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What is Quality Child Care?
At the dawn of the 21st Century, more than half of the mothers of infants were employed at least part-time. This was true for three-fourths of the children aged three to five. We generally refer to the service those families will seek as day care or child care. I prefer to call it educare, for, in order to be beneficial to the child, it must include elements of education as well as care. Many countries are now adopting this term and abandoning the others because they do not do a good job of communicating what is involved. It is not just "baby sitting" or keeping children out of harm's way. It is a developmental experience of major significance.

By whatever name we call the service, it is a critically important experience in the life of a child. Aware of this, parental anxiety usually mounts as the time for selecting a site approaches. They ask themselves:

  • "What is the best type of care for my child?"

  • "How do I recognize good care when I see it?"

  • "Will this help or hurt my child?"

  • "How do I recognize a good program?"

What are your choices?

Supplementary care is usually provided in one of four ways:
  • A relative provides care, in her home or yours.

  • A non-relative comes to your home (a nanny).

  • You take your child to the home of a woman who provides care for a few children, perhaps including her own—family day care.

  • You enroll your child in a centre that may have from 30 to 150 children—centre care.
A fifth way is one that is not really child care—the father or partner cares for the child while the mother is away. Many families use—and even prefer—this arrangement.

Of these types, your community will have the least to say about the first and the last. It doesn't have much to say about nannies (a name that has never caught on in America), although there are many community colleges and technical institutes that offer training for such workers. But there are regulations in all 50 states that help you identify programs of high quality in both family day care and centre care. Here are some things to look for:

  • The operator's license or registration. Every child care centre (except those operated by churches, in some states) must have a license to operate, and this must be prominently displayed. Every legitimate family day care provider must be either registered or licensed. If not, say "thank you" and leave the premises.

  • The number of adults available for the children. There should be at least one adult for every four infants (one for three is even better), one adult for every six to eight toddlers, and one for every 10-15 preschool children.

  • The training of the providers. High-quality programs are staffed by people trained in child development and education. Ask about this in a pre-enrollment interview.

  • The appearance of the children. This indicator takes as a given that you would never enter an arrangement without visiting or observing. Are the children clean? Happy? Active? Seemingly healthy? Friendly? These factors may be the best way to judge quality.

  • The behaviour of the adults. Are they talking to the children? Do they smile and laugh? Comfort a hurt child? Respond when a child tries to get attention?

  • The condition of the environment. Is it clean? Is there enough space for everyone? Are there enough toys and learning materials for all the children to have some?

  • Freedom to visit. Are you free to visit, unannounced at any time. Run, do not walk, from any program with visitation restrictions.
Will child care help or hurt?

It depends on the quality of the program. If it is of high quality, there is no evidence that it is harmful and considerable evidence that it can benefit a child in terms of developmental progress. On the other hand, poor quality child care—just like poor quality home care—does not provide a good setting in which children can grow and learn. High-quality care will provide a healthful environment, educational opportunities, and a setting for favorable social and emotional growth. Make sure you're getting comprehensive educare. Don't settle for less.

How do you find good educare?

Start with the web. Go into the National Association for Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (www.naccrra.org) and then click on Child Care Aware. That will give you a map of the entire country, from which you can select the state you are interested in. After that, you will get a list of the agencies located in different parts of the state. Click on one near you and you will get the telephone, fax, e-mail address, and web site (if the organization has one). There are many people out there who will help you make the right choice for your family.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education