How to Identify and Select a Quality Child Care Provider
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, it is likely that at some point in your child’s life you will need child care for your child. Selecting a child care provider is a big decision. Asking a lot of questions and giving yourself plenty of time to choose a child care provider will help you feel prepared and grow your confidence in selecting the right child care provider for your child. Child care providers are trusted adults that have an important responsibility – to take great care of your child while you are away.
Child care providers also
- act as role models and teachers;
- influence your child’s social and emotional skill development;
- provide a safe, stable, and nurturing environment for your child to grow and develop; and
- can provide tips and ideas about taking care of children.
This document provides guidance to help you, as parents and those in a parenting role, identify and select a child care provider. Guidance is also provided to help you prepare your child to make the transition to a child care provider.
The first step in selecting a child care provider is to decide what your child care needs are for both you and your child.
Ask yourself questions to clarify your own needs:
- “How often do I need a child care provider? Everyday? Occasionally?”
- “Do I need child care during the daytime? Nighttime? On Weekends?”
- “What hours do I need someone available? Normal business hours? Extended day hours?”
- “Do I want a child care provider to come to my home or am I willing to take my child somewhere else?”
- “What is my budget? What can I afford?”
The Early Childhood Services Bureau offers Best Beginnings child care scholarships to qualified low-income families whose child receives care from a licensed child care center, licensed group, or family child care home, or Family, Friend, and Neighbor (FFN) child care provider. For information about the Best Beginnings Child Care Scholarship Program in Montana visit: https://dphhs.mt.gov/hcsd/ChildCare/BestBeginningsScholarships.
Your Child’s Needs
Once you have determined your own needs as a parent or the one in a parenting role, it is also important to assess your child’s needs. You know your child best, so when considering various child care options, it is important to think about your child’s unique personality, to what they will respond well, and what they need to be successful.
Ask yourself questions to clarify your child’s needs:
- “In what kind of environment does my child respond best (quiet, busy, high energy, calm, more educational, extra play time, more free play, more structure, consistency)?”
- “To what type of person does my child respond best (outgoing, reserved, quiet, high energy, calm)?”
- “What, if any, special needs (i.e., allergies, health, social, emotional) does my child have that I need to consider as I select a child care provider?”
Child Care Options
Once you have assessed both your needs and your child’s needs, you can then start to identify child care options that are available. There are many different types of child care, and there are pros and cons to each option. The chart below provides a quick at-a-glance reference of child care options to consider.
Families choose care for their children based on their needs, many of the options listed in this chart may meet a family’s needs but may not be monitored by DPHHS through child care licensing.
|Care Type||Cost||Flexible Hours?||Regulated?||Extra Help (cleaning, cooking, etc.)||Infant||Toddler||School-Aged||Description|
|Center Based Child Care||$$$||X||✓||X||1 to 4||1 to 8||1 to 14||Out of home setting, typically serves 13 or more children, includes multiple child care providers, has set hours of operation, and follows state regulations including a specific adult-to-child ratio depending on the ages of children being cared for. State regulations are set by the State of Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.|
|In-Home Daycare||$$||✓||✓||X||1 to 3||1 to 6||1 to 6||In-home child care (typically not in your home), must be registered with the Child Care Licensing Program in Montana,1 and has the option to become accredited by the National Association of Family Childcare.2 State regulations for adult to child ratio in Montana include: one adult to provide care for up to 6 children, with a limit of three children under the age of 2.|
|Preschool||$$$||X||✓||X||n/a||1 to 10||n/a||A school like setting with teachers meant to prepare your child (typically ages 3-4 years old) for their school years.|
|Before and After School||$$||X||✓||X||n/a||1 to 10||1 to 14||A program offering child care before and after school. Programs typically focus on child enrichment.|
|$||✓||✓||X||1 to 4||1 to 8||1 to 14||A child care setting designed for last-minute child care needs. It is not meant to be on-going but is typically used for emergencies, unexpected engagements, and when the parent does not have other available short notice options.|
|Respite||$||✓||✓||X||1 to 1||1 to 1||1 to 1||Certified child care for parents that need a short-term break from challenging child care duties. Often for foster parents, grandparents, or children with special needs that are demanding of the caregiver. This option helps to prevent caregiver burnout and can take place in the child’s home, a facility, or day care center during the day and throughout the night.|
