and a few other companies offer their own family leave policies allowing parents to get a few more months, but the fact remains the same: care for infants in home or not is not a luxury for many families.
This raises a lot of questions, stomach-churning, and anxiety for new parents. What does quality care look like? How do I know my baby will be safe and happy? How much does quality care really cost? And then all the emotional concerns like the idea of leaving your brand-new baby with someone else all day.
I was recently helping Sarah and Matt, an expectant couple, find out-of-home care for their (future) 4 month old later this year. We spent some time talking through what was important to them, logistical issues like distance from their home and work, hours, and a list of general questions to ask. They had lined up two tours at local centers, and I went along with my own list of things to look for.
Having led open houses and tours in schools for years myself, I am fully aware of the smoke and mirror, put-your-best-face-forward efforts that go on. If you are going on a tour, know that the information presented to you is the very best version of what goes on there. Mindful care for young children can be very subtle and hard to spot. We have a lot of common practices in our culture that are disrespectful to your child, and so it makes it easy to overlook these actions.
We began the day at a well-recognized, promising care center. It was at the top of my parent's price range, and bit father away than they would have liked, but the program looked exceptional. The second place we visited was a smaller, in-home care program with space for 12 children total. At both places we were able to talk with the director for over an hour, saw all the areas the children spent time in, and had an opportunity to speak with several staff members.
On the surface, both places checked off several boxes. Trained, experienced staff, check. "Learning" environments designed for children, check. Time outside with age appropriate activities and equipment, check. However, I saw HUGE differences between the two care centers in the way they were providing care for the children there.
It was what wasn't said to children: how the children were touched, addressed, included, and spoke about while not present.
It was how the rooms felt: the light, the colors, the objects, and the general vibe.
Here's an example of what I saw:
At the end of the tour at one center, the director called over a 3 yo boy who had been counting. She asked him "what number is this?", and then "Show how you can count." He obliged her. Then, she got out a set of nesting boxes that had numbers and letters printed all over the sides, and asked him the same questions again. At this point, my parents asked the director a question, and I knelt down next to the boy. I introduced myself, and asked what he was doing. He had all the nesting boxes out on the floor, and was attempting to get them back inside each other again. He got a few inside each other, out of order. I offered help, and he got a few more. I stood back up to join my parents in conversation, and the boy walked away. Now, the director told the boy "---, put those boxes away" . He said "I did." (and indeed, he had, in the best way he could.) But instead of offering help, or pointing out the parts that he was stuck on, she said "No, you didn't. Put them away." The boy began to cry.
Can you imagine if you were learning a new skill at work and when you went to ask for help, you were told you did it wrong and to fix it, with no direction as to how to do that? I'd cry too!
To truly get a feel for the daily experience of your infant, you need to look beyond the tour, beyond the answers to your standard questions, and take note of what is and isn't happening. This is easier to do with a trained eye of course, but here are some big things to consider.
What kind of professional training do they have? Ask about everyone, including assistants, directors, board members, etc. What kind of ongoing training is offered? The more experience and education the staff have, the more likely they are to be quality caregivers. How much time off do they have, daily, and yearly? A well-rested, healthy staff can bring their best selves to work. Do they look calm, happy, rested, cheerful, and engaged?How do they speak to the children? What do they say? Are they totally focused on a child, particularly if they are feeding or changing him/her? Do they speak to you in the same tone and quality? Bonus points if they greeted your child first before you. In the infant room especially, are the adults primary caregivers to 1-2 children, or is there a revolving door of staff interacting with one child throughout the day?
What is your first impression upon entering the space? Would you want to spend an hour here reading a book or resting? Check the visual noise: colors, shapes, lines, objects, toys, etc. Lots of early care centers feel its helpful to cover the walls with letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. This is just too much for young children to process. Can the children reach toys, books, and other play objects easily? Are things obstructing their view, path, or access? Where is the changing area? Does it offer some privacy while still allowing the caregiver to watch the other children? Are the room decorations, furniture, and focus down at the child's level?
After you have directly asked the director or tour guide to explain the program or curriculum, take note if those things are really taking place. Do they mention a focus on each child's needs? You should then see the staff spending one-to-one time with each child. Mindful, quality care programs tend to use words like: respect, independence, brain-based learning, play-based (for under 2), discovery learning, freedom, and empathy. Does the daily schedule allow for time to move at a young child's pace? Is it similar to what you do at home, or would they be willing to adapt to your child's schedule?
Here's what Sarah and Matt have to say after our experience
How did you feel about choosing care for your baby before our visits? How do you feel now?
Before our visits we felt very uncertain about what constituted "quality care" and unsure that we would be able to identify it from such a short visit. After visiting centers with Leanne, we felt much more confident about our ability to discern what constitutes high quality child care. Leanne pointed out subtle indicators, including things teachers were doing or behaviors being displayed by children. Without her guidance, I would have never known what to look for and would have missed many if not all examples of these indicators.
What was the most helpful part of having me come along on the visits?
It's hard to pinpoint just one thing that was helpful, but if we had to choose, it would probably be Leanne's ability to identify and clearly explain what constitutes high quality care. Leanne was also more focused than we were and made sure we didn't forget to ask questions. Also she asked questions from the point of view of an educator, not just a user of care services, which is a valuable perspective to gain insight into the methods and policies that support an environment of high quality care. Finally, having Leanne there allowed us to take a moment to interact with the classroom, because we could be confident that she would continue to ask relevant questions and take notes. Talking to children and teachers helped us get a better sense of what the day care was like.
Any other advice you have for new parents looking for quality care?
Start early, and tap into as many community resources as you can find. There are many organizations (e.g. government agencies, local parents' groups, community centers, etc) that have excellent information for parents. Think about what is most important to you in finding care. We only have one car, so we were quite limited in the distance we could travel for care and that was a big factor in our search.
Leanne Gray, M.Ed is the owner of The Prepared Environment, which supports families in creating an ideal environment for their children at home. She has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained.