More working parents find or change child-care arrangements at this time of the year than at any other. If you are one, here are the 14 most important questions to ask yourself before you entrust your child to any facility for even one minute:
*Have I visited this place several times -- announced and unannounced, with and without my child? Were my child and I made to feel comfortable and welcome each time?
*Is the physical plant clean, cheerful, well-lit, equipped with safe, well-made, interesting, varied toys and equipment?
*What's the ratio of children to adults? Most child development specialists recommend adult-child ratios of 1 to 3 for infants, 1 to 4 or 1 to 5 for 2-year-olds, 1 to 6 for children ages 3 to 6.
*Is the staff equipped to deal with emergencies? Are first-aid supplies both complete and readily available? Does the center maintain updated medical information about each child? Does it have firm rules about children with contagious illnesses staying home?
*Are caregivers trained in early childhood education, and how high is their turnover rate? My child needs competent, stable, consistent care from professionals she's learned to trust -- not a new caregiver every six months or so.
*Do the children play outside every day unless it's raining? Is there an enclosed, well-equipped play yard where they can climb, swing, jump, run, yell and tumble?
*Does the staff seem to be lavish with physical expressions of love? Do they frequently hold and carry infants and toddlers, hug preschoolers and invite children -- including mine -- onto their laps?
*Is the director of the facility not only willing, but eager to give me at least three references from satisfied parents of children my child's age? Have I called all of them?
*Is emphasis placed on good communication between parents and caregivers? Are parents encouraged to call or arrange a conference if they have any worries or concerns about a child's care? Am I welcome to drop by from time to time unannounced?
*Do the facility's director and staff seem interested in my child as an individual? Have they asked about her food preferences, how she usually sleeps, what soothes or frightens her, what her favorite toys and activities are?
*Are mealtimes organized, ordered and relaxed? There should be a friendly flow of conversation and the food should be tasty and nourishing, but no child should be forced to eat anything.
*Do the children at the facility seem to be lively and happy, but not overstimulated? Do they accept direction and admonishment without seeming to be afraid?
*Does the staff talk about discipline in punitive, or problem-solving and teaching terms? Are the techniques the center uses (never physical punishment!) likely to frighten or shame my child?
*Finally, how do I feel about these people, this place? Would I want to spent the day here if I were a small child?
If I feel safe, comfortable and relaxed here, chances are my child will, too. If I feel the least bit tense, anxious, awkward, unwelcome, suspicious or uncomfortable, on the other hand, it's time to look elsewhere.
Questions and comments for Niki Scott should be addressed Working Woman, Features Department, The Sun, Baltimore 21278.