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Selected Work by Judy Sklar Rasminsky

How to Find the Right Daycare

The Gazette, Montreal, July 29, 1991
Feature, 1500 words

Summer panic has set in, and the phone is ringing off the hook at daycare centers all over Montreal.

John, a CEGEP teacher, and Liane, a data manager, have just decided to remove their son David, 3 1/2, from his regulated family home daycare. They’ve been dissatisfied ever since David's best friend left and his caregiver replaced him with a baby.

Missing a child his own age, David watches too much television. “When I picked him up on a beautiful day last week I could tell he was chomping at the bit,” John says. “I asked the caregiver, ‘Were they outside today?’ and she looked really sheepish and said, ‘No, the baby wasn’t feeling too well.’

“David has outgrown her. Although she’s very loving, we’ll be shortchanging him if we don’t put him in a more stimulating environment. He’s ready for more contact with other children, and we want him to have some exposure to French.”

Psychologists Diane and Ian lost their sitter when she got a call from the Philippines reporting a death in the family. Hours later she was on a plane. “We were devastated,” Diane says. “We all loved her.”

They coped as best they could, staggering their working hours and hiring temporary help to look after 18-month-old Elizabeth while they waited the sitter’s return. Then they received a letter saying she wouldn't be back.

Though they tried daycare-center care last year and rejected it because Elizabeth was sick too often, they want to try it again. An older Elizabeth should be better able to resist the germs, they reason, and they like the reliability a daycare center offers.

They also like the rich environment. For nurturing an infant, one-on-one care was excellent, but now Elizabeth needs more social stimulation, her psychologist parents believe. “We want her to learn sharing, interacting in a group, the rules of society. She is cognitively ready.”

They’re currently putting their names on waiting lists.

In Quebec, with approximately 130,000 mothers of children under the age of 6 in the labor force and only about 45,000 licensed daycare spaces available, parents who need daycare for the fall are desperate.

Experts advise them to start looking early—during pregnancy for an infant and more than a year ahead for an older child—but this year latecomers are in luck: daycare centers may still have some spaces. (University and college centers like McGill—which had a waiting list of 143 early in July—are the exception. They’re crammed with the offspring of parents returning to school to fight the recession.)

But finding a space is only half the battle, warns Barbara Kaiser, director and founder of Garderie Narnia, a non-profit parent-incorporated center in Westmount. Parents must be sure that it provides high quality care, she says.

In recent weeks television has bombarded us with American daycare horror stories. Closer to home, a daycare child nearly drowned in a city park last year; and the owners of an Otterburn Park pre-school were charged with child abuse.

Every parent’s nightmare, these incidents are actually extremely rare. But just plain bad daycare is not so unusual, and its impact on children can also be substantial, studies show.

To be licensed, Quebec daycare centers must meet requirements enforced by the provincial child care office. But even with inspectors’ visits, rules can't guarantee quality. “Parents who know what to look for will find better daycare,” Kaiser says. She urges them to inform themselves about quality care and then to visit several centers, observing for at least an hour or two.

Filled with toys, puzzles, games, books, art supplies, science materials, sand and water tables, fish, moving vehicles, climbing equipment and small children constantly on the move, daycare classrooms may intimidate parents at first.

It is easy to miss subtle but important elements, Kaiser says. Daycare is not mere babysitting. It should make children feel loved and special, and it ought to nourish and stimulate them to grow physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually.

John and Liane checked out three centers before settling on Narnia, which they liked because of its Westmount Park location and because “it offers the children a lot of creative choice.”

What should parents look for? See if you know what’s wrong with these pictures drawn from actual observations of Montreal daycare centers.

Thirteen 3-year-olds sit in a circle playing an animal-identification game. Hugh, a blond in blue shorts, is crying, but his teacher ignores him.

When an educator has too many children to care for, she can’t give them the attention they deserve. She needs time to talk and listen to each child, to help, to smile, to comfort. No child should ever be left to cry.

For preschoolers aged 3 to 5, experts recommend a ratio of one teacher for every eight children and a maximum group size of 16. For toddlers one teacher to five children, with 10 in a group, is appropriate. And three or four babies are all any caregiver can handle at once, with no more than eight altogether.

Because provincial norms allow a teacher to care for up to five babies, these infant ratios are hard to find in Quebec. A nanny, a sitter like Elizabeth’s, or a supervised family caregiver like David’s—who may look after five children in her own home, but only two babies—usually offers infants more adult contact.

Leaving four older babies to play, the caregiver takes Charlene to the bathroom next door to change her diaper.

The cuteness of playing babies disguises the fact that this caregiver is breaking a basic safety rule: children should never be left alone. Another caregiver ought to help out in the bathroom, or the playroom should be visible from the diaper area.

Other important safety features to note: emergency numbers should be posted, cleaning supplies and medicines locked up, kitchens and stairs blocked off, furniture sturdy, and toys and equipment made of safe materials.

In preparation for nap, an efficient teacher rapidly changes the diapers of seven two-year-olds in succession.

Preventing illness should be a top daycare priority. As Diane and Ian discovered during Elizabeth’s daycare center stay, having a sick child brings heartache, guilt, and lost work days. Proper handwashing can cut respiratory illness and reduce diarrhea by 50 percent.

Teachers should scrub their hands in hot running water and liquid soap after each diaper change, before handling food, and after wiping a runny nose. Diapers and food should always be in separate areas, and all rooms should be spic and span.

It is free play time for the 4-year-olds. Music blares from a ghetto blaster, and most of the children play with blocks, legos or games. Though their hands are busy, their faces are blank. The teachers lean against the walls, watching.

These children do not show any “affect”—meaning they are not actively engaged in what they're doing but are merely going through the motions.

Affect is a sign of high quality care. When teachers love being with kids, their faces, posture, tone of voice, words and actions all reflect their interest in them as individuals, and the children respond with chatter, giggles, enthusiasm, and intense involvement. This is how real learning takes place.

A varied schedule helps. Each day children need both quiet and active play indoors and out, the opportunity to be in a large group, a small group, and alone, and a mix of free play with structured activity. Skilled caregivers make the transitions between activities (as well as bathroom time and mealtime) just as exciting as the activities themselves. “Trust your gut feelings,” advises Wally Weng-Garrety, a Dawson professor of early childhood education. “If you don’t feel comfortable, keep looking.”

Seek centre where staff members have been trained

The director of a first-rate center will welcome questions from parents, says Barbara Kaiser. In addition to hours and fees, the conversation should cover at least these points:

  • Staff training. Research shows that teachers trained in early childhood education or child development provide better care.
  • Turnover. Low staff turnover is another sign of high quality. When more than a quarter of the teachers are new, a center could be in trouble.
  • Profit or non-profit. Though high quality care can occur anywhere and parents should visit each center they’re considering, studies indicate that care is usually better in non-profit centers.
  • Parent involvement. “Daycare is a partnership,” Kaiser says. At a bare minimum, parents must have access to their children at all times. In Otterburn Park, the caregivers didn’t permit parents to enter. Parents should touch base with their child's teachers every day. If they sit on the board of directors, they can help make crucial decisions about policy and money.
  • License. Is it up to date and unconditional? Because Quebec doesn’t regulate preschools except to limit a child’s stay to four hours a day, a family that needs more time may prefer a licensed center where rules about ratio, group size, staff qualifications, safety, and health apply.

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Copyright © 1991 by Judy Sklar Rasminsky. This material may not be reproduced in any manner or medium without written permission. For information, contact jud...@challengingbehavior.com.

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