Finding a good day care center for your kids takes time and patience.

Kids in day care centers spend an average of 50 hours a week away from home – more waking time than they spend with their parents. And most parents would agree with local child psychologists Jerry and Lynn Weiss’ assessment of day care’s importance: “The quality of a center can be the determining factor in whether a child is inhibited or curious, depressed or happy, able to socialize normally or withdrawn, trusts adults or is suspicious, and learns easily or feels repressed.”

Unfortunately, finding a center that is compatible with your goals for your children, close to home or work, and within your budget can be an exasperating task. In Dallas alone, 511 centers are listed with the Day Care Licensing Division of the Department of Human Resources, and that’s by no means the whole ball game. You’ll find a variety of private, commercial and church-sponsored centers, many not as good as they should be, but almost all operated for profit and eager to convince you they’re the best.

When you begin the search (if you hope to find a center for the summer, you’ll have to start right away, since the available space will be sewed up by the end of May) you can save yourself hours by first calling the Child Care Information and Referral Service, at 426-5938 or 748-5938. This non-profit agency, funded by a grant from the city’s Office of Human Development, can give you a list of centers within a given area of the city. They also have basic information on each center, including phone number, address, director’s name, fee systems, and special services like transportation and after-school accommodations. Remember, though, that the people at the Referral Service know only what day care centers choose to tell them. And they can’t reveal exact costs or assess a center’s quality.

According to Ann Gabarino, head of the Referral Service and a former day care center director, a couple’s best strategy in selecting a center is to visit as many as possible, revisit the more promising candidates a time or two, and – in all cases – drop in unannounced. “Good directors will encourage this,” says Gabarino. “And the children are used to it. So don’t let anyone tell you you’ll disturb them.” To see a center at its most active, go between 9 and 11 a.m.; by midday the kids will be eating or napping.

Upon arrival, the first thing to look for is an up-to-date state license, on display. This is no guarantee of quality, of course, but at least you’ll know that the center meets state minimum requirements. Then, as soon as possible, find out hours and costs. In Dallas, charges range from $20 to $45 per week; some centers have fixed fees, while others base fees on family earnings. If the center’s budget and schedule don’t suit yours, there’s no point in pursuing it further.


The most important aspect of any day care center is its staff. Do their attitudes toward children coincide with yours? Do they like your child? Does your child like them?

State requirements for staff are minimal. Each member must be at least 18 years old and able to read and write. Or, he may be under 18 if he has a high school diploma or is enrolled in a career program approved by the Texas Education Agency. All staff members are also required to have 12 clock hours of child care training each year. The director must have a bachelor’s degree, a Child Development Associate credential, and an associate of arts degree in child development or a closely related field.

“Look carefully at the child-staff ratio,” says Jerry Weiss. “It should allow for one-to-one relationships between staff and children at some time during the day. It must allow the staff person time to participate with the children and not merely be a coordinator of activities.”

To be licensed, a center must have 1 staff person per 5 infants, ages 0-11 months, or 2 per 12; I staff person per 6 children, ages 12-17 months, or 2 per 14; 1 per 9, ages 18-23 months; I per II for 2-year-olds; I per 15 for 3-year-olds; I per 18 for 4-year-olds; 1 per 22 for 5-year-olds; and 1 per 26 for 6-year-olds.

However, since not every adult can cope with 26 six-year-olds, some children may be neglected and, in extreme cases, abused. (According to Erma Collins, director of the Dallas Day Care Licensing Division, neglect and abuse are the most common complaints concerning the centers.) So watch carefully how staff members respond to the children. Do they talk in soft voices, directly to the children, or yell across the room? Do they seem to have fun with the children, or merely guard them – waiting for someone to step out of line? How do they handle themselves under stress?

Lynn Weiss says that when she and her husband were searching for day care for their two children, she asked one of the staff members, “What do you do when you become angry with one of the children?” The reply was, “Oh, wedon”t get angry. We’re not allowed to.”

“I ran as fast as I could from that school,” says Lynn, “because anyone who is with kids for eight to eleven hours a day feels angry at times.”

