What is high-quality child care?

Published on Monday, 05 December 2016
Last updated on Friday, 17 December 2021

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Most families looking for care understand the importance of identifying and securing a spot in an early childhood education and care service which provides high quality care.

Although this seems like a no-brainer, if you are a first time parent with no real experience with child care providers it can be hard to determine what high quality care actually is.

Is it the shiny new purpose built centre with all the latest gadgets? Is it the lovely home based carer down the road? Or is it the well-worn community centre with staff who have been there forever?

Chances are high quality child care can look like any combination of these things and you and your child will be the best judge of what high quality is for your particular family.

Having said that usually the best way to judge how good a service is, is to go along and spend some time there. This article by Eva Cochran, Mon Cochran and Nancy Torp from Cornell University, College of Human Ecology offers some valuable pointers on what to look out for when you visit a service.

Quality of care is not related to where the care is offered but to how it is offered. It is difficult to provide high-quality care in an environment that is dirty, the equipment is in poor repair, toys are scarce, and space is cramped. But poor quality care can be—and too often is—delivered in beautifully designed settings with all the toys and materials your child could wish for.

Defining High-Quality Child Care

Our definition of quality mixes what researchers, child care providers, and other parents have learned together with a solid dose of common sense, drawn from our many years of personal and professional experience in both child development and child care. Searching for the best way to explain the meaning of quality, we found ourselves coming back to four basic words and phrases:

  • caring and tuned in
  • respectful
  • safe and secure

Caring and Tuned In

These two qualities work together. A caring and tuned-in provider is one who:

  • listens to and is aware of the child's communications, both verbal and nonverbal.
  • watches for clues to how the child feels and picks up on those clues as she interacts with the child.
  • attends to the children all the time and does not spend time chatting with other adults.

The tuned-in, caring provider is not afraid to show physical and verbal affection but is not overly effusive. They can simultaneously hold one child in her arms, listen carefully to a second who is tugging at their sleeve with a question, and watch a third struggle to accomplish a task, ready to assist if the child gets too frustrated. This person does not need to say they like children because their feelings are clear. The warmth is obvious, and they spend most of their time directly interacting with the children.


Many adults do not respect young children. They are not particularly interested in children, and this attitude shows in their tendency to ignore children. Unfortunately, some people who work in the child care profession fit into this category.

The traditional assumption has been that all women love children and that all have a natural ability to be good child care providers. Both assumptions are myths. Many women and men who love children do not have the patience or the skills to be great early childhood teachers and educators.

The capacity to listen to very young children and to understand the ideas they are trying to express is central to showing respect for them. Listening and responding sensitively shows real consideration for the feelings and needs of the child. Children feel valued when they receive such undivided attention.

A respectful educator values children's ideas, is considerate of their feelings, and demonstrates high regard for them through her warm and affectionate manner. Teachers and educators who can appreciate children in these ways often show the same respect toward the parents and co-workers they interact with.

Safe and Secure

Everyone agrees that safety and security are the foundations of high-quality care. Your child has to be physically safe as well as feel emotionally safe, both with the educator or teacher and in the child care environment.

All rooms must be clean and uncluttered and free of hazards such as uncovered electrical outlets and poisonous chemicals. Furniture, materials, and toys should be age-appropriate. For example, the toys within reach of infants and toddlers, who put everything in their mouths, need to be large enough so that the children cannot choke on them.

The outdoor environment must be inviting and secure, safe, easily accessible, with age-appropriate outdoor equipment and lots of space for running and other large motor activities.

The play area must be enclosed, either by a fence or a natural border. The outdoor space should be designed so that the supervising teacher or educator can observe all the children at all times to be sure they are safe.

Emotional safety is more difficult to evaluate during a short visit. Emotionally safe children dare to explore and try out new things. They are spontaneously affectionate with their educator and each other. If they have done something they were not sure they were allowed to do, they don't hesitate to admit it and accept the consequences. These are ways children show trust and confidence that their educator's or teachers are really concerned about them and will help them through the day in a caring, affectionate fashion.

