How to choose the right child care service for you

The day has finally come to leave your little one in the care of someone else. Welp! If you choose the right child care service, it will hopefully end up harder for you to adjust than it is for your little one. But how do you know which service is the best for you and your child? 

We spoke to Haylee Dunlop, Operations Manager of the Bright Futures Early Learning Group to find out exactly what questions you should be asking and what you need to look out for when deciding whether a service is the right fit.

There’s a lot to unpack here but as always, we’ve got your back! Here is our five step process for choosing the right child care service:

Step one: Decide what kind of child care service you need

With so many early childhood education and child care services available, how do you know which one you need?

Start by determining the following:

Which days and for how many hours will your child need care?

Which hours of the day will your child need care?

How far are you willing to travel for the right child care service?

How much money can you afford to budget towards child care each week?

Once you know exactly what you need, you can assess the different services available to see which service fits your needs best.

Services regulated under the National Quality Framework (NQF) include Family daycare, Long daycare, Kindergarten/preschool and Outside school hours care. These services are eligible for the Centrelink Child Care subsidy.

Services not regulated under the NQF (but in some cases regulated under other state legislation) include Occasional care, Creches, Mobile Services, and some school holiday care programs. These services are usually not eligible for the Centrelink Child Care subsidy.

Also consider any other informal options available to you including care from friends and family, and nanny or au pair services.

The Starting Blocks website explains the differences between each type of child care service here.

Step two: Find child care centres near you

Once you have determined the type of child care service you need, find child care centres near you.

An easy way to search for regulated child care centres in your area, including their open hours and contact details, is using the Starting Blocks search page.

Regulated services are also rated by their state and territory regulatory authority against seven quality areas:

1. Educational programming and practice

2. Children’s health and safety

3. Physical environment

4. Staffing arrangements

5. Relationships with children

6. Collaborative partnerships with families and communities

7. Governance and leadership

They receive a rating of either:

Significant improvement required

Working towards national quality standard

Meeting national quality standard

Exceeding national quality standard

Centres with an Exceeding national quality standard rating can then apply to be recognised as a Centre of Excellence for outstanding practice, although Haylee points out that this is quite rare and that you shouldn’t rule a service out based on a less than ideal rating.

“Keep in mind that the rating is only a snapshot of the service,” says Haylee. “If you like a service but their rating isn’t what you expected, talk to them about their rating and ask what measures they have put in place to improve. Their answer may surprise you.”

You can learn more about the Assessment and Rating process here.

Step three: Research your top choices and ask all the questions

Once you have a shortlist of centres in your area, it’s time to deep dive into researching each service and asking all the questions.

If you can, arrange to visit the centre and talk to the staff in person, however this may not be possible in 2020, Haylee warns.

“Pre-covid I would have suggested visiting the centre to get a feel for the place before applying, but in the current situation you may find yourself unable to visit the service for a physical tour. If this is the case, you have other options of determining whether the service is a fit for you. To name a few, you can check them out on the Starting Blocks website, look at the centre’s website and social media accounts, speak to them over the phone and then apply based on that information”

If you do manage to organise a centre visit,  Haylee advises to pay close attention to the staff in particular.

“The educators are the heart and soul of the service. A service could have all the bells and whistles, but without passionate, dedicated and happy educators working there, the service can’t deliver quality education and care. Are the staff long term? Do they look happy in their job? Are they permanent or job share? Will they make sure your child feels loved? You need to feel confident dropping your little one off and trusting that they will be taken care of.”

Other questions you should ask:

What are the fees and are nappies, food and any other supplies included?

Is there a fee to be placed on the waiting list?

Does the centre allow you to change your days and are there any penalties for changing or cancelling days?

Are there any other additional costs?

Do they offer additional casual spots beyond the permanent days you’ve booked?

Do they offer an orientation period to assist your child in making the transition from being at home to spending their day with other adults and children?

What foods are provided and how do they cater to the children’s individual dietary requirements?

Can they provide a sample menu?

What are the sleeping arrangements for the children and how do they implement the children’s nap schedules?

What is the process for administering medications?

What is the process if children are unwell or upset?

How does the service support children with additional needs?

Will the same staff consistently care for my child?

How can parents be involved in the service?

What is the policy on parents visiting the centre during the day?

Haylee adds that it’s also important to make sure the centre has clean, well-maintained facilities, a good educator to child ratio and a strong curriculum that focuses on life skills and is holistic (not just academics).

“There has been a huge shift in early childhood education and the attitude towards risky play. As more research comes to light about the benefits of nature play and risky play, there has been a rise in centres adding fire pits to their yard, using real tools for woodwork, doing bush kinder, climbing trees and going on more excursions. On the other end of the spectrum, there are services that take a more conservative approach to education and never leave the centre or introduce risky play.”

She stresses the importance of finding a service that complements your own parenting style, as you may run into problems down the track if your core values don’t align.

Step four: Apply for your top three child care services and for your Centrelink subsidy

Haylee recommends applying for the Child Care Subsidy (CCS) as soon as you begin thinking about using a child care service as the process can take months. “The last thing you want to do after starting a new service is pay full fees until your child care subsidy claim gets approved.”

Knowing when to apply for a Child Care service will depend on your local area. Some areas have an oversupply, however, in many cases, e.g. metro areas, there will be waiting lists for services.

Haylee says high quality early learning services in high demand areas usually have wait times of about 2-3 years, “Our Services have many people who just never get in. It’s a good idea to put your name down early, along with a few other Services you like as backups.”

Step five: Go with your gut and make a final decision

There are a lot of things to consider when finding the right child care service for your family, but Haylee insists the most important factor is what your instincts tell you.

“In the end you really do need to trust your gut and find a service that complements your life and parenting style. Above all things to think of when looking for a service, the most important thing is your child’s happiness. So start with this question: Would my child be happy here?”

Have you found an amazing Child Care Service that other mamas need to know about? Let us know in the comments!

Expert contributor: Haylee Dunlop

Haylee is the Operations Manager of the Bright Futures Early Learning Group, based in Sydney. She is also a mum to her daughter Neve.

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