Daycare Red Flags: I already looked inside the Refrigerator
August 29, 2006 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Evaluating a day care: What non-obvious questions would you ask? What non-obvious things would you look for during a site visit? What subtle words, actions, behaviors or environmental factors would make you think twice about using a specific facility? “Had I but known” in-retrospect anecdotal cautionary tales are welcome.

We’re getting ready for the heart wrenching process of putting our infant son in day care for the first time next week. As I go though my final interviews and site visits with his day care provider, is there anything from your day care experience that I should look for or ask that help throw up a red flag or two before we sign the final contract?
posted by anastasiav to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Are the doors locked? Are the fences in the play-area too tall to reach over? Do you have to show ID to take a child? Can you visit any time of the day, on any given day, without an appointment?

The first three are purely stranger (or estranged spouse) paranoia, but the fourth is an absolute requirement for me. I wouldn't put my child in any school if I weren't allowed to drop in unannounced to see what's happening when they're *not* expecting me. If the front desk staff *insisted* that the teacher be notified before I arrived, or the school insisted that I only visit during certain hours, I woulld choose a different facility.
posted by headspace at 8:10 AM on August 29, 2006

Staff turnover rate. Day care workers are generally underpaid and there is a bit of churn, but we found that the quality of experience was definitely correlated to having a reasonably low rate of turnover. Even if every person working there is wonderful, kids benefit from bonding with people over time more than just everyone being nice.

And do be sure to call references. We were always glad to give a glowing reference for the first day care my daughter was at, but I would be less glowing about the one she is leaving now (though still positive).
posted by briank at 8:15 AM on August 29, 2006

Best answer: Ask what how they deal with misbehavior to see whether your ideas on what constitutes misbehavior and its consequences coincide. Ask how they deal with conflicts between children. Good luck. Deciding on daycare is a hard decision and acting on it can be harder. The right daycare is a great thing though and no-one in our family regrets it.
posted by firstdrop at 8:19 AM on August 29, 2006

Here's my $.02 on the choice and then $.10 about living with the choice:

How long have the teachers been there? Staff turnover is a good indication of a place that does something right (if it's low) or has some fundamental issues (if it's high).

Make a plan right now for when he gets sick, about two weeks after you start him wherever you end up. It will happen. Know which of you is going to take the whole day off if he wakes up sick, and which one is responsible for picking up if you get a call in the middle of the day.

Keep saying to yourself: His getting sick doesn't mean it's a bad daycare; it just means that he's being exposed to new stuff and his immunities are developing.

In general, try not to panic. Give the newness time to sink in for all of you. Eventually, you will learn the difference between "This feels weird to me because it's new" and "This feels weird to me because something's wrong," but for a while it may seem like the same feeling.

Most of all, try not to feel guilty about the choices you have made as a family. There's lots of subtle crap out there along the lines of "I would never want a stranger to raise my children," but I can tell you personally that we just left a daycare where our family had been for 11 years (youngest went to kindergarten last week). There is no doubt in my mind that all those ladies loved both my children, and vice-versa. They helped us raise our kids: they indentified illnesses before we knew about them; eased us through solid foods, potty-training, and growing up.

Finding a good place is a huge relief. Lots of luck to you.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:20 AM on August 29, 2006

Are they accredited by NAEYC?
posted by caddis at 8:35 AM on August 29, 2006

Do they take the kids to playtimes or playgrounds outside the facility? I see a lot of daycare providers and nannies at local playgroups. They use this 2-hour period as a break, during which they sit on a bench with other caregivers and chat. They often turn away from the children and sometimes even sit with their backs to them. Meanwhile, the 12-month-old is climbing up a slide, the 18-month-old is jumping on a trampoline with no one to spot them, the infant is crying in the stroller, and the 2 three year olds are crashing their tricycles into one another.

Do they use cellphones during their caregiving hours? I have seen many daycare providers and nannies walking around or at the park while talking on a cell phone. Their kids are more likely to fall.

What do they do when infants and toddlers fall, cry, become scared, etc? Do they give them hugs or do they say, "Shake it off!" Do they ignore crying children? Do they check to see why the child is crying or do they just pick them up and wander around with them, while continuing a conversation with their phone or friend?

