Screening a Daycare Facility

Typically, a daycare facility will have some scheduled group tours, or you can also schedule an individual visit.  You can also usually request a repeat visit, if you want a second (or third) look.  One family suggested stopping by at drop-off or pick-up time to observe how seamlessly that handover went: are the parents frazzled? In the morning, are the children happy to see their teachers?

Much of what you’ll be looking for in a daycare facility is things you can actually look for, and don’t need to ask about: is it bright and clean? Is there adequate space for the children? Do the teachers look engaged? (Are they sitting on the ground with the children, or are they are a remove?  Do they look happy?)

The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re interviewing a childcare facility: they’ve heard your question before, and they usually know what you’re looking to hear. “We found tons of questions by searching ‘questions to ask at daycare,’” one friend told me, “and it turned out every other parent we went on a group daycare tour with read and asked the exact same thorough questions.”  Naturally, after being interviewed by hundreds of parents, you’ll have a pat answer to things like, “How often do you clean toys?”

When you’re talking to daycare providers, consider whether you’re asking a question that’s lobbing the “right” answer.   And with a lot of these questions, you need to stop and ask yourself what’s the right answer first: do you want a play-based culture, or do you want something more structured that will be teaching your child skills?  Do you believe in time-outs?  (I recognize it is somewhat preposterous to suggest you’ll know those answers before your child has even been born; just go with your instincts here.)

What’s your general philosophy on childcare? 

This should uncover an answer to the above “play-based vs. skills-based” question, but also listen for how structured they are and how much they adhere to a schedule.  If you will be practicing attachment parenting at home, for instance, you may not want a facility that is going to try and sleep-train your child before you’re ready.  Conversely, if consistency is important to you, you want to make sure that they’ll stick to the schedule that you’ve set for your baby (or help you get the baby on one).

How do you update families on how their child is doing?

At a minimum, you want to hear about a couple parent-teacher conferences a year.  “Our facility does them quarterly,” Laura Boone, an attorney in West Virginia, told me. “They take it very seriously, so it’s actually meaningful to us as parents to receive the report.”  It’s reassuring to see in writing that your baby is meeting developmental milestones, and it isn’t just “Your kid is great!” but tied to child development theory.  Many day care programs will send home daily notes with updates on how much and what your baby or toddler ate, how long she slept, and how many dirty diapers she had.  For preschoolers, some programs will send a daily email update to all families that covers what the class did during the day, with photos of the children engaging in their activities.

How do you handle a child who is acting out?

Obviously this isn’t as much of an issue for infants, but it can be a helpful window into what future years will be like with this caregiver – and this is another instance where you need to know you how you feel before you can decide how you want someone else to treat your child.  Some families, for instance, prefer a “time in” to a time out, where your child is still pulled away from a group, but an adult stays with him to talk about why he acted out.

What can you tell me about the staff?

Do they have bachelor’s degrees in childcare-related fields? How many years of experience do they have?

How do you screen caregivers?  What kind of background checks do you perform?

This is a perfect example of a question that’s easy to know the “right” answer to; you’ll likely hear, “We screen them thoroughly, and we conduct background checks.”  There’s a very broad spectrum, though, of what could be covered in a screening or background check.  Only 13 states conduct comprehensive background checks (including checks of state and federal criminal records using fingerprints, a check of childcare abuse records, and a check of sex offender records), according to Child Care Aware of America, a national organization that lobbies for changes in childcare regulations. 

There are also simple logistical questions you'll want to ask:

Do you have availability? How long is your waitlist?

This is one you’ll probably want to check by phone, before even scheduling a visit.

What is the staff-to-child ratio?

Can I stop by during the day to visit my child or breastfeed?

A “no” here is a red flag.  Many parents are looking for an effusive “yes!” Selena Hsu, a general manager at Bloomberg, told me, “During one of our visits, two parents came by to have a little birthday party at their toddler’s class.” She and her husband were swayed by that sweet scene, seeing it as an indicator of how welcome parents were to be part of the school community.  

Do you close for any days other than national holidays?

One mom told me that her facility closes for a week in the middle of the summer, and it is an enormous hassle because it’s a time when there isn’t much back-up childcare available.

What are your hours, and what happens if I’m late for pick-up?

Some daycare facilities penalize parents by the minute if they’re late; 18 minutes late is an $18 penalty.

How often do the children go outdoors, and for how long?

What do the children eat, and how does this work?

Some facilities handle all food for families (and parents tend to be effusively enthusiastic about these arrangements), and others require families to pack meals and snacks.  There are also in-betweens: while they’re in the infant room, all food is brought from home (even if they’re eating table food), but when they transition to the toddler room, they eat school-provided food.

Where do babies nap?

Some facilities will have a separate, dark room just for napping.

What’s your policy on vaccinations?

This is (obviously) a fraught issue, and policies vary widely.  A good follow up question here is “How many of your students have vaccination waivers?”

What accreditations do you hold?

There are a handful of national organizations that accredit daycares based on in-person professional evaluations, feedback from parents, and on-going standards of professional development. 

You can ask also questions about licensing and how long they’ve been around, but that’s something you’ll likely want to verify yourself anyway by calling your state’s licensing agency.  (These differ state-to-state; a Google search for your state and “daycare licensing” should turn up the right agency.)

It’s a stressful process, and the stakes feel very, very high.  But one mom I talked to had found peace with her daughter’s day care being “just fine.”  She explained, “At that age, I didn’t feel she needed anything too complicated, beyond a safe space to play.”  Others were absolutely effusive: with their children surrounded by other babies and trained childcare professionals, they felt that their child’s development had catapulted forward.  That’s a pretty good spectrum to land on: safe on one end, and stupendous on the other.