Parenting Resource

Choosing Child Care

Choosing a good child care setting is key to your child’s healthy development and your peace of mind. First, make sure the setting you’re considering meets the health and safety standards set by your state or local government. Once the basics are covered, here’s what you need to know to find a setting that’s just right for your child.

Responsive Care

Once you’ve determined that the child care setting follows government health and safety standards, you’ll want to know how the teaching staff will adapt their approach to meet your child’s unique needs. Every child is different, and responsive caregivers pay attention to the meaning of children’s cues, like babbling, crying, or pointing. Here are some questions to ask when thinking about the level of responsiveness a setting will provide:

  • Do parents get written reports about their children’s day? Do they get formal progress reports or teacher conferences throughout the year?
  • Are parents free to visit at any time during the day?
  • Are there enough teachers to meet children’s needs? Does the number of teachers meet state/local standards?
  • When teachers leave the program, how does the staff help children understand the transition?
  • How does the teaching staff respond to a child’s individual interests?
  • How do teachers accommodate children’s individual schedules? For example, must every child nap at the same time, or can children nap when they are tired?
  • How can parents get involved in the program?
  • How does the teaching staff accommodate nursing moms?

Making a Match

Each child has his own temperament, or way of experiencing the world, from the day he is born. Some kids are cautious. Some like to explore. Some are calm, and some have big reactions to everything! Here are five things to think about to make sure a care setting is a good fit for your child.

1. What is your child’s personal style?

Are they adaptable? Adaptable kids tend to be flexible and adjust to new people and situations easily. If so, look for group settings that provide rich social interaction and new experiences.

Are they cautious? Cautious kids tend to approach new situations and new people more slowly and need time to warm up. They may have a tougher time with transitions. If so, look for group settings that are less overwhelming and choose caregivers who will partner with you around transitions like drop-off/pick-up.

Are they feisty? Feisty kids feel things intensely and may have a tough time controlling their strong feelings, wants and needs. If so, look for programs where each child has a primary caregiver, someone who knows and understands your child.

2. How does your child react to the world?

Is your child a big reactor? Big reactors communicate feelings loudly and clearly and don’t hold back. Look for teachers who respect your child’s emotions and will help them express and manage emotions in age-appropriate ways.

Is your child a low reactor? Low reactors don’t fuss a lot and are pretty low-key when it comes to expressing their feelings. Look for teachers who notice and respond to your child’s more subtle emotional cues.

3. How active is your child?

High activity children are always on the go. Look for individual schedules, safe exploration and lots of opportunities for physical play. Ask about expectations for activities like “circle time.” Must children join and sit quietly, or can they play or move during this activity?

Low activity children may not move around a lot, preferring to sit and play, and explore using their eyes and ears. Look for a teaching staff that provides a daily mix of active play that includes “big muscle” play (like on the playground) and “small muscle” play (like puzzles and water play).

4. How social is your child?

Super-social children enjoy approaching new people and are happiest interacting with others. Look for opportunities for rich peer interaction across the day.

Take-it-slow children are shy around strangers and need time to warm up. Look for programs that have designed the space to allow for some “alone time” (like a cozy corner). Ask about whether different activity formats are offered across the day that include groups, pairs, and individual children.

5. Is your child tolerant of changes and challenges?

A child with a high tolerance for change is adaptable and copes well with frustration. Look for settings that offer flexible schedules and enjoyable challenges and teachers who notice children’s current skills and offer them new, slightly more difficult tasks to master.

A child with a low tolerance for change gets upset when the daily routine changes unexpectedly. They may be easily frustrated and can be impatient. Look for settings that use a pretty consistent daily schedule and teachers who model and teach skills for managing frustration.

Cultural Identity

Is the child care setting respectful and inclusive of all cultures? Questions to ask:

  • Does the teaching staff speak your home language or can they find effective ways to communicate with you and your child?
  • Are teachers open to maintaining specific practices that are important to you and your family (for example, the ability for your baby to wear a necklace of religious significance in the infant room)?
  • Is the teaching staff open to including books and activities that celebrate your child’s culture?
  • How can families share information about their language and culture with staff?
  • Is the teaching staff’s values and practices consistent with your family’s?

Special Needs

If your child has special needs, you’ll want to make sure that the staff is equipped to accommodate them. Questions to ask:

  • Does the staff understand the teaching approaches, medical procedures and/or technology needed to support your child?
  • Is the teaching staff trained and supported to accommodate children with special needs? In what ways? (Be sure to review your child’s specific needs and strengths.)
  • Is the setting/schedule/activities provided by the program accessible to your child? If not, what will need to be adjusted so that your child can access the program?
  • Do any books/toys/posters in the classroom feature children with special needs?
  • Is the teaching staff willing to partner with early intervention home visitors to implement therapeutic interventions in the child care setting?
  • How can families share information about their child’s disability/delay with teaching staff?

This resource was adapted from a collaboration between ZERO TO THREE and Child Care Aware.

Child Care Aware supports families in making choices for the care and education of their children. For help finding your local child care resource and referral agency, call 1-800-424-2246 or visit

About Baby Steps

This article was featured in Baby Steps, a ZERO TO THREE newsletter for parents and caregivers. Each issue offers science-based information on a topic of interest to parents and caregivers of young children—from sleep to challenging behaviors, and everything in between.

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