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Tips for choosing a quality child care/ early learning/ home visiting program

You want your child in a quality PA child care/ early learning program or with a quality home visitor, but may not know what to look for to know that it’s quality. You may know what you don’t want just by looking at it, but it’s harder to know what will help your child be safe, happy and learning.

  • KeystoneSTARSReach for the STARS! Keystone STARS can help you pick out programs that have quality staff and activities to start your search for the right fit for your family. Child care and Head Start programs that participate in Keystone STARS meet many of these elements of quality as part of the STARS standards. They receive a STAR 1 to STAR 4 rating based on these quality standards.
  • Use the Early Learning GPS  to compare child care programs. Create a free family account and map for your child. In your child’s map use the “Program Checklist” tab to download questions to ask when you visit a program, then enter your answers. You can compare answers to as many programs as you like.
  • Download our tip sheet to share with others (PDF)

Some things are a matter of preference – what you like or don’t like – such as choosing between a family child care program and a center. But others definitely affect your child’s safety and what he will learn while he is there.

Here are key things to look for when visiting a child care/ early learning program:

Your child is safe and secure.

When you trust your child to someone else, you want to be sure that your child is in a safe place and that your child feels safe. Children are learning all the time, but if they feel unsafe or don’t feel well, it’s harder for them to learn.

  • Programs meet the appropriate regulations and have their certificate posted.
  • Staff are trained in CPR and first aid.
  • The facility is clean and orderly.
  • There is an emergency plan and is it posted.
  • Hazardous materials are locked away.
  • Staff follow regulations on handwashing, diapering and preparing food.
  • Staff have been trained in preventing, recognizing, and reporting child abuse.
  • The program has an open-door policy where you can visit any time you want.

There are good teachers and specialists that support you and your child.

Your child’s teacher shapes her whole day, and affects who your child will become. The quality of the teacher is one of the most important pieces of a child care/ early learning program.

  • You and your child get along well with the teacher or home visitor. You feel that you can trust the teacher and they respect and include you in your child’s development.
  • Teachers have specialized training teaching young children. Because young children develop so many new skills so quickly in the first five years, teaching young children is special; it’s about nurturing, learning what the child can do, and helping the child build new skills on his/her own path. It’s important that your child’s teacher has some education in child development or early childhood education, like a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or college degree. If you are looking for an afterschool program, teachers may have a Pennsylvania School-Age Professional credential. Keystone STARS programs must meet teacher education requirements based on their Star level.
  • There is consistency – the teachers stay. Your child will love his teacher, and will get stressed if the teacher leaves. It is better for your child if teachers stay longer. Ask the program if they have low teacher turnover.
  • Teachers and home visitors encourage children to safely explore and try new things. Children are comfortable, happy, and involved in the classroom. If there is a conflict or a child needs to be disciplined, the teacher handles this in a positive manner.

The atmosphere is kid-friendly with learning areas and activities that are right for your child’s age and development. 

Young children learn by exploring and using many skills at once. Classrooms need to be designed to fit them with activities that work best for them.

  • Everything is at kid level. There are learning stations, books and activities that are not too easy or too hard for the children in the class. (called “developmentally appropriate”)
  • The teacher has a daily schedule and curriculum based on the Pennsylvania Early Learning Standards. The standards show what skills children should be building at different ages with tips on how to help them grow.  By planning activities around the standards, the teacher is helping your child reach kindergarten ready to learn.
  • The teachers take time to see how each child is doing and check the child’s progress throughout the year using an “authentic assessment.” The teacher can use these checks to see your child’s strengths and give extra help where your child needs it. The teacher can also share this information with you and together think of ways you can help your child at home.
  • The class sizes are small enough that teachers have time to work one-on-one with your child throughout the day. For child care programs, state regulations for group child care homes and child care centers require
    • one staff person for every four infants (1:4)
    • one staff person for every five 1-2 year olds (1:5)
    • one staff person for every six 2-3 year olds (1:6)
    • one staff person for every 10 3-4 year olds (1:10)
    • one staff person for every 12 children in Kindergarten- 4th grade (1:12)
    • one staff person for every 15 children older than 4th grade (1:15)

If the classroom has children of different ages, or a mixed-age classroom, the ratios are a bit different.

  • If you have a home visitor, she should provide activities that are appropriate for your child. Many home visitors will bring books and toys with them.

Knowing the lingo. Early childhood educators may use some technical terms that you may not know, here are a few you may hear:

  • Authentic assessment – an authentic assessment is one that measures a child’s progress through observing the child in regular learning activities, rather than giving them a test.
  • Child Development Associate (CDA) credential – This is a professional credential for child care/ early childhood staff, where the person takes 120 hours of training in early childhood education (usually college classes) and passes a verification visit to receive the credential.
  • Child outcomes – this usually refers to how children have progressed through a program or school year, such as the percentage of children that were proficient in language, math or social skills at the beginning and end of a program year.
  • Developmentally appropriate – learning activities and practices on behalf of the child that recognize that each child is unique and match the child’s developmental abilities. Providing children with activities that are neither far below or above a child’s skills.
  • Max Jones says:

    My little boy is almost 4, but he’s a bright kid, so I think that it would be good for us to get him into an early leaning centre. You talked about looking into the atmosphere for different early learning daycare options for our son, and how things should be located at child height so that they have easy access to learn and grow. I’m going to have to see if we can check out a few different preschool centre options for our son and try to pick one that we think would continue to help him on a path to success!

  • My husband and I are looking for a child care program for our twin daughters. We want to make sure that they will be getting the attention and care they need to thrive. Like you said, we will want to make sure we choose a facility that encourages children to safely explore and try new things to provide a positive experience.

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