Selecting a Daycare

My wife and I both work.  As a result, daycare is a part of our lives (and a big part of life for my two-year-old).

My eldest daughter is currently on her second daycare.  Starting in August, my infant (who will then be nearly 10 months old) will start daycare for the first time (she has been under the care of my Mother-In-Law when my wife and I are working).  We wanted both of our girls to be at the same facility and that isn’t an option at our current daycare (they don’t take infants).  So, we set out again on the mission to find the perfect daycare for the girls.

Drawing up the perfect daycare.

Drawing up the perfect daycare.

Base criteria

First, we came up with some baseline criteria that a school must meet in order to be considered — you simply can’t evaluate every school without putting them through a filter first.

Here is the criteria we used:

  • Needed to provide full day care (for me to drop off before work and pick up after).  9:30-12:30 schools are great for giving stay-at-home mom’s and dad’s a break for a few hours, but they are of no help to us.
  • 15 minutes, or less, from either our home or my office (my schedule is consistent, so I’ll be providing transportation a high percentage of the time).
  • Within our price range.  For two kids our absolute ceiling is $2K/month.  Ouch.  That’s a mortgage and a car payment.  This daycare stuff is expensive.
  • Must take infants and (almost) 3-year-olds.  Must be able to guarantee a spot for both in August (some schools had 12-month waiting list for the infant room – Seriously?!  “We are thinking about trying to get pregnant, so we went ahead and got on a waiting list for daycare” – who does that??) .
  • Must provide Georgia Pre-K (Georgia does a fantastic thing with their lotto funds – they provide free Pre-K to anyone who wants it. As long as the school has an official, accredited Georgia Pre-K program (meaning, not a “private school” Pre-K) it is paid for by the state).
  • Must not take the “standard” school holidays off.  One of the biggest issues we have with our current daycare is it seems like every month we are scrambling to figure out how to ensure we have care for our two-year-old figured out during they many breaks the school has.  Very frustrating.
  • For Pre-K, must provide care during the school holidays for a reasonable additional fee.
  • Must provide pre-care and aftercare for for K-5 and provide transportation to/from our Elementary.

The items above should be largely self-explanatory.  The Georgia Pre-K point is a huge deal – essentially it means that we’ll only be bleeding money at roughly $2K/month rate for a year.

With this base criteria in mind, I used the Georgia Pre-K website and Uncle Google to locate and contact a number of schools within the acceptable areas.

We ended up having to scrap the last point because, although transportation to and from elementary schools is something that nearly every daycare I call does, our local elementary seems to actually be located on another damn planet as not a single daycare goes there.

Other than the transportation item, I was surprised how many schools got thrown out for budget reasons.  I went in thinking that $2K was a generous budget that should give us the pick of schools.  Evidently, not so much – not in the North Atlanta area anyway.  I’ll say it again: this daycare stuff is *&#$ing expensive.

In the end, we were able to get a list of over 20 schools down to about a half-dozen “preferred” options that fit our remaining criteria.  There were some others that would be a little less convenient to get to but still an option – we kept those in reserve.

Visiting the Schools

There is a lot that goes into visiting the schools.  We put together a list of items to ask and look for, but a lot of it comes down to your gut feeling: Is this someplace you’ll be comfortable leaving your child(ren) every day??

Not everything in the list below may seem important to you, but it will probably still be worth asking and / or noting.

Things to look out for:

  • When you get to the facility, is the door locked?  Do you feel confident that someone will not be able to walk in off the street?
  • What are your overall impressions of the facility?  Is it in good condition / well maintained?  Is it well lit?
  • How is the playground (do they have half a slide encircled by a barbed-wire fence or is it better than most city parks)?
    • In Georgia, the guidelines say that infants will be outside for at least one-hour per day and everyone else will be outside for at least 1.5 hours per day (weather permitting).  The point is, your kid will spend enough time in the playground for this to matter quite a bit.  If your child is anything like my two-year old, this will be her favorite place to be.
On the playground - She loves that tire swing!

On the playground – She loves that tire swing!

  • Ask to see the infant room, even if you aren’t enrolling an infant.  Are you asked to remove your shoes or put on “footies?”  Does staff remove or change their shoes before entering?
    • In a room where the occupants spend all day crawling on the floor, this is important.
    • Observing how strict the facility is on enforcement of things like this is just as important!  If they allow you (or others) to walk in with your manure-caked, Ebola boots on, what else do they allow to happen in their facility?
    • Another great thing to observe in the infant room – where are the teachers?  Are they down at ground level, interacting with their charges or off doing their own thing?  Again, even if you don’t have an infant, this speaks quite a bit to the culture at the school.
  • What are the kids doing?
    • Look for kids to be actively engaged in an activity.
    • Organized chaos might be okay – chaos is definitely not okay.  One of the schools we looked at, every child was off doing his or her own thing.  The caregivers focused on keeping them in clean diapers and not hurt.  It was bedlam.  We did not select that school.
    • Kids who are engaged in an activity don’t have time to misbehave.
Busy kids are happy kids!

Busy kids are happy kids!

