Questions to ask, things to look for before hiring a provider By Cindy JacobsonChicago Parent file photo Daycare home care can bring together children of different ages in a home setting as in the program Judi Minter runs from Oak Park.
For women who work outside the home, the questions begin the minute you announce your wonderful news. "Congratulations. How are you feeling? Do you know if it's a boy or girl? What are you going to do for childcare?" That last question is just as likely to keep you awake as the newborn will.
There are no guarantees, set formulas or crystal balls that will lead to the perfect daycare situation for your child and for you. But there are many options, and many talented and nurturing caregivers available to ease the apprehension of leaving your child in the care of another adult.
The three most common childcare options are childcare centers, family home care-in someone else's home-and in-home care, when a nanny, au pair or relative cares for your child in your home. Each has advantages and disadvantages in terms of cost, location, scheduling options and caregiver-child ratios.
The first step is to ask yourself key questions. "How much can I afford?" and "Do I need full- or part-time care?"
Once you've selected the best option for you, your child and your finances, ask friends, neighbors, check the phone book, and inquire with your local childcare resource and referral office for names of licensed providers that best fit your family's needs. Licensing indicates the provider has been approved and screened and meets the state's standards for care and caregiver-child ratios.
"When I was looking for the right situation for my daughter this fall, I asked the moms from my neighborhood. They're the ones that would have had the first-hand experience and could give me an honest opinion," says Amy Kelly, mother of two, from Oak Lawn.
Select a few providers for phone interviews and check on openings in your child's age group. Also ask about fees, hours and basic policies. Share with the provider your expectations. If the initial contact meets your criteria, schedule an in-person interview. At this interview, use your eyes, ears and, most of all, your gut to determine if this is the right place for your child.
Childcare experts recommend paying special attention to the following when choosing a daycare provider or facility:
• Good first impression. First impressions are crucial in any relationship, and childcare is no different. Do the employees seem happy and comfortable? Is the caregiver warm and affectionate? Is the facility clean and organized?
"The facility should look inviting, and those working there should be smiling. There should be kids' artwork on the walls and a basic sense of organization and structure throughout the home or center," says Paula Steffen, childcare coordinator for childcare resource and referral, serving Will, Grundy, Kendall and Kankakee counties. "Parents know what kind of environment their child will be most comfortable in."
• Provider-child relationship. Look for caregivers who talk with the children, not at them, and seem interested in getting to know each as an individual.
"The provider should be gentle, friendly and loving and should respond to the child's cues. When speaking to the children, the caregiver should be at the child's eye level and should encourage independence of important daily tasks," says Carlos Ramirez, family resource supervisor for the referral service operated by Action for Children in Chicago.
• Provider qualifications. Ask the provider about her educational background, ongoing training, first-aid/CPR certification, experience working with children, sensitivity to cultural differences and staff turnover rate.
"Find out why they want to work in the childcare field, what type of formal training they have and whether they attend workshops to keep current in the field. Find out everything you can about the person that will be caring for your child," says Steffen.
• Staff turnover rate. "Continuity of care for your child is important," says Steffen. Ask how long each teacher or provider has been employed at the facility. Be cautious of situations in which there is a pattern of quick turnover-a number of caregivers who have less than one year's tenure at the site, for example.
• Safety. Check the site for potential safety hazards as well as overall safety of the care area. Children should be supervised by an adult at all times. Fire extinguishers and smoke detectors should be available and in working condition. Toys should be clean and without broken pieces, stairways should be gated and outdoor play areas should be fenced. Bathrooms and changing areas should be disinfected regularly and hand washing before meals should be part of the daily routine for the children.
"At any age, children need to be able to safely explore their environment. Look at the center or home from your child's viewpoint. Try to see potential hazards as your child might come into contact with them," says Ramirez.
• Open-door policy. Be wary if parent drop-in time is limited or prohibited. Any quality care provider should welcome unannounced visits by parents.
"An open-door policy is very important to me. I need to be able to come in whenever I want to. I want to know what my daughter is doing at various points throughout her day there," says Kelly.
Lisa Downey, early childhood consultant, Evergreen Park, adds: "All childcare settings should have an open-door policy. If you are told that the visit may be intrusive to the center or home, it could be a red flag worth investigating further. Most good programs find a way to incorporate unscheduled visits into their day."
• Goals and philosophies. Your provider's child-rearing philosophies should closely match yours. Ask about discipline policies, learning strategies and activities. Then observe if the philosophies are evident throughout the entire facility.
For Tara LaMorte of New Lenox, conducting interviews with 12 nanny candidates was critical to making the right choice for her two young children. "In order to ensure that my children had the best care, I knew that my nanny's philosophies had to be very similar to mine on everything from reading to healthy eating to handling stressful situations."
• Socialization and learning. In any childcare setting, activities should be age appropriate as well as developmentally appropriate. Opportunities for creative expression and physical activity should be part of the child's everyday routine. Children also should have time for both individual exploration and group activities. Weather permitting, outdoor play should be encouraged.
"Children should have choices on what activities they want to do. Toys and learning games should be accessible on low shelves, and there should be little or no television or videos," Steffen says. "Infants through school-age children should have their learning needs addressed and met."
Cindy Jacobson is the mom of two and a writer living in Channahon.