Last July, in Crystal City, Missouri, a frustrated staffer at the Brain Station daycare center was caught on camera dragging a 2-year-old child by the arm. Despite an ER visit and arm sprain diagnosis for the victim, however, state regulators refused to classify the event as abuse.
There are few things more stressful for parents than finding someone they can trust to care for their child while they’re away. And it’s no wonder: In child-care facilities across the country, dozens of children are injured each year; some even die. And those are just the ones who make the news.
When finding outside care is the only option for parents, choosing the right facility is a decision that cannot be made lightly. And especially in light of local laws that fail to substantiate claims of abuse or mistreatment, ensuring that adequate care is given is critical. We’ve compiled some strategies to get you started.
Step 1: Take a tour of the facility.
Touring a daycare facility before enrolling your child is by far the best opportunity to get a feel for the operating procedures, as well as to explicitly state your expectations of care. “You can be very direct because, as nervous as you might be as parents trying to find the right school for your little ones, you are still the client, and the school may want you as much as you want them,” says Anderson Maestri, the current president of the pre-K through 12th grade Christian Academy of Greater St. Louis and a former executive director of a preschool. “My advice as a director is to be proactive with your school search, and share expectations directly with the ones giving you the tour. The search is a two-way process: both parties are checking if it is a fit.”
Jen Usmanova, co-founder of the online child-care search and review tool CareLuLu, also advises parents to request to see the daycare’s child-care license to ensure that it is current and that “minimum standards are met in terms of safety, teachers’ education and staff background checks.” Ask about teacher turnover rates, she says, because long-term employees provide stability for children, and be aware of the dynamic between the director and staff. “Directors have a great impact over the morale and atmosphere of the entire center or school,” explains Usmanova. “Happy teachers and caregivers generally mean happy kids, so, if possible, see how well the management and teachers seem to get along.”
Finally, says Usmanova, it’s important to spend time talking with the director to see how engaged she is and how accommodating she may be toward you and your child’s needs, including everything from potty-training to food allergies and late pick-up policies. “Your discussion during the tour is usually quite telling of how helpful and flexible the director will be once your child is actually enrolled,” she adds. “Regardless of the issue, as a parent, you want to find a child-care center and staff that will be supportive of you and help you with parenting. If I’m potty training my 2-year-old at home, I sure hope the teachers will continue to potty train at school, even if it means having five accidents a day for the first two weeks. Whatever issues you may have, be sure to bring them up during your meeting with the director to get a feel for what the center’s policies are and how supportive the school and the director will be.”
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Step 2: Monitor changes in your child’s behavior.
While choosing the right daycare may be a difficult and tedious process, keeping tabs on what’s actually happening each day once your child is dropped off can be even harder. And because abuse regulations may not cover what you deem to be inappropriate or unethical staff behavior, the best way to stay abreast of any ill treatment toward your child is to monitor his behavior and attitude. “If a kid that loved going into class started to show hesitance, clinging to parents, I would start to observe if it is a one-time thing or phase, or if it is a pattern,” says Maestri.
According to Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist, other changes to be aware of include unexplained or inconsistent stories about injuries that occurred; sudden aggressive, sexual or defiant behavior; or having repeated physical complaints that don’t seem to have a clear cause, including stomachaches or headaches. Stopping by for an unannounced visit or even volunteering to serve at the facility are good ways to confirm your suspicions and “observe and gauge the reaction of care providers,” she adds.
If the change in behavior lingers and does, in fact, indicate a more pressing issue, Maestri recommends reaching out immediately to the director, preferably via email. “A quick note may be all that you need to share a concern without being overbearing,” he explains. “This may help the director see a trend if different parents have expressed similar concerns. For example, if my inbox had emails from three different parents sharing that their children had been bitten, I would immediately start investigating what is going on in that classroom or at recess.”
When it comes to discipline, especially, catering to the individual preferences of each parent may be impossible for a facility that serves hundreds of children. But Maestri still believes it is possible for parents to have their concerns addressed. “Sometimes a teacher may be a little more hands-on or forceful with how he or she addresses the child,” he says. “In my case, I believe a direct, open communication would be very helpful to delineate expectations. If your child is being man-handled, it may not be classified as abuse, but as a parent, I would prefer a different instructor for my child.”
Step 3: Connect with other parents.
In addition to staying engaged with your child, comparing notes with parents of other children enrolled at the facility can provide yet another perspective into the daycare’s inner workings. “We could call it ‘interparent’ communication,” says Maestri. “Establishing a good relationship with other parents and staff of the school makes it easy to exchange knowledge in regards to safety and things taking place.”
Usmanova agrees and suggests parents ask for at least three parent references from staff. “Calling other parents to get their feedback will likely give you further insight from a fellow parent’s perspective and help you learn something that the school administrator may not have mentioned,” she says. “Be hesitant of child-care providers who are reluctant to give references.”
Finally, says Usmanova, don’t be afraid to go with your gut—both in choosing a child-care provider and investigating whether your child has been mistreated. “If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t,” she says. “Make your decision based on what feels right for you and your family.”