Questions to Ask at a Prospective Daycare

prospective daycareBefore you look into any daycare, you may want to read this April 1999 report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on daycare facilities. It will give you a better idea of some of the dangers children face.

If you think you should be able to trust the facility operators to operate in the best interest of your child, you’re absolutely right. But many of them don’t. The questions listed below might seem like a lot, but please don’t worry about sounding pushy or bossy. The answers to these questions are important to your child’s safety. And if the daycare operator is reluctant to answer or seems put out by your questions, ask yourself why. Bring your spouse or partner with you. Take your time. Think over the responses you get. If you find yourself making excuses for them (they were tired; they were busy; they were nervous; they had a lot going on; I was being too hard on them), ask yourself if making excuses for them is in the best interests of your child.

Don’t ever chase a daycare center. If the director or operator becomes hard to reach, if they’re always busy, if they don’t return calls, if their prices are unreasonable for the care extended, if the quality of the care deteriorates, if your child seems unhappy to go there, if you or your partner has doubts – LET THE CENTER GO! There are many other caregivers out there. You’ll be doing yourself and your child an enormous favor.

  • What is the infant (or child) to caregiver ratio?
    In other words, how many infants or children are taken care of by each caregiver? You’ll want to try to get as close to the standards recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics as possible – and it’s not easy to do. You’ll have to pay for it. If you feel there are too many children or babies per caregiver, you’re probably right. And remember, some unscrupulous facilities have ways to fool the inspectors (and the parents, too!).
  • Does the facility have high staff turnover? What is the turnover?
    Daycare workers are typically some of the lowest-paid workers in the nation. We don’t blame them if they get fed up. But a constant turnover of caregivers is highly detrimental to your child’s sense of security.
  • Is the facility licensed? Are the caregivers licensed? Through whom? May I see the certificates?
    Being licensed isn’t legally required for all facilities, but some facilities volunteer for licensing. Safer Child recommends using a licensed facility; they generally follow stricter standards than non-licensed facilities.
  • What are the state requirements for licensing of this facility – and also for hiring (and continuing to employ) the caregivers?
    Try to find out what the laws are in your state before you ask this question. Then you can use the question to find out whether the operator knows what they are.
  • What are the credentials (experience and training) of the staff? Do these credentials apply to:
    • the director,
    • the room leader,
    • the co-teachers,
    • all staff?

    Do staff members receive ongoing training? What kind of training is it?
    Some states don’t require experience or training for a newly hired employee, but they do require training on the job. Other states require certain levels of training before hire. Make sure your child’s caregiver has had – and continues to receive – the appropriate amount of experience and training.

  • Have all staff and caregivers submitted to background and criminal checks? How were the checks done?
    You might want to verify the results with the police. All employees – including the kitchen and janitorial help – should have submitted to background and criminal checks to rule out anyone with a record of criminal activity, drug use or child abuse. Safer Child recommends against facilities that hire employees with any sort of criminal background.
  • Does everyone on the staff know first aid and CPR (and if applicable, infant CPR)?
    This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people take care of babies and children with no training whatsoever. At least one staff person trained in infant/child first aid and CPR should be present at all times.
  • Has any child suffered serious injury (requiring professional medical care) or died while being cared for by any staff member? Is this a rude question?
    Many people would tell you it is, but it’s by far the most important piece of information you can get. Ask it — you have to know. You might assume that anyone who could answer “yes” to the question would just lie to you, and that’s probably true. But people will not be expecting this important question, and their body language and verbal responses can reflect a less-than-honest answer.

    The person might do one or more of the following: refuse to answer, look away, look down at the floor, begin to fidget or sweat, purse his/her mouth, hesitate to answer, look upset or angry, stumble with the answer, begin talking a lot, immediately redirect the conversation to a different topic, suddenly become “very busy,” refer the question to someone else, promise to get back to you, tell you the information is private, that it’s under investigation, that it’s confidential, or that your question was rude.

    For many people, “the best defense is a strong offense,” and they will turn the tables on you by putting YOU on the spot, thereby taking the heat off themselves. So, if the answer you get is “yes,” or if you have doubts about the veracity of the answer, trust your instincts. Check out the daycare with the police department and/or just go ahead and find another daycare for your child.

  • Is the facility required to submit to regular health, fire and safety checks? How often? By whom? Are the checks announced or unannounced?
    You might want to call the inspectors and verify information about the particular facility. Many facilities don’t have to submit to any checks at all. But health, fire and safety checks are critical to your child’s well-being. Make sure that fire drills are conducted at least once a month; that smoke detectors are installed on every floor, and that they’re working. Make sure the exits are well marked and easy for all children to access. Toxic substances should be kept in a locked cabinet, away from curious children. Phone numbers for police, fire, ambulance, and poison control should be clearly posted. Outdoor play equipment should be safe and well maintained, and the playground surface should be soft (not hard dirt or concrete).
  • May I observe the caregivers in action?
    This way, you can make sure that: The rooms are clean, cheerful, interesting, but not overstimulating; There are separate areas for diapering, sleeping, resting, eating and exploring; The caregivers are involved, patient, caring, interested and attuned to the child’s needs; You feel comfortable with the room, the caregiver and the children your child will associate with; and that There aren’t too many children in the room for your child to get the care and attention necessary. If the room contains babies, caregivers should be able to hug, rock, cuddle, talk and sing to them. It’s also best if babies can be matched with one or two caregivers.
  • Will breastfeeding mothers be encouraged to continue breastfeeding? Will they be encouraged to do so at the facility?
  • What is the policy on discipline of my child? Will you let me know if my child has a bad day? Will I be able to find out at the end of the day what happened all through the day?
  • What is the policy when a child is hurt or falls ill? Will you be called? What if they can’t reach you?
  • What is the policy if a child is violent toward another child or a caregiver? Will I hear about it? Does it get reported? To whom?
  • What is the policy on incidents of caregiver abuse toward a child – sexual or otherwise? Will I hear about it? Does it get reported? To whom? Is the caregiver fired? You should be notified if there is a violent or abusive situation at the daycare center. And you should feel confident that appropriate steps will be taken to deal with the situation.
  • Does the center allow parents and children a transitional period if the children find it difficult to separate?
  • Do you ever take the children on outings off site? Will I be notified first and have the option to say no? What about car seats, seat belts, extra supervision and refreshments? Check to make sure that on outings, caregivers don’t put name tags on the outside of children’s clothing, especially with a string or ribbon. There are several reasons:
    • At pet zoos, some animals enjoy eating string and paper, and might accidentally choke a child.
    • At fairs and playgrounds, a hanging string might get caught on machinery and choke a child.
    • On any outing, visible names are an invitation to a dangerous stranger to use the child’s name while approaching the child.

    For more on questioning a daycare, see Safety Expert Gavin de Becker’s list of questions to ask a school.

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