|Family/ Friend/ Neighbor||$||✓||X||✓||n/a||n/a||n/a||A person you trust to watch your child who generally has no formal training, does not complete a background check, and is not regulated by an outside entity.|
|Babysitter||$||✓||X||✓||n/a||n/a||n/a||A person you hire to watch your child for a specific amount of time who generally does not have a set schedule, may or may not have formal training or a background check, and is not regulated by an outside entity.|
|Nanny||$$$||✓||X||✓||n/a||n/a||n/a||A person you hire to provide constant child care in the home who generally has a set schedule and will often complete other household duties as you have agreed upon like running errands, cleaning, and cooking.|
|Au Pair||$$$||✓||X||✓||n/a||n/a||n/a||A person you hire to live in your home with your family to provide child care in exchange for room and board.|
Families choose care for their children based on their needs, many of the options listed in this chart may meet a family’s needs but may not be monitored by DPHHS through child care licensing.
Finding Potential Child Care Providers
Because not all child care options are available in every area, it is important to identify what options are available to you. Start with a broad search of child care options and then narrow your options based on your preferences and their availability.
There are many ways to find a child care provider. One common way to start your search is to ask friends, other parents, relatives, and other trusted adults like your pediatrician for recommendations on which child care providers they would recommend. Listening to what trusted others have to say about child care providers can help you determine the child care providers that have a good reputation and would be worth your time to consider.3 Asking those you trust is a good way to receive honest, unfiltered feedback on various child care options.
Looking for a child care provider in Montana? Check out the Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies at: https://dphhs.mt.gov/hcsd/ChildCare/ChildCareResourceandReferral.
This website is available to help Montana families identify child care options in their area, determine the child care providers that have openings, the cost, and any special services offered.
Other online search resources available are websites such as the National Association for Family Childcare (NAFCC)4 (the accreditation agency for home-based childcare/family child care) or the National Association of Childcare Resources and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA),5 which is a nonprofit agency that provides information, referrals, tools and resources for affordable childcare.6 These websites also provide information on childcare regulations.
Montana offers a Best Beginnings STARS to Quality Program, which is a voluntary quality rating and improvement system for early childhood education in Montana. For more information about the Best Beginnings STARS to Quality Program and to find a STARS Program for your child, visit: https://dphhs.mt.gov/hcsd/childcare/stars.
Narrow the List by Asking Questions
After assessing your child care needs and researching available options in your area, it is time to start a conversation with a few of your top choices. Asking a lot of questions and making a visit to the child care location in person can provide you with the information you need to make a good decision for your child.
It can feel awkward to start a conversation with a potential child care provider and to ask lots of questions, but this is an important step toward building comfort and confidence in making a decision that is right for your child. A provider should not seem defensive or become upset by your questions.
You could start by explaining why you are calling. You could say: “Hi, I’m____. My son is 3, and I am exploring a variety of child care options for him.”
You could also add what interested you in their services. You could say, “I found your services through a friend of mine, and you came highly recommended” or “I drive by your location on my way home from work, and your facility looks really inviting.”
Ask if you could visit with them and if now is a good time, or if there would be a more convenient time to visit. You could say, “I appreciate you taking time with me. I am feeling excited/nervous and have lots of questions to ask you. Is that okay? Would now be a good time to ask some questions? Would there be a more convenient time?”
Once you have started a conversation with a potential child care provider, there are several questions that can help you narrow and select a child care provider. The questions provided here are divided into three sections.
- Questions about the child care provider’s background and approach
- Questions about the environment (if you have selected a child care option outside of your home)
- Questions about safety
Asking the child care provider about their background and approach is a good starting place to get the child care provider talking. You could ask questions like:
- “How long have you been taking care of children?”
