What is high-quality child care? Some program’s boast of a highly structured academic curriculum; others offer caretaking but little intellectual stimulation. Many promise both, yet according to studies, few embody the high-quality programs you envision for your child. Whatever the label, you are likely to encounter overworked, underpaid, and untrained staff operating under difficult conditions. With such facts in mind, your first decision should be whether any program is better for your child than your own parental care. The goal of this article is not to endorse child care in general, but to help you recognize quality when you see it.
The ideal child care program might have a motto that says, “We let kids be kids. We focus on play and freedom and encourage age-appropriate responsibility.” The most important lesson for any child to learn is how to get along with other children. Academic, teacher-directed learning should occupy the least amount of time in a young child’s day. Following are some broad guidelines for measuring the quality of any children’s program. These guidelines incorporate two major concepts: child-centered and problem solving.
After your initial guided tour of the program, make some surprise visits with your child. If this is prohibited, cross them off your list!
Take your time and evaluate a program’s three main components: the staff, the environment, and the program’s philosophy.
Child-Centered: A child-centered program is one that makes every decision on behalf of the children. Many programs claim to be child-centered, yet their policies address the needs of adults, whether parents or staff. Every aspect of a program, no matter how routine or trivial, should be based as much as possible on the needs, wants, and desires of the children.
Problem Solving: Problem solving is an approach that allows children to develop their inner strengths and critical thinking skills. Problem solving permeates every area of behavior: expressing feelings, resolving disputes between children, setting limits by teachers, and affirming the self-worth of each child. For example, one child hitting another is a problem that is solved by the victim saying, “Stop!” and the teacher making sure the hitting stops. The problem-solving approach is an integral part of a child’s normal development because it allows children to solve problems on their own level and take responsibility for their actions without criticism, blame, shame, or punishment.
The Staff: Every high-quality program begins with strong leadership. The program’s director sets the standards and implements the goals of the program. The director’s leadership is demonstrated by the choice of employees, the ratio of teachers to children, the training provided, the wages paid, and procedures for dealing with problems. A good director knows every child, knows what is happening in the program at every minute of the day, and is capable of working in any classroom.
The Environment: The environment in which your child will spend her days should send a clear message: this is a place for children. Every corner of the physical setting should echo that message. Your child should feel safe, curious, and welcome. Areas should be organized to facilitate safe and active play, socializing, and include semi-private spaces for reading and quiet daydreaming. Toys should be organized on shelves so that children can put them away quickly and easily. There should be some type of indoor play equipment, such as an indoor climber and riding toys to meet the need for active play. The teacher is also part of the physical environment. Observe the number of children in the teacher’s care, her ability to supervise the children safely, and the way in which she interacts, nurtures, and stimulates.
The Philosophy: The philosophy of any program should be clearly described in the program’s parent information handbook and diligently taught to new teachers. A program based on teaching children to solve their own problems will use terms such as active listening, negotiation, setting limits, giving affirmations, and modifying the environment.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.