When Mary Lewis* handed her 16-month-old son over to her new daycare worker, the energetic toddler was greeted with warm hugs and big tickles. The boy’s already beaming face exploded in laughter and Lewis fairly skipped back to her car.
“To say I was relieved is an understatement,” says the Richmond Hill, Ont., mother. “I don’t think there is any anxiety greater than concern about your child’s care. My son’s daycare is his home away from home.”
Like most parents, Lewis had spent weeks researching daycares before finally selecting one. Everything about it checked out —the number of staff seemed more than adequate and all were fully trained. The facility was clean, kid-friendly and bright, the programming ideal.
After a few short weeks, however, things weren’t quite as rosy. The number of children swelled while the staff dwindled, and the caregivers Lewis did see regularly were not as qualified as she had been led to believe. Less than a month after enrolling her son, she withdrew him. “I didn’t want to; in fact I couldn’t imagine going through the exhausting ordeal of finding daycare all over again,” she says. “But I felt I had no choice.”
Finding the right daycare is one of the toughest tasks parents face, and once you’ve found one you’re happy with, it’s easy to let down your guard. The fact is, the majority of the approximately 10,000 licensed child care centres in Canada (including both home- and centre-based) are doing a good job of caring for their young charges. But even the best slip up occasionally. While provincial licensing ensures that facilities have met minimal health and safety requirements, that licence is no guarantee of consistently optimal quality, says Bronwen Lloyd, an early childhood development officer with Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services.
So how do you ensure that your “really great daycare” hasn’t slipped into the ranks of the just-OK? “It requires constant parental vigilance and ongoing awareness,“ says Lloyd. The following troubleshooting list is a good place to start. Read on for the top ten issues your daycare may be skirting.
When Alice Holland* dropped off her one-year–old son on his first day at a Burlington, Ont., home daycare, she was delighted to find two staff members cuddling and caring for six children. A few weeks later, that small group had grown to 12 without any new staff hired. “What’s worse,” says Holland, “I would frequently pick up Sam at the end of the day and find that the owner had left at nap time, leaving only one teacher on duty.”
Provincial laws stipulate the maximum number of children allowable per staff member—in Ontario, for example, it’s three staffers for every ten babies under 18 months; one for every five toddlers 18 to 30 months; and one for every eight children aged 30 months to five years. However, some experts estimate that breaches of the staff-to-child ratio represent up to one-fifth of all licensing violations. That’s consistent with the experiences of many parents who discover too late that their daycare uses somewhat creative accounting. After spending three days observing one daycare’s practices, Lewis realized that the one-to-three ratio she was promised was actually more like one-to-five. “The staff had staggered hours,” she says. “One of them came in halfway through the morning and another left early in the afternoon. That upset the ratio dramatically for a good chunk of the day.”
The high turnover rate in many daycares can also distort the staff-to-child balance. In The Unofficial Guide to Childcare, Canadian author Ann Douglas puts the rate at about 30 percent. And it’s not hard to understand why, says Lloyd: “I see a lot of burned-out teachers who feel underpaid and unappreciated. That’s why there are so many resignations.”
When Marie Ellis* of Toronto started with her cozy neighbourhood caregiver, her then-one-year-old daughter was cared for by an experienced woman with a degree in early childhood education. In recent months, however, Ellis has found her toddler in the care of an untrained assistant. “She’s a perfectly nice young woman,” says Ellis, “But no one informed me that she had been hired. In fact I was never even introduced to her or filled in on her credentials and experience.”
And credentials count. A recent study, conducted at Rutgers University in New Jersey, links early learning and development with teacher qualifications. Specifically, the study found that three- and four-year-olds learn the most—socially, emotionally and cognitively—when their teachers have four-year degrees and specialized in early childhood education (ECE). These teachers are also more affectionate with children in their care and are less likely to punish them.
“The point for me is that parents should be kept up to speed on staffing issues,” says Ellis. “We should know who’s with our kids and what their qualifications are. Then it’s up to us to make decisions accordingly.”
Linda Condor* enrolled both her two-year-old son and six-month-old twins at a licensed daycare centre in her downtown Toronto community–but only after grilling the centre’s supervisor about a number of issues, including the nutritional content of meals and snacks. “I recall her mentioning menu items that included pasta with cheese and cheese sandwiches. I was appalled to discover after only a few months that my children were being fed a diet consisting mainly of processed foods such as packaged cheese slices and spaghetti out of a can,” says Condor. “And I mean the babies too.”
According to provincial regulations, licensed daycares are required to feed all children balanced midday meals and nutritious snacks; they must also post all menus in a public place. But Condor and Holland both found that the posted menus alternately glossed over or glorified the food actually served. “The menu would read ‘chicken’,” says Holland, “but, in fact, the kids were served frozen chicken fingers. ‘Granola’ was really artificially sweetened granola bars.”
Poor nutrition is high on Bronwen Lloyd’s “needs improvement” list. In her role overseeing dozens of childcare centres, she sees more Jell-O than she is comfortable with. “It’s easy and that makes it good for staff. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it good for kids.”
On a bright day late last summer, Condor was happy to find her four-year-old son in the playground outside his daycare. She was not happy to find peanut shells scattered through the sand and to discover that the daycare worker has left her allergic son’s adrenalin-loaded syringe in his backpack, which was still hanging on his hook inside.
Because a growing number of Canadian children have life-threatening nut allergies, many public and private daycares voluntarily adopt peanut-free policies. But that may not mean the facility is peanut-proofed. “I was dropping my son off one morning and he started digging around in a cup sitting in one of the strollers parked inside the daycare,” says Condor. “The cup was full of trail mix that contained peanuts. Even though there was a huge sign on the door advising parents that the facility was peanut-free, somehow that snack made it past the doors of the daycare.”