- “What interested you in the child care profession?”
- “Do you have specific training in child development?”
- “Do you attend regular training and education as part of your job as a child care provider?”
- “Are you licensed by the State of Montana?”
- Find out more about child care licensing in Montana9 at: https://dphhs.mt.gov/qad/Licensure/childcarelicensing
- “Tell me about your approach to care for children (philosophy)?”
- “What is your approach to discipline?” Ask yourself if this aligns with your parenting approach and beliefs.
- “Do you encourage parents or other volunteers to help at your child care program?” “Are parents free to drop in at any time?”
- “How do you communicate with parents about their children?” Ask yourself: “Do they have a regular and structured way of communicating with parents or is the communication unstructured like at drop-off or pick-up times?”
- “Would you mind walking me through a typical day for the children?”
- As they talk about a typical day, consider things like: “Are they describing a routine that includes both structured and unstructured time built into the child’s day?” “How would this day feel for your child?”
- You could follow this question with:
- “Are the children allowed to choose different options based on their preferences?”
- “Do you allow TV or screen time?”
- “What happens if my child is tired and needs a nap but it’s not during the designated rest/nap time?”
- “What if my child refuses to nap/rest, what would they do instead?”
- “What would you do if you were really frustrated with my child?”
- “Do you have a program packet that talks about your policies and procedures?”
- “What is your cancellation policy?”
- “What is your sick child policy?”
- “What is your vacation policy?”
Some additional questions will be necessary if you are placing an infant in child care. Ask:
- “How often are infants held?”
- “How long do you typically allow an infant to cry before attending to them?”
- “How often are infants left alone in a crib or other infant seat/swing/device?”
An in-person visit is vital to getting a clear picture about whether this child care provider is a good fit for your child.9 The following questions are reflection questions to ask yourself. It is not necessary to ask these questions directly, but they are intended to help you process what you have observed in the environment during your visit.
- “Would I want to be here?”
- “Does the space feel comfortable and inviting?”
- “Does the space feel organized and clean?”
- “Are there designated play spaces that are age appropriate?”
- “Is there a safe outdoor play area? Natural sunlight? Windows?”
- “Do the toys and equipment appear to be clean and in good working condition?”
- “Is there a designated space for each child to have their own place for sleeping and storage for their belongings?”
Observe others. Watch the interactions between the children and between the staff and children.
- “Are the interactions between staff and children positive?”
- “Is the staff attentive to each individual child’s needs and personality?”
- “Do the children look happy, clean, and well cared for?”
- “Do the staff act as if they want to be there?”
Questions About Safety
Safety is essential to assuring that your child is well cared for when you are away. Consider questions about health, supervision, and the environment.
- “Is the staff CPR and First Aid certified?”
- “Are there health requirements for staff such as TB Testing before employment?”
- “Are vaccinations required in order to be a part of the child care facility? For children? For staff?”
- “Do you have a process for teaching good hand hygiene? For example, after wiping noses, changing diapers, etc.?”
- “Is smoking/ vaping allowed among staff?”
- “Is there a policy about staff using cell phones? Taking photos? What is it?”
- “Do you provide meals or snacks?” “Do you follow specific guidelines for meals/ snacks?”
- “How do you handle food allergies?”
- “What are your procedures for administering medication/ sunscreen/ etc. to children?” “Are any over the counter medications given to children?” “What is your procedure?”
- “Do you have a sick child policy?”
- “Are the children supervised at all times?”
- “Do you follow the State of Montana child to staff ratios?”
- “Are there other adults (staff) who will be caring for my child?”
- “Are there other adults (not staff) or older children that will have access to my child?”
- “Do you require background checks for all staff? Volunteers?”
- “Can you provide me with references that I could contact?”
- “What are the specific rules that you teach the children?”
- “What is the drop-off/ pick-up procedure?” “Do you have procedures for knowing who is allowed or not allowed to pick up my child?”
