Every early childhood education program or child care center can make the claim that they’re the best. Since not every one can be the best, that just makes it harder for parents trying to find a place that will not only care for and love their child but one that will set them up for success when they reach school age.
“Especially in the city of Chicago, it is the great race to kindergarten. You have to get into the right kindergarten program to get into the right high school to get into the right college. It starts very young,” says Cheretta Triplett-Smith, director of the new Bright Horizons program on South Wabash in Chicago. She’s seen time and time again the difference between children who have been in quality programs and those who haven’t.
It turns out finding the best program for your family is right within your own grasp. “I feel like parents now have a lot more information at hand for themselves than they did years ago.” Triplett-Smith — who has been in child care for more than 20 years and with Bright Horizons since 2003 — offers this advice for families seeking a quality early education program.
Make a list of what matters most to you.
Triplett-Smith says some families are completely focused on the curriculum, some drill down into a center’s health and safety, particularly now during the pandemic, and others are focused on their child’s social-emotional health, the “I want to know you love my child.”
To help narrow the list of choices, she encourages families to really ask themselves what matters most to them.
“What I’ve found over the years, families will say ‘what am I supposed to be asking, what do I need to ask?’” she says. “I’ll ask them about what’s important to them. That’s when they start to tell you what’s important to them, what they’re looking for, how they want the teachers to interact and communicate with them, what they expect from the director as well, too.”
While Bright Horizons takes a whole child approach, she says, making sure kids are ready for school while also ensuring they have the cognitive and language skills to communicate and the social-emotional skills to work with others, not every program or child care center out there does.
She always hands families a handy checklist of all the things Bright Horizons offers families so they can take it with them to see how other programs compare. It includes how the centers nurture children and help them learn as well as how they partner with families.
Ask about teacher training and age-appropriate teaching methods.
Look for educators, not babysitters.
Bright Horizons focuses on teacher retention through training and helping the teachers secure bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education through its Horizons Teacher Degree program at no cost. The teachers want to be there because it is their career and they love children, she says. It’s not just a job. Triplett-Smith should know; she started as a preschool teacher in 2003 and advanced to center director.
Ask about the role you play.
Ask each center how they will collaborate with you and how staff will support you as a parent.
At Bright Horizons, Triplett-Smith says she sees the center-parent relationship as a partnership, with plenty of open communication with families that include notes about their child’s day, pictures and even activities families can do together at home. It also offers parent support and education, with help on potty training, nursing and even sleep.
Tour the centers on your list.
Are kids active or trapped in seats? Are the teachers engaged with them, reading to them, providing TLC? Is it bright and fun?
“You’ll feel and know what’s right for your family. You can see the difference when it’s the right fit for you,” she says.
Trust your gut.
“If it doesn’t feel good to you when you go into a place, if it doesn’t seem clean, if the staff doesn’t seem warm and friendly, if you’re trying to be in contact or talk with the director and they’re brushing you off, to me those are huge red flags,” Triplett-Smith says. “As a parent, you want an honest and transparent program.”
Bright Horizons at South Wabash is a new child care center that opened on October 4. They are now enrolling in their infant through pre-kindergarten programs. Learn more about this center and schedule a visit at brighthorizons.com/southwabash.