What You Want to See in a High-Quality Toddler Program
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In addition to important features that great toddler programs should have, like a comfortable learning environment and strong partnerships with families, what else should you look for?
Positive relationships between teachers and children. In a high-quality program, teachers form close, personal relationships with children, interact with them in ways that show respect for children, and help toddlers learn to manage their own behavior. To do this, teachers
- Give toddlers a lot of individual attention.
- Have reasonable expectations. When a child tries to do something, like put on boots, the teacher watches to see what the child can do on her own and helps if needed.
- Provide a warm, supportive environment that encourages children to safely explore.
- Offer choices throughout the day.
Time for children to explore and play. Toddlers need lots of interesting objects to explore. Teachers choose toys and materials that can be used in different ways so toddlers develop creativity and problem-solving skills. To support children's play and exploration, teachers
- Respect toddlers' choices to play alone or with another child.
- Play with toddlers and encourage them to stay interested in an activity for long periods of time.
- Provide materials for toddlers to create with.
- Offer sturdy picture books, dolls, and other materials that show people of different ages, races, cultures, and family types.
Consistent schedules and routines. Teachers plan a balanced schedule for toddlers, with time for active play (indoors and outdoors) and rest. To do this, teachers
- Keep a familiar daily schedule but are also flexible to meet children's needs.
- Plan walks around the neighborhood or to a park when possible.
- Use everyday routines—like eating, toileting, and dressing—to bond with children and encourage them to do things for themselves.
- Sit with toddlers as they eat in small groups. Teachers talk with the children and give help when needed.
Effective health and safety policies. High-quality programs have policies that help toddlers stay healthy and ready to learn.
- Teachers follow health practices like washing hands before giving toddlers a snack.
- Carpets and other floor coverings are comfortable for children and easy to clean.
- Teachers have training in toddler development and enjoy working with toddlers.
- The program limits the number of children each adult is responsible for.
- Teachers can hear and see all toddlers at all times, including nap time.
Not all programs provide high-quality care. Here are some signs that a program may not be doing what's best for children.
Relationships aren't emphasized
- Toddlers are shifted from group to group or cared for by any available adult. Teachers don't know children's individual preferences and interests.
- Teachers are impatient. Because it's faster, adults often do tasks for toddlers instead of letting the children try.
- When teachers talk with children, it's mostly to direct and manage them.
The environment doesn't support toddlers' learning
- Toddlers wander around the classroom and aren't involved much with the materials or the teachers.
- The room is filled with electronic toys and toys that can only be used one way instead of materials children can use in different ways, like blocks, art supplies, and balls. Children can't explore sensory materials like playdough and sand because teachers think they're too messy.
There aren't many opportunities for toddlers to explore and play
- Teachers “help” toddlers copy an adult-made art project or color in a coloring book instead of letting children explore art materials, like finger paints, in their own way.
- Teachers direct children's play most of the time instead of following the children's lead and offering suggestions.
- Teachers expect toddlers to always share. There are not enough of the popular toys, so children fight over them.
Schedules and routines are too rigid to support toddlers' learning
- The classroom schedule is always followed even if toddlers need more time for activities.
- Teachers make toddlers do things together and spend a set amount of time on an activity.
- Children are blamed for spills or accidents, but they're not given time to practice the skills that might prevent these accidents.
Relationships with families aren't emphasized
- Programs don't communicate regularly with families. Parents' opinions aren't taken into consideration.
- Teachers ignore families' concerns, or they blame families for problems. Teachers make parents feel like they're not capable and not important to their child's education.
Health and safety policies aren't followed
- The space isn't sanitary or safe. Or, the space is clean and secure but isn't interesting for toddlers.
- Handwashing (by children and adults) and cleaning (of toys) isn't done consistently.
- Children and teachers who may be sick stay in the classroom.
- Toddlers are allowed to play on outdoor climbing equipment that is too high for their age.
Questions to Ask
You need to know that your child will be happy and well cared for. When you're considering a toddler program, talk to a teacher or the director and ask these questions to see if the program meets your family's needs:
- Will my toddler have one main teacher? How long will he be with that teacher?
- What experience do the teachers have with the specific needs of toddlers?
- What does the daily schedule look like? How flexible is it?
- How do the teachers handle routine times like lunch and diaper changing?
- How often will I hear from the teachers? Will I help make decisions about my child's care?
- What happens when my child is ready for toilet training? How will the teachers help me with this?
- What policies does the program have that protect my child's health and safety?
The first few years of your child's life are such important learning years. Connecting with warm, caring adults early on helps your toddler connect with others throughout her life. Together, you and your child's teachers can make good choices that'll give your child a great start!