- “Do you have a process for storing cleaning supplies, sharp objects, or medications away from children?”
- “Are specific areas locked?”
- “Are the outlets covered?”
- “Are there gates on the stairways?”
- “Does the neighborhood, where the child care facility is located, feel safe?”
Throughout the entire process of selecting a child care provider, remember to listen and follow your gut or intuition!10
Make a Decision
After visiting with the child care provider and making an in-person visit, it is time to decide which child care option is best for your child. Reflecting on the following questions can help organize your thinking and assist in your decision-making process.
- “How do I feel after visiting with the child care provider?”
- “How do I feel after visiting the physical space?”
- “Do the answers to the questions I asked generally align with my parenting values?”
- “Was there anything alarming?”
- “Are there any questions I need to follow up on?”
- “Do I have additional questions?”
Once you have decided, discuss the next steps with the child care provider you have selected. Remember, open communication is essential when working with your child care provider. The relationship you are building between yourself and your child care provider is essential to providing your child with the best experience.
Next Steps: Prepare Your Child to Transition to a Child Care Provider
You’ve thoughtfully researched all your child care options and selected the child care provider that is right for your child. Your next steps are to prepare your child for what to expect and to make a smooth transition to a child care provider. Depending on your child’s age, having a new child care provider can be scary and upsetting for your child. This is not uncommon. There are ways to help make the transition easier. Here are tips to prepare your child before they go to a child care provider, when the first day arrives, and when the first day is over.
Tips: Before Your Child Goes
- Talk early and often. Talk to your child about what to expect on their first day with a child care provider. You could say something like: “Your first day starts next week. I’m so excited for you! Here are some of the things you will get to do that day…” or “I know there will be other children there; you will get to play with the blocks and maybe sing some songs. Your day will go really fast, and I’ll be there to pick you up in the afternoon.”
- Arrange a visit. Make introductions and visit the child care program to familiarize your child with their new child care provider and surroundings. You could say, “Tomorrow we are going to go to your school and meet your teacher.” A pre-visit is a good way to prepare your child and to calm any fears or concerns they might have.
- Get your child excited about their first day by allowing them to pick out their favorite book bag, stuffed animal, or a family picture to bring with them.
- Start your new routine early. If possible, prepare yourself and your child with your new routine before it begins. For example, if you must get up earlier or do things differently than you normally do, start doing those things as practice before the day arrives.
Tips: When the Day Arrives
- Be positive and confident when dropping your child off with the new child care provider. Your child will sense your feelings. Remember, you have spent time and carefully considered your child care options. Feel confident in your choice and share your confidence with your child.
- Don’t sneak away when your child isn’t looking. Be honest and tell them you are leaving and provide reassurance that you will be back. Try not to linger too long; many children adjust quickly once their parents are out of sight.
- Even though you have prepared your child, it might not go as smoothly as you had hoped. Your child might cry or hold on to you to convince you to stay with them. If this happens:
- Take a deep breath to calm yourself.
- Get down on their level so that you can look them in the eyes and provide reassurance that you will be back. You could say, “I know this is a new experience, and new experiences can be a little scary, but I know you can do it. I am going to leave now, but I will be back to get you.”
- You could also enlist the child care provider’s help to direct your child’s attention to something when you leave.
Tips: When the First Day Is Over
- When you pick up your child, check in with the child care provider and discuss how the day went. Open and on-going communication with your childcare provider is important! You could say, “I would love to hear how the day went for my child.”
- Check in with your child. You could say, “I am so excited to hear how the day went for you. Tell me all about it.”
- Stop by unannounced at various times in the coming weeks and months.
- Be your child’s advocate. If an issue arises, addressing it early is best.10
Selecting a child care provider takes time and thoughtful consideration. The questions and reflections in this document can make the process easier and bolster your confidence that you have selected the right child care provider for your child. Download and print the at-a-glance resource highlighting key information for Selecting a Child Care Provider and Preparing Your Child to Transition to a Child Care Provider.