Quality child care can include many different features. Researchers have found that certain features of a child care program directly affect the care that children receive, and have labeled those features quality indicators. Here are some of the most well-documented quality indicators for child care programs.

Low adult-to-child ratios

Research has shown that children benefit from child care settings where the adult-to-child ratios are small, meaning that one adult is caring for a smaller group of children. When the adult-to-child ratio is low, caregivers are better able to be stimulating, responsive, warm, and supportive. Caregivers also tend to be less restrictive with children in smaller groups, to spend less time managing your child, and to spend more time nurturing your child's developing skills.

In most states, the child care licensing regulations set maximum adult-to-child ratios and group sizes. But those ratios are often too high for adults to provide high-quality care for all children. Look for programs that consistently provide low adult-to-child ratios.

Small group sizes

Children are more likely to receive responsive care in smaller groups. If your child is an infant, ask whether the program assigns your child to a primary caregiver who gets to know him well and helps him build a secure relationship.

Look for the following ratios and group sizes for children of different ages:

If your child is Look for an adult-to-child ratio no higher than And a group no larger than
15 months or younger 1 adult for every 4 infants 8 infants
16 months to 35 months 1 adult for every 6 children 12 children
3 to 5 years 1 adult for every 10 children 20 children
6 to 12 years 1 adult for every 15 children 30 children

Qualified caregivers

The background, education, and style of the caregiver contribute to a program's quality. Especially for children ages 3 and older, the educational level and formal training of the caregiver makes an important difference in the quality of care your child receives. Caregivers with more specialized education and training are better equipped to provide a developmentally appropriate curriculum with activities and materials that stimulate your child's development.

Above all, find a caregiver who is responsive to your child's individual needs. Look for a child care provider who is attentive to what and how your child communicates. Caregivers who pay careful attention to your child's communication will understand her better, and will be better able to meet her individual needs. A child whose caregiver is responsive builds a basic trust in that caregiver, and that trust gives the child courage to explore and learn.

Safe and well-organized environment

The physical setting also affects the quality of care your child receives. Look for a child care program that is clean, neat, and organized into learning centers. Children should have opportunities to choose toys and materials themselves whenever possible. Watch out for safety hazards. Make sure children's toys are clean and well-maintained, especially if your child is still at the age where everything goes in her mouth!

What's accreditation all about?

Some child care programs choose to go through an accreditation process. Accreditation is a mark of distinction that shows that a program has achieved a high standard of quality child care. Accreditation is a voluntary process that requires a lot of work for the program. Child care programs go through a self-study, submit paperwork, and have an outside observer visit their program to look at its quality. Only a small number of child care programs achieve accreditation. If the program you are considering is accredited, you have some evidence that they can provide high-quality child care. (Keep in mind that programs can change. It's still important for you to visit the program and ask questions before making a decision.)

Child care centers are usually accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)or by the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (NECPA). NAEYC also has a searchable database of accredited programs in your area.

Family child care providers can also receive national accreditation through the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC). NAFCC also has a searchable database of accredited family child care providers in your area.

Proceed to the next section: What types of child care are available?