Inquire about disciplinary methods. State law prohibits staff members from spanking any child under five years of age. But centers vary – as do families – in their discipline practices. The important point is to have the center’s methods correspond to yours, so the child has consistent care and discipline.

How does the staff handle the transition when you leave the child? Some will tell you to hurry and leave before the child sees you or gets upset – a method that does not aid in building a child’s trust in adults.

To help soften this transition, Lynn Weiss recommends that the parents be allowed to stay awhile with the child, giving him time to adjust to the center. Most children, she adds, particularly those between the ages of one and three, will suffer some anxiety. After a while, you will have to leave despite the child’s protests. She suggests that if the child is upset, the staff should give him extra attention to reassure him he is not being abandoned forever.

Madeline Mendell, Executive Director of the Child Care Association of Metropolitan Dallas, which operates 11 day care centers, suggests that parents keep abreast of staff changes. The turnover is quite high among overworked and underpaid day care workers. She reports that the average salary for staff workers in most centers is minimum wage – “if they are lucky.”

“Every child needs consistent care from a person he has come to know. Otherwise, he may become distrustful of adults.” Also, adds Jerry Weiss, you may find that a new member may not have the same attitudes about child care that the former one did.


All licensed day care centers are required to have 30 square feet of indoor activity space for each child and 80 square feet of usable yard space per child for outdoor play. However, double check that there really is ample room for play.

The center should be child-proof: There should be no open stove burners that are accessible to a child’s curious fingers; the stairs should have handrails or be blocked with a sturdy gate; safety plugs should cover all open electrical outlets; and space heaters should have guard screens protecting them. All medicine and harmful items should be out of reach, if not out of sight.

The center should be clean but lived-in, and well lit. However, be on your guard if every time you visit each toy is in its place. Chances are your child will not be too happy there.

There should be plenty of toys for the children, such as blocks, balls, wheel toys, dress-up clothing, puzzles, climbing apparatus, clay, sand, painting and coloring materials, and books. Make sure the toys are in good shape. They don’t have to be new, but if the wood toys are splintering or the plastic toys are broken, they can be hazardous.

Many centers have plants and small animals that the children are allowed to care for. Animals should be checked periodically for disease by a veterinarian. This is required by state licensing laws.

Is the playground fenced? Does it have a shaded area – a very important specification considering our hot Texas sun. The playground equipment should be in good condition. Also, the outdoor play area should be covered with grass or wood chips, not cement.

If you are leaving an infant at the center, see that each has his own crib and that babies are held when fed and not merely put to bed with a bottle.

Is the center designed for children? It should be colorful and stimulating while providing a relaxed atmosphere. Also, each child should have his own cubbyhole in which to keep his coat and other belongings.

Lynn Weiss adds that when investigating the different centers, you should remember that the amount of money invested in the facilities is not always a valid indicator of the quality of care children receive.

“Some may have beautiful, modern buildings and all the latest Fisher-Price toys; but if the staffers don’t like children, forget it.”


Day care is very different from school. While schools emphasize cognitive training, a day care center’s main task is to make the child happy. “If the average child receives ample affection, he will feel secure enough to learn at his own rate,” says Lynn. “’It doesn’t take much – just a consistent caring attitude.”

The child’s play schedule should not be too rigid. He should be allowed to finish one project before embarking on another. Or, he should be given a warning that painting time, or whatever, is almost over and be assured that he can finish his project later.

The child should be allowed to make some decisions about what he does, and when. Also, suggests Mendell, there should be more time spent on individual interests than group play. Not only does this encourage creativity, but most children do not really interact with each other until they are about five. They engage instead in parallel play – each doing his own thing, side by side.

The children should have daily outdoor play. It the weather does not permit, there should be sufficient indoor space for the children to run and jump and exercise.

And, finally, be sure you are aware of any time restrictions or penalties for being tardy. Several day care facilities have very strict rules about punctuality. Some charge an extra fee, usually a dollar, for every 15 minutes you are late in picking up your child. A few even bar the door if he is late in arriving.

Ideally, the day care center shouldenhance family relationships as well asthe child’s. Don’t let them intimidate youor think they always know best. After all,he is your child.


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