Choosing a childcare program causes understandable uncertainty and emotions for everyone—and those feelings may be heightened as we move out of the pandemic. Parents and caregivers are adjusting to evolving arrangements and navigating expectations to return to in-person work and not everyone really knows what high-quality early care and learning means. Whether you are currently looking for a program or considering this step for the future, there’s a lot to consider when selecting childcare arrangements.

As the Vice President of Education and Development at Bright Horizons Family Solutions, I’m happy to share with you the inside scoop on what makes a childcare program exceptional. I started my career 30 years ago as a toddler teacher and I’ve dedicated the last three decades to working with childcare center teachers, directors, and staff members to ensure children receive the best support possible during their early years. Perhaps most importantly, I’m a working mother of two girls, so I’m happy to share my expertise from both a parenting and educator perspective. Choosing childcare is a critically important and highly personal decision. How do you go about making it?

Here’s what to consider when looking for a high quality childcare program.

Health and safety

Nothing is more important than your child’s health, safety, and well-being. When evaluating childcare, you want to make sure you learn about all health and safety protocols—including exclusion policies and health screenings—and confirm that the program is licensed by the state, and that the center’s practices align with CDC, state and local guidance. Additionally, find out if the childcare program consults with any medical experts.

Be sure to read up on the childcare program’s specific rules and measures for class sizes, handwashing, distancing, and sanitizing. Day to day, you’ll also want to know how children are supervised, how many teachers accompany the group, and how illnesses and injuries are managed. You can use this health and safety checklist to guide your research.

Responsive and nurturing teachers

Teachers are at the heart of any childcare program. They are the “care” in early care and learning. Without the best care, learning is hindered. The tone of their classroom should be calm, joyful and playful.

The younger the children, the more often teachers should be on the floor engaging at their level. In a childcare program this means all teachers should be at their level most of the time. Teachers should know each child as an individual and foster a strong relationship through two-way conversations, explore ideas and possibilities together, give inclusive and unconditional acceptance, respond to needs and have a positive guidance approach that supports social-emotional learning rather than focusing on punishment.

Look for a program that prioritizes teacher professional development, including supporting their pursuit of degrees. When evaluating childcare for your family, learn more about the teachers in the program. Ask about hiring, training, education opportunities and retention practices.

Early education and curriculum

Programming in a childcare center should be personalized to each child’s needs and to the classroom community. Classroom experiences should provoke curiosity and provide for open-ended exploration alongside the guidance of teachers and stem from the children’s interest rather than being a boxed or pre-themed curriculum. Early learning curriculum should be designed to both meet the interests and developmental needs of each age group, should integrate learning into authentic experiences, and address critical social and emotional competencies.

Ask to see an example of the curriculum and assess if it allows children the time, freedom and support to explore, investigate, play, laugh and learn about themselves and others. Children develop all these domains together, simultaneously, and you want to see a curriculum reflect that.

Learning environments

The early childhood years are unique, and the classroom environments should be uniquely designed for this joyful stage. Children deserve spaces that evoke wonder and exploration, where they can be messy, creative and innovative. Look for furniture that’s appropriately-sized for the youngest of children, carefully selected elements that consider safety and materials that make the classroom feel less like a mini-elementary school and more like home. There should be soft, clean, cozy places for quiet time; ample space for children to move and explore; and the room to be socially distant when necessary. Additionally, you want to look for materials that are plentiful, in good condition and open-ended (e.g. wooden blocks) to inspire creativity and imagination.

Beyond the space, you want to evaluate how children spend time in the space – the routine. You want to be sure children have ample time to play, a minimal amount of large group time or seated work (if any), smooth transitions between activities, and not much time waiting. You’ll want to be sure their physical and care routines are considered, such as rest times and meals/snacks.

Partnership with families

The program you select should welcome all families. Beyond just inclusive practices and policies, the center should proactively engage voices via family partnership groups, and welcome open, ongoing dialogue via live or virtual events and conversation. This family-program connection has become even more important during the pandemic, as families may not be able to visit inside classrooms or regularly meet the teacher face-to-face. Ask what relationship-building and parenting education resources the program has in place.

Program location

Carefully considering your ideal program location can help narrow the field. Does your employer offer an onsite option you should consider? Is your ideal location near your home or near your company’s office? Is there a partner’s workplace you need to factor in? It is important to you to cultivate friendships with children and families who live nearby?

Local licensing and accreditations

All childcare centers must be licensed by the state in which they reside. Licensing certificates should be visible in the center. Ask about additional certifications and accreditations that reflect a center’s commitment to even higher quality standards than those recommended by government agencies and regulations.

Once you make a choice for your child’s early care and learning program, you’ll know it was the right one if, after a transition period, your child is typically happy, excited, and eager to head to childcare and sometimes reluctant to leave. There are a variety of aspects to a high-quality program and you can feel confident in using the above guidelines to decide which one is best for your child and you!