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Consumer Education Helps Parents Choose Quality Child Care

Since 2011, states have spent more than $1 billion in developing and disseminating information for parents about high-quality child care options available to them. Even with this commitment, figuring out how parents make decisions and interjecting information into this process can be a daunting task.

Anyone who has selected a child care provider can tell you how difficult a choice this can be. In addition to balancing the multiple practical factors that need to be considered (availability, affordability, and convenience), selecting a child care provider is an emotional decision as parents try to identify who will love their child, keep their child safe and happy, and teach their child the needed skills at each stage of development. To add to all of this complexity, the process of choosing a child care provider is dynamic and complicated because families’ lives and children’s developmental needs are constantly changing. These challenges are heightened for families with infants and toddlers, families seeking an arrangement that aligns with their culture and language, and parents who work nontraditional hours.

Fortunately, recent studies shedding light on why and how parents make child care decisions and what their preferences and priorities can be used to inform consumer education strategies.

A recent nationally-representative study of child care has found…

  • Work is the main reason the majority of parents (51 percent) are searching for child care for their young children (birth-3 years). As children get older, a greater proportion of parents search for care in order to support their children’s education and socialization with (41 percent) of parents of children aged 3-5 years).
  • The majority of households looking for child care (63 percent) consider multiple providers, but over one-third of households considered only one provider.
  • Of families that considered only one provider, 71 percent had a previous relationship with that provider.
  • Of families that considered more than one provider, 63 percent rely on information from other family members and friends in making their choice.
  • Families with children under five who considered more than one child care option tended to gather information on fees charged, type of care, and hours of care. Only about one-quarter of families gathered information on the content of the program and about one-fifth on the curriculum or philosophy of the program.
  • Regardless of child age, income, or race/ethnicity, the greatest proportion of parents perceive center-based care to be good or excellent for educational preparation and socialization, and relative/friend care to be good or excellent for safety, affordability, and flexibility.

A review of multiple smaller-scale studies about child care decision-making, primarily with low-income families, has found…

  • Most low-income parents perceive having limited child care options and therefore consider few options.
  • Many low-income parents make child care decisions quickly; 41 percent of parents from one study made choices within one day.
  • The majority of low-income parents place a high value on the quality of arrangements. How parents define quality varies across studies, but basically aligns with features that have been identified in research (e.g., provider education, training, child-adult ratio, provider warmth, activities to support child development, and open communication with the family).
  • Children’s health and safety, and trust of the provider are particularly important to low-income families.
  • Parents’ true priorities when making a child care decision are difficult to identify, but cost, location and hours seem to have the greatest influence on decision-making.

Why is this research important for state child care leaders to consider as they develop and implement consumer awareness to help families choose high-quality care?

  • The window of time between getting a job and starting a job is short, particularly for low-income parents working in the service industry. As employment is the main reason parents seek child care, it is not surprising that low-income parents tend to make child care decisions quickly. Short decision-making timeframes mean that parents need easy-to-access information and will ideally be aware of the availability of this information prior to starting their search.
  • A recent report by Child Trends has highlighted the importance of marketing child care and education providers rated by states to parents through easy-to-access information that incorporates practical details parents are looking for (e.g., cost, location, hours) as well as easy-to-understand information on quality indicators. Additionally, these marketing efforts can tailor information to parents with unique needs (e.g., immigrants, parents of children with special needs) and use consumer-friendly websites and social media platforms to raise awareness among families of quality-rated providers.
  • Friends and families are the most trusted source of information about child care options. Thus, it is important to disseminate resources about how to identify high-quality child care and a list of these providers to families with young children, especially those families with low incomes.
  • Pre-existing relationships between families and child care providers are influential in the decision-making process. Consumer information should be distributed to providers to share with the families they serve to promote further use of this resource.

Research on the child care decision-making process, and particularly the process experienced by many low-income families, highlights the challenges to helping parents select high-quality care. These challenges can likely be overcome through innovative consumer education strategies.

Nikki Forry, Senior Research Scientist

Note: Statistics from the following publicly-available publications are cited in this brief: Household Search for and Perceptions of Early Care and Education: Initial Findings from the National Survey of Early Care and Education, Household search for and perceptions of early care and education: Fact sheet from the National Survey of Early Care and Education, Child Care Decision-Making Literature Review.


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