  • Does that staff seem happy?  Do you feel that they genuinely care for the children they are entrusted with?  Or are they disengaged and just trying to get through to quitting time?
  • Is there a television in any of the child rooms?  If so, is it on?  How often is it on?
    • We visited a school once where in one room there were too groups of kids – one group that was sat in-front of a TV and one group that seemed to be running around screaming.  I asked about this and was told “oh, that’s just aftercare.”  So, they had structure, lesson plans, supervision, etc. for their standard classes, but for the aftercare (which was 4+ hours for many of the kids) they had a mayhem space and a zone-out space.    Total BS.
    • I’d recommend discarding any school with a television in a child room.

Questions to ask:

  • How long has each caregiver been on-staff?
    • We asked this question about the rooms/age-groups our children would be going into and the ones they would transition into in the next years (which, was really all rooms).
    • You’ll want your child to have a consistent experience.
    • Also, high staff turnover points to other problems in the facility and should be a huge, neon, waving red flag.
  • What is the ratio if children to staff in each room?
    • Georgia regulations dictate a max of six infants to every one staff.  Once they turn one and start to walk the ratio goes up to eight-to-one.  Obviously, regulations on this vary from state-to-state.
    • Do they stick to the minimum staff required by your state or do they have more staff than minimum?
    • Based on what you see in the room, are you comfortable with their staffing level?
    • How do they handle breaks for the staff?  If one of the teachers goes on break, does the ratio become twelve-to-one or do they have “float” staff that fills in (such as the Director)?
    • What happens when someone is out sick?
  • What is the lesson plan for the day?  Ask the teachers this – they should be able to both show you and articulate it to you, regardless of the age-group they teach.
  • How is discipline handled?  Do they use time-outs?  Scolding?  How do they handle biting?  One child taking a toy from another?  Imagine your child on both sides of these interactions and decide how you feel able their discipline philosophy.
  • Do they send home daily reports on your child?  How detailed are they?  Do they regularly take and send pictures to parents?  What about report cards to update on milestones?
  • Will they stick to the schedule I provide?  This is most important for infants for feeding and naps but may also be important for potty training.
  • Are there any “special” activities through the week?  For example, our current daycare has music, dance and science each on different days of the week.
Today is science day... or is it career day?

Today is science day… or is it career day?

  • Is lunch provided?  Are snacks?  If so, take a look at the meal plan to see if you approve.  How are meals prepared (is everything pulled out of a box and nuked or is there someone in a kitchen slicing vegetables)?
  • Do they have a potty training philosophy?  If so, what is it?  Do you agree?  If not, are they willing to conform to yours?

Money items:

  • Of course: How much, how often?
    • Some schools have weekly and monthly payment options.
  • What is their vacation policy?  If you are on vacation for a week, do you still pay the same rate?
    • We’ve seen schools that have no vacation policy at all – you pay whether your child shows up or not.  We’ve also seen where you pay 50% of the weekly rate to “hold” your spot.  We’ve also seen one “free” vacation week for every six-months enrolled.  Lots of different policies out there.
    • This will probably not sway your decision on a school – one way or the other – but it is a good time to avail yourself of this information.
  • What are the “extras,” if any?  What is provided for within the tuition fee?
    • Things to ask about: Diapers, wipes, lunch, stacks.

One thing to note: Many daycares these days are franchises and all franchise locations are not equal.  Don’t assume that because you toured one Dolly’s Daycare that the one closer to your house is just as great and you can enroll your child without visiting.  These places are likely owned by different people and definitely run by different people – they can be dramatically different!

Ask your questions, make your observations and take copious notes!  Once you narrow it down to one or two that you like, go back and visit again – at a time you aren’t supposed to.  A lot of places will limit official tours to nap time.  You want to see what things are like at 10:30AM or 3PM.

Again, trust your gut.  Where will you feel best about leaving your son or daughter every day?  It is a tough decision!  Hopefully the advice above helps you.

Do you have something you look for in a daycare that I missed?  What are your top “red flag” items?  Share below!


  1. We’re in the same boat – we’ve got 2 kiddos in daycare, and it has not been a cheap experience. Thankfully, our 5 year old starts kindergarten in August and our 3 year old will hopefully snag a spot in the pre-k of our local elementary school next year.

    We put the kids in a summer camp at a chain daycare (they were at a Montessori school when we lived OTP) because frankly, I couldn’t do the Montessori schedule over the summer. A week off at the end of May/beginning of June, and a week off at the end of July? In what world does that work for working parents? “Sure I can take two weeks off this summer! I’ll also take off Spring Break, Winter Break, and never ever take a sick day!”

    However, even in the few weeks they’ve been there, I’ve seen that it’s definitely not the kind of environment I want my daughter in for the full school year… So I’m on the hunt again, but as you’ve pointed out, prices here are nuts, especially for places that provide full-day care. I appear to have two options at this point: the fancy school, which goes from 8:30 – 5:30, but costs $1500 (for one kid!), or the smaller school, which goes from 8:30 – 4 (???) but “only” costs $950. Urgh!

    (I should mention that I do believe teachers, including daycare and preschool teachers, deserve a living wage. It’s just that we’re a family with a great income, and we’re STILL struggling to afford their services.)

    • You’ve captured our experience exactly. Those priced at a level that we considered appropriate were a noticeable, considerable step down in quality of care.
      We also found the places that seemed to exist only for the purpose of providing a break for the stay-at-home-parent (9:30a to 12:30p, three days a week, at one place!!).
      One thing about Atlanta is there is sooo many people it seems like there is a market for just about everything!

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