Choosing a quality program

Let’s face it-- trying to find child care is not a leisurely experience. You usually need to find a program that is available immediately, affordable, and close to your home or work. But it is definitely worth the extra time to find the right program for your child.  In addition to knowing that the people caring for your child will treat him/her as you do, it’s important to know how they will help your child learn. The time your child spends away from you is also very important for their development.


When you choose a quality child care/early learning or afterschool program:

  • Your child is safe and secure while you are at school or work.
  • Your child’s teachers support and challenge your child to explore and learn new things.
  • Your child learns important academic skills like language and numbers, as well as how to play well with others and follow directions.
  • You and your child feel supported.
  • Your child is more likely to be ready for kindergarten, do well in school, graduate high school and go to college.

So where do you start?

  • Start early. Many good programs have waiting lists, so you may want to start looking before he/she is even born! The best time to sign up for pre-kindergarten or kindergarten is in the spring (March – May) before the school year you want him/her to start.
  • Think about what kind of atmosphere you want. Would you like someone coming to your home – called home visiting programs – to work with you and your child? Or would you rather enroll your child in a program? Regulated child care programs can be in someone’s home – called family child care programs, in centers, schools, or other buildings.  
  • Use quality guidelines, such as the Keystone STARS program. You may want to start your search with Keystone STARS programs in your area. Child care programs with a Keystone STARS rating are ranked from one to four, with four signifying the highest quality. These programs have to meet state regulations for health and safety and have no serious violations.

    Keystone STARS measures the things that you care about for your child (qualified teachers, curriculum and activities that support your child’s active learning, and ways to support families.) Visit Pennsylvania’s Promise for Children for more information on Keystone STARS.

    To learn more about quality guideliness, including Keystone STARS, and the GreatPhillySchools quality bar click here
  • If you want to talk with someone to help decide what services are best for you, contact your county’s Child Care Information Services (CCIS) office. You can talk to a parent counselor over the phone or meet in person. They can help you understand all of the options available in your area.
  • Plan to visit at least two programs and take your child with you when you go. You can get a feel for the atmosphere and if your child is comfortable there.

What should you look for?

Some things are a matter of preference – what you like or don’t like – such as choosing between a family child care program and a center. But others definitely affect your child’s safety and what he will learn while he is there.


Here are key things to look for when visiting a child care/ early learning program, or use this checklist to record your observations:


Your child is safe and secure.
When you trust your child to someone else, you want to be sure that both you and your child feel safe.

  • Programs meet their regulations and have their certificate posted. Depending on the type of program, they may follow state and/or federal regulations.
    • Child care programs are regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.
    • Head Start programs are regulated by the federal government.
    • Preschool or pre-kindergarten programs can be regulated by either the Department of Public Welfare, registered with the Department of Education, or regulated by the organization that runs them.
      (TIP: Ask the program who they are regulated by and if they’ve had any complaints or violations. Complaints and violations for DPW-regulated child care programs are posted on the state’s COMPASS website)
  • Staff are trained in CPR and first aid.
  • The facility is clean and orderly.
  • There is an emergency plan and is it clearly posted.
  • Hazardous materials are locked away.
  • Staff follow regulations on handwashing, diapering and preparing food.
  • Staff have been trained in preventing, recognizing, and reporting child abuse.
  • The program has an open-door policy where you can visit any time you want.


There are good teachers and specialists that support you and your child.
Your child’s teacher shapes his/her whole day, and affects who your child will become. The quality of the teacher is one of the most important pieces of a child care/ early learning program.

  • You and your child get along well with the teacher or home visitor. You feel that you can trust the teacher and they respect and include you in your child’s development.
  • Teachers have specialized training teaching young children. Because young children develop so many new skills so quickly in the first five years, teaching young children is special; it’s about nurturing, learning what the child can do, and helping the child build new skills on his/her own path. It’s important that your child’s teacher has some education in child development or early childhood education, like a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or college degree. If you are looking for an afterschool program, teachers may have a Pennsylvania School-Age Professional credential. Keystone STARS programs must meet teacher education requirements based on their Star level.
  • There is consistency and the teachers stay. Your child will love his teacher, and will get stressed if the teacher leaves. It is better for your child if teachers stay longer. Ask the program if they have low teacher turnover.
  • Teachers and home visitors encourage children to safely explore and try new things. Children are comfortable, happy, and involved in the classroom. If there is a conflict or a child needs to be disciplined, the teacher handles this in a positive manner.


The atmosphere is kid-friendly with learning areas and activities that are right for your child’s age and development. 
Young children learn by exploring and using many skills at once. Classrooms need to be designed to fit them with activities that work best for them.

  • Everything is at kid level. There are learning stations, books and activities that are not too easy or too hard for the children in the class (called “developmentally appropriate”).
  • The teacher has a daily schedule and curriculum based on the Pennsylvania Early Learning Standards. The standards show what skills children should be building at different ages with tips on how to help them grow.  By planning activities around the standards, the teacher is helping your child reach kindergarten ready to learn.
  • The teachers take time to see how each child is doing and check the child’s progress throughout the year using an “authentic assessment.” The teacher can use these checks to see your child’s strengths and give extra help where your child needs it. The teacher can also share this information with you and together brainstorm ways you can help your child at home.
  • The class sizes are small enough that teachers have time to work one-on-one with your child throughout the day. For child care programs, state regulations for group child care homes and child care centers require.
    (TIP: If the classroom has children of different ages, or a mixed-age classroom, the ratios are a bit different.)
    • one staff person for every four infants (1:4)
    • one staff person for every five 1-2 year olds (1:5)
    • one staff person for every six 2-3 year olds (1:6)
    • one staff person for every 10 3-4 year olds (1:10)
    • one staff person for every 12 children in Kindergarten- 4th grade (1:12)
    • one staff person for every 15 children older than 4th grade (1:15)
  • If you have a home visitor, she should provide activities that are appropriate for your child. Many home visitors will bring books and toys with them.

Making your choice is just the beginning.

It’s very hard to pick a program based on a phone call or short visit. You will get a real feel for the program after your child has been there for a few weeks.

  • Once you’ve made a decision, try to make a few “surprise” visits at different times during the day to see how things are going. Many programs will schedule a meeting with you within 45 days of your child’s enrollment.
  • Ask your child how he/she is feeling. Is he excited or sad about going back each day? All children will need time to get used to the new routine, but if they seem unhappy about going back every day after the first few weeks, talk to the child’s teacher.


For more information on how child care, Head Start, and pre-kindergarten programs are regulated, Keystone STARS, and free or low-cost education programs for young children, visit Choose a quality program from Pennsylvania’s Promise for Children.


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