Not all caregivers are like this! Licensed group daycares seem to be more attentive and they often have practicum students, volunteers and people to cover during breaks.

But do check for these things. I become positively ill when I see these things happen. I see a lot of very bruised kids at playtimes.

Also check to see that the facility is safe. My friend's toddler found an unlocked liquor cabinet at floor level at one daycare. Another child opened an unlocked cabinet of glasswares.

You might also want to see where kids sleep. Do they have mats, cribs, or do they sleep in their strollers?
posted by acoutu at 8:59 AM on August 29, 2006

Ask what kind of parental behavior they do/don't like.

Ask what kind of behavior from children makes them concerned.
posted by Framer at 9:06 AM on August 29, 2006

Are they accredited by NAEYC?

We found that this was a red herring. All the corporate day cares LOVE the idea of being accredited by some official sounding group, and so they all boast about this, but most corporate-run day cares we saw were the least-appealing places for kids, especially the smallest ones.

The day care we chose before our child was born was not NAEYC accredited, and when we asked the owner why she said because she felt that they were very limited in what they expected, and she wanted to do much more, but NAEYC expects compliance with their criteria and nothing else.
posted by briank at 9:08 AM on August 29, 2006

especially the smallest ones

smallest kids, that is...i.e. babies
posted by briank at 9:09 AM on August 29, 2006

See if older kids are allowed to mingle with the younger ones. One place Son #2 attended allowed older to mix with younger and a disturbed (in my opinion) 3 yr old broke the arm of a 12mo. old. Son #2 went to a new daycare the next day.

Look at what they do for the kids other than making sure they don't kill themselves or wander off. Daughter #2 was bored silly as an 18 mo. old at a daycare where the ladies were very sweet. It was a nice place, but they didn't have activities that challenged her or even kept her occupied. Now that la Patrona stays home, we don't have that problem.
posted by CRS at 9:24 AM on August 29, 2006

Best answer: Howdy.

We went through this relatively recently, and here are the criteria we used.
  • Turnover. briank and Sweetie Darling nailed it.
  • Appropriate developmental mixing: toddlers mix poorly with crawlers, and not at all with infants. The classrooms should largely be homogenous in terms of developmental stages, and the facility should have definite guidelines about when a kid moves up.
  • Appropriate staffing. At our facility, the staffing was no more than 1:4 staff:kids in any room, and 1:3 in some of them.
  • References. Call the reference the school gives you, and then ask that reference for contact information for someone else at the school. Call that reference, and ask the same question. You're more likely to get honest feedback that way, as the school's just going to give you the references that reflect best upon them.
  • Ask the facility for references from families no longer at the facility. Ask those references why they left.
  • Spend a full day, or several hours over several days, at the facility watching how they operate. Take your kid along for at least one of them.
  • Security: there should be significant verification and security steps built into the facility. This also ties into staff levels: at a ratio of 1 staffer to 4 kids, it's harder for kids to wander off unsupervised into corners of the playground.
  • Watch how the kids behave with one another, and how the facility remediates bad behavior. Does the facility's disciplinary scheme match up with your own?
  • Trust your gut. We visited something like eight or ten different facilities. At least three of them were eliminated for intuitive reasons:
    • One of them smelled like a nursing home. Institutional.
    • At one of them, nobody answered the door for 20 minutes, despite us ringing the bell, knocking, etcetera. And when they did let us in, it turned out that the person we were to meet was out sick. And hadn't called us to cancel our appointment, for which both of us had taken time off from work.
    • One of them just felt wrong to us: the caretakers seemed indifferent, and even hostile.
Above all, do not expect any facility to fully satisfy you: if you go in with that attitude, you will be unable to relax. The facility you choose should be the one that you most trust to come closest to your own parenting. It will, at best, be an approximation.

The facility we wound up choosing was chosen because it has low turnover, the staff appears to genuinely like kids, and they actively solicit our feedback. There are a number of kids whose families speak more than one language, and the staff tries to use the kids' "home language" at least 50% of the time with them. They actively embraced ASL for us: our kid isn't deaf, but we're using ASL with him at home, and even though they don't have that as part of their curriculum, they reinforce things like "milk" and "up" and "more" and "all done" and so forth.

