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Five Questions to Ask When Seeking Quality Child Care, Preschool

National Louis University’s McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership Explains What to Look For

PACE alum Amanda Leftwich working in the Laurance Armour Day School (LADS) at Rush University Medical Center.  

Science is discovering the enormous learning power of infants' and young children's brains, but how can parents nurture their child's potential?

Choosing the right preschool, child care center, or family child care provider can go a long way toward that goal.Teri Talan, Ed.D., JD, offers advice on the criteria parents should seek. For example, what is the difference between licensing, accreditation and quality rating systems, and why this is so important for preparing a child to succeed in school and life?  

Talan is the Michael W. Louis Chair of the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University, Chicago, Illinois. The McCormick Center is a national authority on early childhood education and promotes best practices in early childhood education for teachers and leaders of the programs.

Whether parents are visiting preschools and child care fairs or researching early education options online or by phone, Talan recommends asking these questions and also making a personal visit to get a feeling for the early learning program.


1. Is your program licensed, accredited, or quality rated?


Licensing, usually at the state level, is the minimum level of quality you should accept in a child care center or home. It simply assures the program meets state health and safety standards on such topics as minimum staff qualifications, emergency procedures, food safety, sanitation, and teacher-to-child ratios.  

For higher quality, seek a program that is both licensed and accredited. There are two national accrediting associations for child care centers, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Accreditation Commission (NAC), and one national accrediting association for family child care, the National Association for Family Child Care.

Most states (or counties) also have Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) which provide objective ratings of early learning programs based on quality criteria such as learning environment, teacher-child interactions and program administration, as well as teacher and leader qualifications. For example, Illinois has the statewide ExceleRate Illinois QRIS; Florida has several QRIS with standards that vary by county.

Both accredited and quality-rated programs participating in QRIS require that the teachers and directors have education and specialized training in child development and early education. Directors need to have specialized knowledge and skills in program administration as well.  Some teachers even have specialized credentials, such as an infant-toddler teacher credential. Teachers with this credential know how to best encourage and guide babies to develop their full potential.

Other indications of a high-quality program include: meeting Head Start or Early Head Start Performance Standards or, in Illinois, being a Preschool for All program, funded by the Illinois State Board of Education.


2. What curriculum is being followed? Does it align to state early learning standards?


“Research has shown programs with an identified curriculum are higher quality,” Talan said. “There’s intention, reflection, and alignment with state and national standards with the use of a curriculum.”


3. Does the program director have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and specialized training in program administration?


Administrators are critical to early learning because they hire, support, and retain good teachers, build strong family partnerships, ensure fidelity to quality standards, and create an organizational culture of continuous quality improvement.


4. Do the teachers have education and training in early learning? Do they hold state or national credentials that demonstrate their competency?


The final question is really an outcome of all of the other questions:


5. What’s the turnover rate for your teaching staff?


A low turnover rate indicates that the early childhood program is a good place to work.  This suggests that teachers are supported, valued, and fairly compensated. When this is true, it will be a good place for your child as well. A consistent, caring teacher provides the secure foundation for your child’s learning.


Finally, visit the program, meet the director and spend some time observing the children and teachers interacting in the learning environment.

“Are the children happy, engaged, laughing and talking?” Talan asked. “Is there a sense of warmth and affection? Or are there children who are restless, bored and wandering around with no attention being paid to them? Think about whether your child would feel welcome and supported.”


Find out more about National Louis University's McCormick Center for Early Childhood Education.

Learn about Illinois' ExceleRate quality rating.

Photo caption: Amanda Leftwich, a graduate of the P.A.C.E. program at National Louis University, is shown interacting with toddlers at her teacher's aide position at the Laurance Armour Day School (LADS) at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago.



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