By Jennifer Anne Gregory
Finding the right child daycare facility is one of the most important decisions a parent makes in the early years of a child's life. But what assurances do parents have concerning the safety of their child and the quality of care they receive?
How can parents trust that after their child is dropped off at a child care program, he or she is cared for by staff dedicated to the safety of children?
Mandatory licensing regulations governed by the Virginia Department of Social Services mean that in the majority of cases, child care programs offer age appropriate curriculums overseen by caring, professional staff. Employee background checks eliminate anyone with felony convictions from professional contact with children,
Accreditation by The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) adds a further seal of approval to child care facilities. Promoting the welfare of children from birth through eight, NAEYC offers a rigorous accreditation process for child care centers. Accreditation standards include health and safety, developmental practices and staff qualifications. There are one hundred accredited programs in Virginia and according to Kristina Garwgy Campbell, spokesperson for NAEYC, three child care centers in Fredericksburg are undergoing accreditation, with another just ten miles outside the city.
High quality child care programs can enhance readiness for kindergarten and beyond. 'The State Of Preschool 2009', a yearbook produced by The National Institute For Early Education Research (NIEER) shows 14% of Virginia's four year olds were enrolled in state funded preschool programs provided by the Virginia Preschool Initiative. Learning standards include history, social development, motor skills and social science.
As with anything worth doing properly, a little homework prior to needing child care should provide an opportunity for parents to speak with prospective center directors and child care professionals.
Ten Things to Consider
As a former Child Protective Investigator, a daycare center minus security measures was a huge concern. During one investigation, I walked into a facility and entered two classrooms without any intervention from staff. With only one caregiver left behind at lunchtime to monitor the sleeping children, she had absolutely no knowledge of my presence. In my opinion, at the end of the day, without full time front desk security and some sort of video surveillance system, you might just as well leave your child on the side of the road. This is not an area for compromise, irrespective of the program offered.
Mandatory Child to Staff Ratios
This is the number of children per staff member and varies according to the child's age. For safety reasons, each state enforces staff to child ratios as part of licensing. Here, in Virginia, the ratios are; Infants 1:4 and young toddlers 1:5. In classrooms with mixed age groups, the ratio should reflect the youngest child.
Take a Tour
What are your first impressions? Is the daycare brightly lit and inviting to parents and children? Are the children spoken to with respect and at eye level with the teacher? Are the activity areas marked with simple letters and pictures so children can understand? Are the snacks or meals offered to the children, nutritious and presented in an attractive manner? This is a great time to ask questions of the center director and establish expectations early on. If center staff refuse to provide a tour of the facility, look elsewhere.
Does the Daycare Smell?
This may sound odd but is important. A stale, musty odor may be a sign of a dirty facility, unwashed floors and carpets, or floors cleaned with a dirty mop. Check the toilets. When were they last cleaned? Preschoolers and toddlers learning to go potty are bound to have accidents, however there should be someone on staff whose job it is to deal with these messes. A child care center should not smell of dirty diapers and unwashed children. Also important is the daily sanitizing of toys. Observe the staff in the classroom, or ask the day care director about the policy regarding cleaning children's toys. All toys in every classroom should be sanitized daily to minimize the spread of infection. Infant and toddler toys need to be cleaned if the child has had it in their mouth. There should NEVER be any cleaning supplies within reach of children.
Observe the actions of the majority of the children. Are they happy and engaged with their caregivers? Or are the children entertaining themselves while the caregivers gossip in the corner? One center I visited, the caregiver filed her nails while the children went potty! Look for evidence of children's art work displayed eye level to the children and evidence of sensory play, such as: sand or water table activities. If you can, observe how the caregiver encourages self help skills, such as: putting on a coat or washing hands after snack time. Is the caregiver frustrated by the child's efforts, or encourage the learning experience? It is the quality of these daily interactions that can enhance your child's experience during time away from home.
Many children between the ages of twelve and twenty four months enter into a biting phase. While this is distressing both for the parents of the 'victim' and the child exhibiting this behavior, it is a common occurrence in many daycare facilities and not necessarily a sign of negligent supervision by the caregivers, who may be attempting to address the issue. However, it is important to ask what the policy on biting is. Some centers recommend the removal of a child from the program if the biting does not cease after efforts to discourage the behavior. Others may provide one on one care for the child until the phase passes. If your child is a 'biter', inform staff prior to enrollment so an appropriate plan can be put in place between parents and staff.
After Hours Pick Up
Many programs offer child care between 6.00am and 6.00pm and charge extra, per fifteen minutes past closing time. This is fair since the center has to pay staff overtime to take care of your child. Others are more flexible and offer a late evening program or overnight stay. Either way, it is important to establish what will best meet your needs and to understand the policy ahead of time.
Young children are notorious for putting things into their mouths and will happily swallow if allowed to. Look for age appropriate and well maintained toys in the classroom. No chipped paint or broken toys with sharp edges. Check the playground area too. Ask how often the equipment is checked. Child swing and slide sets should never be placed on concrete! The sand pit area should be free from animal feces and any access to the street should be locked. Staff should never be seen chatting over or through the fence to the general public. Under no circumstance should a child be left by themselves on the playground.
Even with the most steadfast accident prevention methods, all children have accidents! A child learning to walk may fall down and bump their head. An excited child running across the playground may fall and scrape their knee. Whatever the accident, an accident report should be generated and the parent contacted. A good accident report details the actual event, what was done to comfort the child, and how the child responded after the incident. At the end of the day, the parent should have an opportunity to read and sign the report and discuss with the child's teacher or center director if necessary. If your child has an accident and no report has been generated, insist one is produced immediately!
In Virginia, aside from the entry level qualification of High School Diploma, the Child Care Associate or CDA provides training and assessment toward certification. This certification requires 120 hours of formal child care education in addition to 480 hours of direct experience working with children. Additional certifications in food safety may be required for members of staff handling food. Also, if your child requires medication as part of their daily care, ask if there is a member of staff trained to administer medication. Ask about CPR and first aid training too. There should be at least one person on staff at all times who is certified to administer basic CPR and first aid.
Whomever you choose to care for your child, continue to monitor the program's quality against your child's attitude on entering and leaving the facility. A happy child is one of the best indictors of a great early childhood development program.
www.daycare.com/virginia- Provides list of licensed child daycare centers in your area. Explains staff to child ratios.
www.naeyc.org - Explains the mission of the organization including an overview of the NAEYC accreditation process.
To report child abuse: (800)552-7096
Questions about licensing 804-726-7154
Jennifer Anne Gregory writes full time and lives with her husband and dogs Mouse and Dottie in Spotsylvania. Her novel, Among Other Edens is available at Amazon.com and is written under the pseudonym Guinevere Edern.