Expect the search to take time, and schedule accordingly: that way, you won't feel rushed to make a decision, and you can thoroughly test out each option.

Good luck: this isn't easy, but it will work out.
posted by scrump at 9:40 AM on August 29, 2006 [3 favorites]

Turnover is a big one. Also ask for a schedule of holidays they take (are closed). The last one we used developed a habit of closing for "training" on minor holidays. Teachers we were close to told us they'd spend a half-day cleaning, then take off. When we didn't have those days off, one of us would miss a work day.

Try to sit in on the group your child will be in. If crying kids go unattended for more than a minute or so, there's a problem. If you can look in on toddler or preschool rooms, look for relatively quiet places and kids occupied with games or stories. Bedlam (yelling, crying, running back and forth, throwing things) in the older kids' rooms is a bad sign.

Look for signs that the place is not maintained or cleaned well.

Daycare can be a very positive experience for a child. Properly supervised, it's a great place for learning social skills.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:51 AM on August 29, 2006

All the advice given above is great, so let me add one thing: no matter how many questions you ask and how many references you check, it's still an unknown situation and you're still going to be anxious. Don't consider that anxiety a red flag -- it's unavoidable.
posted by escabeche at 10:42 AM on August 29, 2006

Space is really tight in Calgary because of all the immigration and the regulatory difficulty in setting up a day care. We looked at half a dozen daycares when shopping for our daughter and the thing that decided us was the noise and maintence level of the facility. Our choice was the only one that seperated different age goups with solid floor to ceiling walls. Some of the others had as many as four groups only seperated by shelving.

scrump writes "Appropriate staffing. At our facility, the staffing was no more than 1:4 staff:kids in any room, and 1:3 in some of them."

A 1:3 ratio (even 1:4) is going to really expensive. Each kid is going to pay 40-50% of a worker's salary plus a kick to overhead.
posted by Mitheral at 11:21 AM on August 29, 2006

Best answer: If I had to do it all over again, I would have looked harder for a home daycare rather than a day care center. The place he was at was perfectly adequate, but I think he would have been better off with fewer kids and a more flexible enviroment.

Some things that I would look for:
TV and video - It used to bother me that they would turn on videos for the kids during rainy days. My son ended up watching things I didn't allow him to at home, and when I spoke to the teacher she seemed unaware that some parents limit their kid's TV time.

Toilet training - do they have a specific age kids need to be trained by? My son was not ready at age 2, and that was the age they were hung up on. They put a lot of pressure on him and me. It was such a relief when son #2 was toilet training since he wasn't at daycare and could follow his own schedule.

Nursing- I never had an infant in daycare, but friends of mine had an issue with daycare providers who did not want the mom to nurse the baby when she dropped her off or if she came by during her lunch hour. Maintaining the nursing relationship was very important to the mom, and the attitude of the cargivers made it harder to do.
posted by Biblio at 12:01 PM on August 29, 2006

I just wanted to post a gentle note of disagreement regarding briank's assessment of NAEYC accreditation. Over the past few years, I've worked with the group and have a mom employed by a NAEYC-accredited center, so I have some firsthand knowledge of their standards. Their requirements are pretty extensive. Teacher/student ratios, level of teacher education and training, the safety of the environment, whether each infant has their own, dedicated crib--these are just some of the criteria a center must meet to earn accreditation.

I am expecting early next year and have already started looking for child care (the better programs all have lengthy wait lists in my town...gack) and NAEYC accreditation is one of my top criteria.

Which is not to say, of course, that all NAEYC centers are great and all others are substandard. It's just that good child care is so hard to find--being able to rely on someone else's measuring stick to uncover the better places can be helpful.
posted by Sully6 at 1:04 PM on August 29, 2006

A 1:3 ratio (even 1:4) is going to really expensive. Each kid is going to pay 40-50% of a worker's salary plus a kick to overhead.
You may be right, but the daycare we're currently using was the least expensive of all of the operations. They're part of a complex with a Montessori school and at least two other schools, and appear to fall under the local school district somehow, and both of those may be factors in the price.

