Choosing the right childcare center for your family can be an overwhelming and daunting task!

There are many great lists of questions to ask during your tour of a center-based program, but they tend to focus on the immediate needs of the family. As a preschool and toddler teacher — and a member of childcare center administrative teams for the past 12 years — I try to explain as much as I can in the short amount of time I speak with a family during a tour. However, sometimes parents ask the age-old questions that can be easily found on our website or in our informational paperwork, and we aren’t able to get to the “meat” of the center.

I spoke with a few colleagues and put together this list of the things we wish people asked us about more often!

Observe the preschool, not just the infant and toddler spaces

In Massachusetts, infant and toddler ratios are among the best in the country. But the preschool ratio jumps quite a bit, meaning there are a lot more children in the preschool and pre-K classrooms with two teachers. While you may be looking for infant or toddler care, take time to observe a center’s preschool space. Ask about ratios for the older classrooms, and get a feel for how that classroom is run. So many families are happy for the first few years and then are surprised — and sometimes dissatisfied — at how different preschool classrooms are. So ask about it early in the process to ensure you’re choosing a center that will work for your family years down the road, not just right now.

Ask about turnover

Be sure to ask about a center’s teacher turnover — specific to each age group — to ensure you have the best long-term picture of the center. Sometimes there may not be a lot of turnover overall at one center, but if all the turnover is happening in one age group, that’s something to look out for!

Teacher turnover is just the beginning of that question — and most parents stop there! Find out about child turnover. How often do children leave the center, and why are they leaving? Are they moving out of the area, or do most children move on to a public school option? What is the process with the local public school? This might be something you don’t need to worry about, but it is good information for your planning (and ours!).

Talk about mixed age groups

In Massachusetts, centers are able to have some rooms licensed for “mixed age groups.” Sometimes parents learn this and think about an infant in a preschool classroom. In reality, a lot of centers use this so they can better transition children into the next age group.  Having a group that isn’t strictly one age allows a more comfortable space for children who are either ready to transition early or need a little extra time.

Transitioning to the next age group can be a tough time for children, so if the center doesn’t have the ability to slow the process, ask them how children transition. Do they move up as they each individually become old enough? Is there one week every few months where children transition as a group? Keep in mind these transitions not only affect the child moving up, they also change the dynamic of the classroom for those staying. When choosing child care, think about some of these longer-term questions!

Do some background research

This one is actually less important in most scenarios. Most of the time, you meet the classroom teachers and watch the classroom, and your gut leads the way. However, it may be worth checking out the findings of the center’s most recent licensing visit. Massachusetts has a database that is available for anyone to view. This includes information about each licensed center and notes about their recent licensing visits.

During a licensing visit, the state licensor takes note of non-compliance. It is important to note that many of these non-compliances are because of a missing signature on a form or a small error that does not impact a child’s health or safety. Knowing how incidents are handled is important as you grow to trust your child’s teaching team. Ask us about these non-compliances and allow us to talk through how we handled them rather than making assumptions.

Choosing a childcare option can be overwhelming, but once you find the right fit, you gain an extended family. You have a whole team of people rooting for you and your child. Resources are abundant in a center, and there’s always someone there to talk you through parenting issues. So while the journey of choosing can be daunting, the rewards are priceless.

Michelle Mady
Michelle is a lifelong New Englander who lives in Stoneham and works in Charlestown. She is a preschool teacher and Assistant Director at a small private preschool and holds a master’s degree in early childhood education, which has come in useful at both work and home. She has a supportive stay-at-home-dad for a husband and is a mom of five children. She has three boys born in 2005, 2007 and 2008, plus two girls born in 2012 and 2015. Michelle teaches infant and toddler classes for early education teachers and is an adjunct professor for The School Of Mom. She also runs her own business, The Parenting Survival Expert, offering parenting tips and support. In her spare time, she can be found reading a murder mystery novel, sipping far too much coffee, and dreaming of a home in the mountains.