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Picking a Childcare Center: 23 Essential Things to Consider

It's a tragic, headline-making fact: Kids are injured, and sometimes even die in childcare centers in the U.S. every year. This is gravely upsetting, and it only underscores the importance of selecting safe and responsible providers to care for your kids when you can't.

But how can you evaluate a center based on just a visit and gain the peace of mind that your little one will be safe and happy every day? Dr. Sharman Johnston, director of curriculum and instruction at Children's Lighthouse Learning Centers, offers tips to help parents do just that. During your visit, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How does the center look from the outside? Consider the overall curb appeal of the building.
  2. Do things appear clean inside the building?
  3. Is it generally in good repair? Physical appearance sets the tone for how providers will care for your child. "Of course, any childcare facility is going to be gently used, with play dough on the floor. But if the bathroom smells bad, this can be a red flag," Dr. Johnston says.
  4. Is it safe? Look for red flags like broken playground equipment, outdated cribs, or a non-coded entry system.
  5. Are all state inspection reports posted and up to date? If not, ask to see them.
  6. Does the center have emergency plans in place? Ask what they would do in a variety of situations, such as a fire, live shooter, natural disaster or major weather event.
  7. Are providers CPR and first aid certified in accordance with state regulations?
  8. Does the childcare center follow "back to sleep?" And are providers up to date on other baby safety practices, like that children should ride in rear -facing car seats until age 2?
  9. How are food and other allergies handled? Are providers prepared to handle any other medical or special needs your child may have?
  10. Are there hand washing stations readily accessible to children? Dr. Johnston is adamant this is key for germ spreading prevention.
  11. What is the care giver to child ratio in each classroom?
  12. Is the staff friendly and welcoming toward you and your child?
  13. Are caregivers down on the floor with children, or do they appear standoffish and aloof?
  14. Are most kids playing and laughing?
  15. If an infant is crying, is someone trying to comfort them?
  16. Do you see positive discipline strategies? Or do you just hear, "Stop it!"
  17. How are kids interacting with one another? Are they having fun, cooperating, and learning?
  18. What kinds of activities are they engaging in? Look for a mix of hands-on, developmentally appropriate activities and authentic experiences.
  19. Are children's projects proudly displayed in hallways and classrooms?
  20. Do you think your child would enjoy the types of projects you see?
  21. Do you think your child will grow and learn both socially and academically from his time there?
  22. What forms of ongoing communication will staff have with parents? Dr. Johnston recommends inquiring about newsletters, a Facebook page, and class web cams. "The more open the communication channels, the better, as no center should have anything to hide," Dr. Johnson says.
  23. Would you feel comfortable leaving your child here? Perhaps most importantly, do you get an overall good vibe?

Of course, even once you select a particular childcare facility, an issue may arise. Dr. Johnston says it's how that concern is addressed that is most important. Ideally, the teacher will have noticed the particular issue already, and your concern will be quickly validated: "Yes, I saw that little Bobby doesn't seem to be interacting much on the playground, and I understand why you are worried." The care provider may be able to put your fears to rest: "But he seems to be enjoying alone time right now." Or, you can work together to develop an action plan to address and resolve the problem. If a provider just blows you off, it may be time to reevaluate your childcare options.

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