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Expert advice on how to find quality child care — and pay for it

Ryan Rydzewski
February14/ 2017

Of the many decisions a parent must make, choosing the right child care program is among the most critical.

For some families, that choice can also be the most difficult.

Sky-high costs, long waiting lists, and limited options have made finding child care a national challenge. A recent survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that one-third of American parents and caregivers have had difficulty finding quality care.

Often, the problem is a lack of local programs. About 3,500 ZIP codes qualify as child care deserts, according to the Center for American Progress. Sometimes the issue is too few available seats. For many families, it’s all about affordability: With average costs running nearly $10,000 a year per child, even middle-class families are feeling the squeeze.

But there is help for Pittsburgh parents. Early Learning 101 — a free information session for families of children from infants to age 4 — features speakers who will discuss indicators of quality child care, various financial assistance programs, and efforts to expand access and promote affordability.

A recent session was hosted by the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), who has teamed with State Rep. Dan Miller and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

“We’re really excited to pilot Early Learning 101, and we hope to partner with other legislators to replicate the event in different parts of Allegheny County,” says Geiger-Shulman. Families can stay informed by signing up for PAEYC’s e-newsletter.

“We want families to feel confident in their decision — to know that they’ve done the homework to put their children in a supportive, stimulating environment that will help them learn to love education,” says Byrne-Houser.

And when parents do finally find the right program? They’re bound to feel some anxiety, says Byrne-Houser, “But just remember that children are much more resilient in these situations than adults. If parents stay positive, kids will absorb that. You might see some tears on that first day, but after that, they’re going to be fine.”

Kidsburgh asked two of the event’s organizers — PAEYC’s Lissa Geiger-Shulman and Sarah Byrne-Houser — to share their best advice for families seeking care.

Evaluating child care programs

A child care center’s state ratings, licenses, and accreditations are important, to a point.

“There’s no single evaluation tool that tells parents everything they need to know,” says Geiger-Shulman, PAEYC’s public policy director. She suggests that parents tour potential child care centers before enrolling their child, using the opportunity to listen, learn and look closely at each program.

And since nearly every child care program requires parents to take a tour before enrolling their child, Geiger-Shulman suggests using those opportunities to listen, learn, and look closely at potential programs.

“What does the center sound like? Do the interactions between kids and staff sound positive? Do they sound nurturing? Try to get a feel for the environment and whether it’s right for your child,” she says.

“You don’t hear this often, but look at whether teachers are on the floor with the kids,” adds Byrne-Houser, PAEYC’s public policy and outreach associate. “You want to see whether the staff is attempting to make a connection with children by getting down on their level.”

It’s also important to talk with providers about developmentally appropriate practices and age-appropriate expectations.

“If a center’s expectations are higher than kids’ abilities or understanding, then it’s difficult to create a positive environment,” says Byrne-Houser. “For example, if the rule is that kids have to sit silently or put their heads down on the table during lunch, a bunch of 3-year-olds just aren’t going to be able to comply.”

Instead, quality programs should put children’s needs and interests first. “When you close your eyes and listen,” Byrne-Houser says, “you should hear children’s voices more often than teachers’ voices.”

Finding financial assistance

Despite Pittsburgh’s relatively low cost of living, the high price of child care is still beyond reach for many working families. But help is available.

“There are a number of financial assistance programs that families might qualify for,” says Geiger-Shulman.

Families within 300 percent of the federal poverty line can qualify for Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, a free program with several providers throughout the region (though the state generally does not fund enough seats for everyone). “There’s also Head Start, Child Care Works, and earned income tax credits and private scholarships that might help,” Geiger-Shulman says.

The best thing parents can do, adds Byrne-Houser, is “Call and speak to the center or program they’re interested in and ask about what opportunities they might have. Not every assistance program is advertised. Sometimes it’s up to families to seek them out.”

Ryan Rydzewski