Condor’s case is not an isolated one. Studies have found that 35 to 40 percent of kids allergic to peanuts will experience and accidental peanut ingestion at some point within a three- to four-year period. Lloyd says parents must demand that teachers become hyper-vigilant. Condor even arranged for a health-care consultant to visit her child’s daycare to train all of the workers on anaphylactic control and response.
“First it was too rainy, then it was too cold—my son rarely seemed to see the light of day,” says Holland. “There always seemed to be some excuse. One glorious bright, sunny day I was told the children couldn’t go outside because the roofers were working there.” Daycares need to have a minimum amount of play area for each child—in Ontario, for example, it’s 5.6 square metres (60 square feet) of fenced outdoor play area per child, and 2.8 metres (30 square feet) for indoor play. But how frequently that space is used is left to the discretion of childcare providers.
In Ellis’s case, outings were dropped off the centre’s programming entirely—without parent’s knowledge. “My child’s caregiver used to take all the kids to different neighbourhood parks and playgrounds,” she says, “But now they tell me there are just too many kids to properly supervise these outings. I had no idea.”
Ruth Doughty’s* 18-month-old son was happy to attend a home-based daycare with five other children, but Doughty believes his contentment owed much to a television that was on more than it was off. The TV occupied central real estate in the living room and the Toronto mom found it on most mornings when she arrived. “I was told morning cartoons and the occasional ‘rainy-day’ movie were the extent of the television watching,” she says. “But my son started asking for programs I knew nothing about and when I investigated I found there were more ‘rainy-day’ occasions than I was comfortable with.”
The mere existence of a TV in a daycare setting is a warning sign, according to Lloyd, who says the “electronic babysitter’ is often used to provide relief for overworked staff—at the expense of children. “I see one, I walk the other way,” is her blunt judgment call.
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare—you’re at work while your child is being yelled at and forced to sit in a corner. While the incidences of verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of a caregiver are extremely rare, raised voices, public scoldings and those ubiquitous time outs aren’t so uncommon. Finding the dividing line between effective behaviour management and what Toronto parent coach and preschool consultant Alyson Schafer calls the “the blame-shame game” is every child care provider’s responsibility.
Dartmouth, N.S., mom, Lillian Banfield* entrusted her three children to a neighbour with a home-based daycare. Banfield later learned that the caregiver forced each child, including her won, to eat everything on their plates, whether they liked it or not. “If they balked, she accused them of being picky eaters and of being spoiled at home,” says Banfield. “And they were told they’d get no dessert.” That strictly authoritarian style was not how Banfield and her husband wanted their kids handled. “I was so upset that my kids were being forced to do things and weren’t permitted to make their own decisions,” she says. “Years later my eldest son told me he would keep food in his mouth, then run to the bathroom to spit it out. I was appalled.”
Says Lloyd: “Teachers are stressed and tired, so they sometimes go immediately to extremes—like ultimatums, time outs or shouting—instead of taking time to talk, problem-solve and offer choices. I’ve even seen kids kicked out of daycare [for]. The potential for damaging self-esteem is tremendous. We’re not all born with the ability to relate to children—to speak to them in a way that gets results. That’s a special skill.”
It’s a skill parents have a right to expect from their child’s caregiver. Schafer suggests that parents make surprise visits to see their caregiver in action. But even before signing on, Lloyd advises moms and dads to ask for written documentation of discipline policies and, if no such documents exist, to test the staff’s tactics using as many real examples as possible. If the centre’s principles are inconsistent with your own, you’ve got a problem. If the daycare seems unwilling to divulge or discuss them, well, that could be a sign of even bigger problems to come.
When Marcy Barbaro registered her one-year-old daughter with a public daycare in her community and hour north of Toronto, she expected daily reports on how Santana spent her day — her small triumphs, her frustrations. She didn’t get them. In fact, Barbaro finds she has to quiz the caregivers with specific questions to get the information she craves — like what other children her daughter bonded with, what new skills she learned, what made her laugh or cry. “I think feedback from caregivers is essential,” says Barbaro. “The fact is, they’re there and we’re not. As a mother, that’s hard enough to swallow without feeling you have to beg to find out what made you child smile today or what new skills she’s developing.”
Bronwen Lloyd starts counting as soon as she sets foot in a daycare. She, like similar officials in other provinces, is looking for a minimum of seven key “learning areas”, including sand, water, art, books, blocks, puzzles and games and drama (dress-up). The next step, says Lloyd, is to ensure that the activities at each area are age-appropriate. A three-year-old seen playing with toys more suitable for a 12-month-old is a sign that perhaps the facility isn’t upgrading, or even rotating toys, the way they should. “You want children to have exposure to a range of activities so they are motivated on a number of developmental levels,” says Lloyd. “The trick is to ensure that children aren’t under-stimulated and bored. That’s why we’re such big fans of rotating toys—putting old ones away once children have gained mastery over them and bringing in newer, more challenging ones.”
You’re a single parent and your child is only read books depicting so-called traditional families. Or perhaps your child has dark skin and the only dolls in the daycare are fair-skinned. Culturally, religiously and racially diverse children populate most daycares and while it may be unreasonable to expect caregivers to cater to each child individually, parents do have a right to expect sensitivity. That includes encouraging children to share their own stories and avoiding exclusive language. For many parents and education experts alike, reading inclusive books, feeding varied foods and offering diverse dolls and dress-up clothes isn’t just a daycare’s duty, it is a primary step in raising respectful, broad-minded children. “Feeling included is an important aspect of young self-esteem,” says Schafer. “All children have a right to be heard and acknowledged.”
*Names changed by request.
This article was originally published in December 2013.