A good way to ensure the safety and wellbeing of your child is to make unannounced visits to the service he or she attends. A high-quality service will encourage you to visit unannounced at any time. In addition, you need to tune in to your child's feelings and moods on the way to and from the service so you can be as aware as possible of how emotionally safe your child feels there.

Staff Qualifications and Practices

For Infants

Although the qualifications and experience of child care staff are important for all age groups, they are particularly important for the care of infants. Your infant needs lots of love and attention in order to develop optimally. Consistency and emotional support are essential, along with good physical care and a safe, healthy environment. Before you even visit the infant room for the first time to observe the staff in action, spend some time with the director learning about the educational backgrounds of the staff and how long they have been working there. The director can also tell you whether they have been attending workshops or other continuing education opportunities to keep their skills and knowledge up to date.

Ideally, staff  should have a background in early childhood and practical experience in working with young children. Providers who work with infants also need knowledge of infant development, health, and nutrition.

The first thing to look for in an infant care provider is the way she interacts with the babies. Does she respect each infant as a unique person, seeming to understand that each baby is different from the others? One infant may need to be held quietly, while another really likes to be bounced around, and a third might not want to be touched much at all. Does she take time to observe the infants and take her cues from what she sees, or does she follow her own adult routines without regard for how the baby is feeling? Is the educator in tune with the babies rhythms? For instance, does she listen to a baby vocalising, respond with a sound or a word, and then wait for the baby to coo or chuckle again? Does she interact with the quiet babies as well as those who are nosy and attention seeking?

Educators of infants must spend a lot of time on routine things like feeding, changing nappies, and putting babies to sleep. They should also read to the infants, play games like peek-a-boo and "This Little Piggy," sing, hand toys and receive toys back, and simply hold children in their laps and converse with them (not just talk to them).

The educators should encourage older babies to move around by organising the space so that they can safely pull themselves to their feet and walk around holding on to furniture and larger pieces of equipment. Different toys need to be added as the babies grow older—toys that link cause and effect (like jack-in-the-box) and small baskets with a few blocks or other items that the children can dump out and then refill. 

Mobile infants like push-and-pull toys, balls, and large wooden trucks and cars. A child care service that provides this range of toys is well prepared to promote the optimal development of your child. When you observe staff in the infant room, you should also look for some basic care routines. Carers should hold the babies and talk softly to them as they give them their bottles. Babies should also be talked to while their nappies are being changed, as they are rocked to sleep (a lullaby or soft humming would be appropriate), and when they are lying on the floor on a blanket, exploring a rattle.

Check that the educator washes her hands and cleans the changing table after each nappy change. High chairs, toys, and other equipment also need to be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Remember, risk of infection is a significant concern with centre-based care. One way to reduce that risk is through scrupulous hand washing and frequent cleaning.

Plan to set aside at least two hours the first time you visit a centre just to observe the work of the educators who would be responsible for your child.

For Toddlers

An educator of toddlers has to be an exceptional person because the toddler time is such a special period in a child's life. Toddlers want to be "big" and independent, but they easily crumble and fall apart, needing love and comfort. This is the time of biting and temper tantrums, the age when "mine" and "no" are the two most prominent words in a child's vocabulary. Toddlers have very little control over their emotions and actions. They try very hard to follow your instructions but are often frustrated when they fall short of even their own expectations.

Toddlers are growing rapidly in every way. Their bodies are learning to do many new things, like running, hopping, and throwing. Their language development is amazing. New words are added every day. Yet at the same time they often cannot find the words they need in an emotional moment.

As they grow and learn, toddlers test everyone and everything. Teachers of toddlers have to know all this, and more, to be good educators. They have to understand and appreciate that every child goes through this stage. They also need to be able to pick their battles because toddlers will constantly test boundaries. The solution is not to respond to every challenge but to guide the child firmly in the right direction, toward increased self-control, competence, and self-sufficiency.

