10 June 2007

Tips for Choosing Childcare

By Galia BarHava-Monteith & Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

This advice is tailored to mums who are returning to work.

Having the right childcare arrangement is probably the most important factor in making an easy transition back to work. There's nothing as stressful as being at work and constantly worrying about your child's wellbeing. You need to build a set-up that's a good fit for your child, your family, yourself and your work.

Ideally, you'll start exploring options early - even while you are pregnant or soon after your baby is born. childcare.jpg

Four types of childcare

We believe there are four types of child care which are most appropriate for mothers who are considering going back to work:

  1. Nanny (one-to-one)
  2. Home-based care (one-to-few)
  3. Centre-based care (one-to-more)
  4. Combinations of the above.

Of course, if you're lucky enough to have a relative who can help out on an ongoing basis, that's another great option.

When considering childcare, you need to be clear about what both your needs and your family's needs are:

  • Do you require very flexible care to cope with unpredictable work hours and travel?
  • Do you also need someone to help out with household chores?
  • How much are you able to afford? At what point would it cease to be worth your while to work?

1. Nannies

This is the most flexible, all-encompassing solution to child care and it ensures your child receives one-to-one care of the sort you would offer if you were home.

Most nannies will do some house work as well; for example, some cooking and will help with food shopping. If your nanny is really good, she (and it's still usually a she) can basically become your domestic goddess!

Nannies are also the most expensive option. You should expect to pay approaching NZ $40,000 out of your post-tax income. Almost all annual childcare costs remain a personal expense in New Zealand. However, if you're on a high income and you're planning on having another child relatively soon, a nanny can become cost-effective.

Finding a nanny

So how do you find one? With great difficulty, is the answer! You should allow for a significant amount of time for the search - we're talking months.

The easiest option is to go through a nanny agency, a number of which exist throughout the country. They interview the nannies, organise police checks on them and get references. They will charge you a placement sum which can be about a month's wages, often with some sort of refund if the nanny leaves within a certain period of time. The ones we used also gave us a pro forma contract which we filled in with our own details re hours, reimbursements etc.

It is really important that you are very clear with your nanny at the outset about your expectations. This is the time to explore how flexible she will be with hours and what her attitudes to non-baby related housework are. Remember, this is an employment relationship and you want to make sure you are a good employer with a clear contract and clearly articulated expectations. Because it takes place in your home, the boundaries may become blurry in some instances and difficult situations can ensue if not handled well.

Finding the right nanny

As in any employment, you'll want to make sure you yourself do reference checks for the nanny with past employers.

We would also highly recommended you ask the nanny to come into your home for a few paid hours so that you can see how well she interacts with your child, and you, and whether they show signs of initiative and experience.

Development outcomes with nannies
There isn't much research about outcomes for children who are cared for by nannies due to the difficulty of accessing in-home care to make the necessary observations. Something important to be aware of with one-on-one care is that as your child grows older he or she will need more socialisation. Some nannies are excellent at seeking out these socialising opportunities but others might be less able or willing to do so.

Communication

It is really important that you find a way of communicating with your nanny on a daily basis so that you know what she is doing with your child and the learning opportunities she is able to provide. One method to consider is for her to maintain a daily diary. Not only can this give you valuable insights into your baby's play activities, and patterns of eating and sleeping etc, it can also make a great repository of milestones, and end up as a real family keepsake.

2. Home-based care

In this option, organized by groups like Porse and Barnados "family-share care" is offered either in your home or in a caregiver's home. The idea is that the care and education costs are shared among a small group of parents for the benefit of their children. One parent may be the caregiver-educator, with support from the organising network.

The organisers will undertake reference checks and police checks. The latter are for both the educator/caregiver and for all people regularly visiting the house.

A Professionelle member who has used the Porse service for care in the caregiver/educator's home listed these benefits

  • Caregivers follow a programme to develop each child, focused on early childhood development, though not a set curriculum as such
  • Detailed notes are provided every day on the child's activities, sleeping, food, behaviour
  • Porse provides on going development and education for the in home educators
  • For only children, this is a good way to ensure socialisation on a regular basis while ensuring good levels of attention and affection from another adult who is a constant presence in their lives
  • Health might be better with fewer other children to catch bugs off (but some months you wonder!!)
  • Porse also provide coffee mornings and play groups for the educators on a regular basis so that children can mix in larger groups and the educators have a sense of wider community and support too.
  • The cost is about $6 per hour, or about a third of a nanny's wage.

Finding the Right Care Group:

Just as you would with any childcare options you have to really think about how comfortable you feel with each educator/caregiver you interview. What are their views on discipline, how well do they listen to what you want, how do they interact with the children? Make sure you have a rapport with the educator you choose and that you feel you can trust them.

