Every parent’s worst nightmare almost came true for Taj Posey.

Arriving early to pick up her 2-year-old from day care, Posey was surprised not to see her daughter running around outside with the other kids. When she questioned the temporary teacher, she was taken aback: The provider didn’t know where — or even who — her child was. In a panic, Posey was heading toward the main office when she caught sight of her daughter’s blanket hanging oddly from a stack of nap cots. Tugging on it, she realized it was much too heavy: Her tiny toddler was sleeping inside, oblivious to Posey’s shock.

Stories like this one are too common. Searching through all the available options to pick the right day-care provider can be a huge challenge. It’s essential to choose a place that provides not only excellent care, love and education, but also a safe and clean environment. 

How can you tell if a provider isn’t up to par? Watch closely for these 10 warning signs:

1. The day care is unlicensed.

Day cares must be licensed to ensure they offer a safe, healthy and nurturing environment. Each provider must follow the minimum requirements set by the state, and its license should be posted in the facility — if you don’t see one, just ask. You can also search your state’s official website for a directory of licensed providers (for Washington state, click here). Choosing a licensed provider means you know it’s been certified to give the best possible care. Another great resource is the National Association for the Education of Young Children, where you can search for an accredited child-care provider in your area. Although accreditation is not required, it’s a step beyond licensing — a strong sign you’ve found top-quality day care.

2. There’s high employee turnover.

Day cares that do not value employees or treat them well won’t keep staff around for long, and children need consistency with caregivers. They often get attached and look forward to seeing the same friendly faces each day.

3. There are too many complaints.

Always do your research on a potential provider: Search online, read all the reviews and ask as many questions as you can. Go with the day care that other parents can’t stop praising.

4. It’s frequently over the mandated staff-child ratio.

Sometimes you’ll walk in and find a teacher with what seems like a million kids. You might laugh it off and wonder how she does it, but overcrowding is a safety issue. Day cares must comply with the staff-child ratio set by the state (for Washington state, it varies by age); this rule is in place to guarantee that every child gets the attention and care she needs. Know your state’s ratio requirements, and don’t hesitate to ask what the provider’s ratio is.

unhappy kid hiding5. The staff is underqualified.

It’s critical to find a day care that employs fully qualified staff and teachers. Confirm that every employee has passed a criminal background check, and that they all hold current certifications in CPR, first aid and other mandated training. Ask the day-care director how often employee training is offered. What does training entail? Is it required annually?

6. There’s no clear curriculum.

The day care’s curriculum should always be posted for parents to see! Kids need a routine that is age appropriate and offers stimulating activities.

7. The day care is perpetually dirty.

Between active kids, mealtimes, and all that paint and glitter for art projects, day cares can get a little messy. But when you notice dirty conditions repeatedly, move on.

8. You spot safety concerns.

Pick a day care that is safe in every possible way. This includes the facility, toys and smoke detectors. Ask if the staff has proper emergency equipment and a disaster plan (if so, request to see it), stores poisons properly and provides security.

9. The employees have an attitude.

We all have a bad day now and then, but day-care staff must be able to smile and push through it. Employees who don’t engage with you and your child — or just don’t look happy to be there — are not suited for day-care work.

10. The lines of communication aren’t open.

Your day care should send home daily reports and communicate openly and often with you. Ask how the staff prefers to keep in touch with parents: via email, phone or a printed report? Does the provider have a website with regular updates and/or a video feed? Expect to hear positive feedback about your child, as well as any discipline issues. A good day care will be happy to share all the information you request.

Then there’s that intangible warning sign: You just have a bad feeling. As parents, sometimes we know when a situation isn’t a good fit for our kids.

Trust your gut — chances are you’re right.

5 day-care pluses

Now that you know what you don’t want in a day care, here are five indicators that you’ve found a great place.

1. You’re greeted daily by the sounds of happy children and cheerful staff.
2. The day care has more positive reviews than you can shake a stick at.
3. It has clear rules — and always adheres to them.
4. The curriculum is age appropriate, posted in the open and followed regularly.
5. The day care is properly licensed and has no complaints against it.

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