I should note, though, that they've clearly compromised on decoration and "flair" in favor of staff and happy kids. The place could use an overhaul to bring it into the 90's, stylistically.
posted by scrump at 1:30 PM on August 29, 2006

Things to consider (disclaimer: I don't have kids, but I work for a large daycare provider):

1. When you go for the site visit, was the person you made the appointment with ready for you, or was their attention divided (it's a small thing, but if they're not ready for a set appointment with an adult, they might have problems being ready for a roomful of kids of varying ages/attention spans...)? Did you get all your questions answered to an acceptable degree, or did you get a lot of "I'll find out and let you know" type answers?

2. Others have touched on this, but was the center clean? Not just dust-free and not smelling, but does it look like the people that work there care enough about their center to make sure things are as ordered as possible in a room full of kids?

3. in what kind of shape is the equipment that they use? TV's, VCR's, and books/toys should all be in reasonably good shape.

4. Overall demeanor of staff. How they handle themselves when the kids are all quiet is one thing, but when the kids are all running around like crazy, the staff should be able to handle it with competence and firmness, without getting horribly stressed or overreacting.

Another thing I would recommend is to make multiple visits to the same center at different times of the day, if you can - the more information you have, the better decision you can make.
posted by pdb at 1:51 PM on August 29, 2006

Response by poster: Are they accredited by NAEYC?

Not an option at this time, I'm afraid. There are 13 NAEYC accredited centers in my area. Eight do not accept children under 18 months. Three limit enrollment to low-income, teen, or other "economic need" families. One has not returned my calls despite my having called every other day for two weeks. The last one, as you might imagine, has a waiting list for infant care a mile and a half long. I'm on that list - have been since May - but I'm not holdling my breath and need to find some other solution in the meantime.

Great stuff here, please keep the answers and suggestions coming.
posted by anastasiav at 2:17 PM on August 29, 2006

Ask what their biting policy is. Biting is very common in toddler aged rooms and if the daycare doesn't have a policy about it they can rattle off or show you immediately, don't trust 'em. It doesn't matter so much what it is (unless you disagree with it of course -- some places kick biters out), but that they have one and are therefore consistent about it.
posted by girlhacker at 3:06 PM on August 29, 2006

girlhacker's suggestion is good.

Our toddler was bitten several times - twice one week. I raised hell, and they came back with, "It's age-appropriate." Not twice in a week it isn't. We were ready to bail, when one of the directors left. Turned out the biter was her kid, and left with her.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:05 PM on August 29, 2006

If you have multiple ages at the daycare (not mixed together), even if your child is younger (say, toddler), if there are older kids (4-5), ask them if they like day care. Do this during your tour around the place.

Ask if they have any religious practices. In one day care in which I worked, there was no obvious sign of any religion being involved, but at lunchtime the kids were led in a simple prayer. (God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food, amen.)

Seconding this: Ask if they ever take the kids out on "field trips," whether that means a van, bus, or even a walk to the park down the road.
posted by IndigoRain at 2:48 AM on August 30, 2006

Speaking of field trips, if they use a bus (as in school bus), there are probably no seat belts. I count that as a negative.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:03 AM on August 30, 2006

I created a question recently about becoming a stay at home dad, and in it I mentioned how a visit to my daughter's new daycare left me unimpressed, compared to her current daycare. Here's some of the differences in care I noticed - and some of these have been mentioned

1) Kids weren't separated according to development stages...six year olds were mixing with three year olds

2) Morning snack was bagels and cream cheese. These were plonked onto a table, with bagels uncut and still in the bag. No one was actually eating.

3) Play area was a postage stamp sized lot that might have had grass at one time, surrounded by chain link.

4) Turnover - daycare director had started the week I visited. My simplest questions could not be answered.

5) Staff attitudes - of the two staff present during my visit, one obviously hated her job. Her attitude was plain by simply watching her interact with the children.

6) I wasn't impressed by the variety of toys and activities on offer at the center.
posted by Brando_T. at 8:00 AM on August 30, 2006

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