Beyond rapport and trust there are some practical points:

  • How many other children are they looking after and are you comfortable with the ratio?
  • Does the educator have young children and/or other commitments that are going to mean your child's care will be regularly interrupted?
  • Make sure the administrators do as they say they will and do check in with the educators, make sure the house is safe etc, follow up with any issues that need to be resolved
  • Try to meet the other children in the group, and their parents
  • How close is the educator's house to your house and to your work (and your partner's work)
  • Does the educator have a car, and if so, is it safe enough? Who will supply child restraints?

Flexibility

Just like with nannies, flexibility can be crucial in making the arrangements work. Are you able to move an arranged day? What happens if you're late to pick up? Do you pay them when your child is sick? What about when their child is sick? The organising network will have norms as a reference point but with a bit of give and take these matters can usually be sorted to keep everyone happy.

3. Centre-based care

With the proliferation of centre-based childcare, and with many now run by for-profit corporations, it is Galia's view that parents need to be very clear about what to look for and to know what is likely to work best for their children.

One of the most important factors in ensuring good care for children is low adult-to-children ratio. Thankfully in New Zealand we are well legislated for. However, you should still specifically ask what the ratios are, especially in centres which care for children under two.

Beyond child to adult ratios, the three other very important aspects parents should look out for are:

a. The staff. (their interaction with children, turnover rate, training level)

b. The children who attend the centre.

c. The physical environment.

a. The staff

The most important aspect of good child care is the staff that provides it. The best child care centres have well trained, stable staff that interact with children in a warm, encouraging and attentive manner. Specifically, you should look at:

Staff's interaction with the children - when you visit a centre, take some time to observe the teaching staff. Are they interacting with the children or are they talking among themselves? In centres that care for under-two's, is there little crying? Are the children looking happy and as if they feel they belong? Can you see evidence of warm, encouraging interactions between the children and the staff?

Low turnover of staff - simply ask the centre manager how long she's been there and how long each of the staff members have been employed. It's a great indication of how well the centre looks after its staff. Happy staff are much more likely to be engaged in their jobs and enjoying what they do.

Also, one of the most important factors in the well-being of young children is their ability to form attachments. They will not be able to do so if staff members constantly change, and it could result in little ones becoming un-settled.

Well-trained staff - you should look for evidence of the formal qualifications among staff; do they have relevant tertiary qualifications or teaching certificates? If you can't see them on display, ask the centre manager about each teacher's qualifications. Good centres also provide for ongoing training of their staff; ask what the centre's policy and plans are on this.

b. The children who attend the centre

If you're planning on having your child in a centre based child-care for forty hours or more, it is important that their environment is stable and doesn't constantly change. A big part of that is the other children who attend. If most other children are there for similar lengths of time, your child will be able to form attachments with them and this will enhance his or her experience of the centre.

c. The physical environment

Naturally, you want your child to be safe! If the centre for under-twos is part of a centre that has bigger children, you should make sure that they are well separated. Also, is there enough room to move? Are the floors covered with material that makes it easy for little ones to roam around? Are the kitchen and bathrooms well separated from the main play area? Is the sleep room well separated and quiet, to help your child have a proper rest?

There are many other factors which you can look for in the physical environment, such as variety of age appropriate activities offered to children and the quality of the outdoor area. You could also look at the prominence of displayed print material such as books and charts with letters and words on the wall. However, in our view, it's a better scenario to have excellent teachers than the perfect physical environment. (Ideally, you'll find both!)

Finding the right centre

We recommend a systematic approach and taking the following steps:

  • Figure out WHERE you'd like the centre to be. We recommend trying to find one as close to home or work as possible to reduce stress.
  • Ask friends, family and colleagues about child care centres in your areas of interest that they can recommend. Word of mouth is an incredibly powerful tool.
  • Go online at www.yellowpages.co.nz and search for child care centres in these areas and write their details down.
  • Go to the Education Review Office website It is a very easy to use website that lets you search each centre's reports. Once you've read a few, you'll get a pretty good feel for the jargon and for the centres they approve of. Using these reports you can narrow your list down to the top five or so centres in your areas of interest
  • Visit the centre. In most places you'll need to call the centre and organise a visit. Now you've read the reports and tips above, you'll know what to look for. The more centres you visit, the better you'll be able to gauge how good they are.

4. A combination of all the above

Increasingly, I'm aware of many working women who are able to combine a nanny with centre based care or a day of a nanny with more affordable home-based care. This arrangement has the benefit of added flexibility with reduced costs and ensures your child receives the socialisation s/he needs as well.

Some nannies are happy to work part time and will be happy with this type of arrangement, or you might have a neighbor who'd be interested in helping out and making extra money. If this is something that interests you, ask around and you might get lucky.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you go with your gut instinct. If something doesn't feel right with your child's care, then there's probably something wrong. Although it isn't advised to chop and change care arrangements for children, you should be sure in your heart that you have a happy child. If s/he's unsettled for extended periods of time, something isn't quite right and you should look into it.

 

© Professionelle Ltd 2007

 

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