To learn more about the teachers of toddlers in a centre you must watch them at work. It is a good idea to observe an educator for at least two hours, longer if possible. You should ask the director about the educational background and experience of the educators. Ideally you want them to have both experience and some theoretical knowledge about toddlers.

For Preschool Children

Preschoolers learn through play. Good early childhood professionals understand that children are not "just playing"; play is their 'job' and the way they learn.

Educators are important in this process because they help children get access to the materials and toys that they need for playing and learning. Educators also guide the children when they don't know what to do next, help them resolve interpersonal conflicts, and teach them how to get along with one another.

Preschool teachers should have both a qualification or considerable training in early childhood education and experience working with children this age. This preparation and experience provide educators with a solid understanding of what three- to five-year-old children are capable of and why they think and behave as they do. The centre director should be able to tell you about the educational backgrounds of the staff members and how much on-the-job training they have had.

Preschool-aged children should be following a predictable daily routine. A written schedule should be posted in the classroom to orient visitors. This schedule can contain some flexibility, but children this age like the feeling of being able to predict what will happen next. Serving snacks and meals at a regular time and having a regular nap time helps them feel secure in their environment.

Some specific things to look for when observing the staff in action in the preschool room:

  • How do the educators handle transitions from one activity to another? Children often become frustrated when they are kept waiting for something to happen. An experienced educator anticipates these moments and eases the tension with a song or an activity.
  • Do the educators sit and work with the children as they explore new activities and try out new skills? Or do they start the children out on projects and then stand back and watch? Adults should actually engage with the children during these activities to give them confidence and ease them through frustrations.
  • Are the daily routines and activities set up in ways that allow children to make choices? If the room is organised into different activity areas, children should be able to choose among those opportunities during free playtime. Having materials and toys stored on shelves that are clearly labelled and easily accessible also helps children choose among various alternatives.
  • Are educators alert and ready to assist children with personal care routines such as eating, going to the bathroom, and dressing if they show need for that assistance?
  • Do you see indications that staff members respect each child's individual needs? Educators should recognise and respond to the unique personalities and particular habits of individual children, and should be careful not to play favourites.
  • Do the educators set appropriate and consistent limits on the children's behaviour? Children and educators can together establish the rules they all need to follow and list them for all to see. The rules should be stated in positive terms (e.g., "We use walking feet inside" or "inside walking!"). "Time out" should be used only if the child needs to calm down and collect herself. The educator should stay with the child during the time out period, rather than leaving her in a corner by herself.
  • Are children treated the same way regardless of special needs, social class, sex, racial background, or ethnic origin? Watch to make sure that they are receiving an equal amount of positive, supportive attention from the educators. Is the classroom set up to accommodate children with special needs? Is the staff expecting the same things of girls as they do of boys?
  • Do the educators/teachers greet the children when they arrive in the morning and then make an effort to integrate them into the play of the children already in the centre? This is a difficult transition for some children, who may need special attention from the educator in order to adjust smoothly to the new environment each day.
  • Watch what happens at snack time and outdoors. Are the teachers actively involved with the children during these times, or do they see these as "time off" periods for themselves?

Good preschool educators are explorers. They delight in "playing along" as the children lead them into worlds of fantasy and imagination. Along the way they assist the children in finding new props for the plays they are creating. They also offer advice when conflicts occur and ask good open-ended questions that help the children expand on their ideas. Look for these interactions. If you see them, you will know you have found a talented early childhood professional.

Good educators are comfortable expressing warmth and caring toward children. They are not afraid to hold or hug or simply touch the children they work with. Ensuring that this need is met for children who spend a large part of their day in a child care setting is especially important. Of course, certain kinds of touching are inappropriate, but preschool children can be taught what kinds of contact are good and what kinds are not right. Educators should feel comfortable scooping children up in their arms and hugging them. Smiles, soft voices, and caring and encouraging words are also a regular part of the child care environment.

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