Quality childcare is critical in determining positive life outcomes for children. Brain growth and development is more rapid than in any other period, reaching 95 percent of its adult size by age 5. Language, personality, cognitive, motor and emotional development are all rooted during this critical time. Children during the first five years of life are incapable of caring for themselves; therefore early learning environments must provide both care and education considering equally the needs of the child, and the constraints of the working family.

1. What does quality look like?

Many factors go into determining a quality program. Programs must meet minimum state licensing guidelines, and serve diverse community and family needs. Care environment variations might include program size, hours, age groups served, classroom size and program philosophy. General components of quality include program administration, well-trained staff, family engagement, curriculum, teacher child interactions, as well as health and safety.

2. Are the teachers qualified?

Teachers of young children require formal education and specific training to create a quality environment. Teachers should have training in child development, first aid and CPR. Minimum credentials such as the CDA, or state equivalent, a bachelor degree in child development or early childhood education are preferable. Programs should be fully committed to continuing education, certification, professional development and recognition of staff.

3. Do families have an opportunity to participate?

Ideally, families feel comfortable in the program. Teachers should provide information daily and have open, responsive communication with families. Opportunities for parents’ to contribute constructive input and evaluate the program are welcomed. Families are encouraged to contribute to their child’s learning both in the classroom and from home.

4. Are the classrooms enriched, age-appropriate learning environments?

The quality classroom promotes curiosity, ingenuity and problem-solving though play based activities. Class schedule and curriculum is posted for parents. The classroom is bright and pleasant with ample space for the children, including areas for small and large group activities, reading, quiet, rest and eating. Toys and materials organized into play based learning areas are age appropriate, plentiful, safe and available at the child’s level.

5. Are the children engaged?

Children and teachers are happy, relaxed and engaged. The teacher enriches the learning environment by engaging children in conversation, providing new materials, reading a variety of books and encouraging thinking through use of open-ended questions. Children learn best through self-selected enriched play based experiences supported by teachers. Teaching plans comprise curriculum activities that nurture, support and encourage children’s overall growth and development.

6. Are the teachers responsive and nurturing?

Teachers and staff respond promptly to children’s needs. Teachers are consistent and dependable, building trusting relationships. Children’s behavior is positively guided to help children learn to problem solve, take initiative and engage with peers.

7. What is the teacher-to-child ratio?

National standards, such as the ones provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics, are often significantly lower than state requirements. Quality programs disclose the number of children to adults in each classroom, and how ratio is maintained when teachers are absent.

8. Is the program rated or nationally accredited?

Most states have a noncompulsory, quality rating system used to evaluate programs, based on quality indicators that can be useful as a guide. Quality programs may also independently choose a National Accreditation process. The Accreditation process reviews and recognizes programs that maintain higher standards of care, and are committed to excellence.

9. Is the program affordable?

Be prepared to make the investment. The average annual tuition for early care and education programs is typically higher than average state university tuition. Quality programs are expensive to maintain and operate due to many of the factors listed in this article. Federal and state child care block grant funds are available to eligible families to support the cost of quality care but are limited.

Quality early care and education programs should be every child’s right. The burden placed on families to determine both quality and affordability, unfortunately is a choice of one or the other. Leaving many children without the opportunity to realize their true potential.