At United Way, we know that learning begins at birth and quality early childhood education programs help children thrive. Young children who attend quality programs go on to do better in school, work and in their personal lives than children who do not. High-quality programs prepare kids for the next several years of school. They also focus on learning and development, and teach kids important social and emotional skills.

With so many child care programs to choose, it can be hard for parents and caregivers to know where to begin. We used information from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) — a group that promotes high-quality early learning for young children — to create a guide.

Ask these questions as you choose an early childhood program for your little ones:

Does the program meet my family’s needs?

It’s important to think about your family’s needs. These are not the same for everyone. For some, a location closest to home, work or a family member’s house is most important. Also ask:
  • Do the hours fit with your work schedule
  • Are the costs of the program affordable
  • Does the program operate year-round
  • Does the program provide meals? If they do, are you comfortable with their nutritional approach?

Does the program meet my child’s needs?

Every child has different needs. Some children have trouble being away from parents or caregivers. Others are more independent. Some children have special needs and require in-class support or one-on-one services. Ask how program staff deals with all of these basic or special needs, and then decide if the policies will work for your child.  

Is the program well-managed?

Great Start to Quality is a resource for parents to search for licensed child care, preschool and school-age-only programs. Its Quality Improvement systems helps parents/caregivers understand where programs (providers) are on as they move through a process of continuous improvement. To find out if the preschool’s license is up to date, ask the school to see it, or contact Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). Also ask:
  • Are staff evaluated each year; do providers do a self-assessment?
  • Are parents and staff asked to evaluate the program?
  • Is the program evaluated each year by someone outside of the program?
  • Is parent feedback welcome and used to make program improvements?
  • How long have the teachers worked at the school? (High turnover rates can be a red flag for unhappy teachers.)

Are the teachers credentialed?

Asking about teachers’ training can give you important information about how prepared they are to help your child learn their best in a safe environment. Keep in mind: Not all staff, like teachers assistants, need to have formal credentials. Also ask:
  • What trainings or degrees do staff have in early childhood development?
  • Did they study early childhood development?
  • Is the head teacher certified in early childhood education? Do they have a bachelor’s or master’s degree?

What is the program’s approach to discipline?

Difficult behavior can be expected with young children — especially as they adjust to new settings. The time before kindergarten is important for teaching young children how to manage their feelings and behavior. To understand how the teachers interact with the children, plan to spend time watching the classroom. Also ask:
  • Do the teachers respond to difficult behavior in a way that you agree with?
  • How do teachers respond if a child hits, bites or kicks?
  • Do they let children work out problems on their own or help facilitate a resolution?
  • Do they use time-outs or other disciplinary techniques?
  • If a child is crying or having a tantrum, how do they respond?

Does the program have policies that help children stay safe, healthy and ready to learn?

Your child’s safety is the most important thing to you, and it should be for the program you choose as well. You can ask:
  • What is the drop-off and pick-up policy?
  • Are children always supervised — indoors and outdoors?
  • How many of the staff are trained in CPR, pediatric first aid, playground safety and nutrition?
  • What is their policy if a child is hurt?
  • What are their immunization policies?

How much are parents expected to be involved?

Programs differ in the level of parent involvement they want or require. Depending on your time and interest, it could be important for you to find out how involved you’re expected to be. Parents should always feel welcome at the program. You should have access to your children at any time. Programs may recommend that you not visit during rest time or other specific times, but you should be able to visit during those times if you choose to.  

What’s the makeup of the classroom?

Classroom size and number of teachers will determine how much individual attention your child will get. Also ask:
  • What’s the teacher-student ratio or adult-to-student ratio (adults in the classroom can include student teachers, teacher assistants or other parents).
  • Is the school divided by age, so teachers work with children of the same age? Or, do they have mixed-age groups, so that young kids can learn from older ones and older kids can mentor and nurture younger ones?
  • Finally, if diversity is important to you, take a look at the mix of kids and ask if it’s a priority for the school.