For families, child care arrangements are not one-size-fits-all. Parents make child care decisions as one piece of a complex puzzle of work and family life. Constrained family finances, inflexible work schedules, and limited availability of suitable options make choices challenging for many families. But just as important are parents’ preferences, values, and worries about choosing a caregiver for their young child. Acknowledging the difficulties families face and recognizing the importance of the choice, several programs and policies aim to help parents, including child care resource and referral (CCR&R) and quality rating and improvement (QRIS) services.
How do parents make child care decisions? How can programs, providers, and policymakers work with families to help them make the best possible choice for their child and family? Recent research is helping to shed light on this complex, dynamic decision-making process and better understand variations between families in different circumstances.
For their child, parents prioritize quality, but different parents emphasize different setting and quality features. Parents first need assurance of health and safety before exploring other aspects of quality. Parents want an environment that is nurturing and supports learning, but have different ideas about what those qualities look like. Decisions are often made based on the special needs and/or age of the child and family preferences. For a child with special needs, parents are restricted to options that can meet those needs.
Priorities for the family must also be met. Cost is nearly always important. Hours of operation, distance and transportation from work or home, and other considerations such as need for care outside the typical 9-5 work day can eliminate many options that simply won’t fit the family’s day-to-day constraints. Preferences also play a large role, often reflecting a parent’s beliefs about the best environment for their child and views or assumptions about different types of care. Language and culture may be central in all of these considerations. In addition, parents’ priorities and preferences are likely to be intertwined. For example, parents may only consider a relative or a child care center because they believe that type of care will be the best for their child, meets their quality standards, fits their financial and practical circumstances, and is consistent with their views of how they want their child to be cared for.
How do parents accommodate all of these priorities when searching for child care? One useful way to think about parents’ child care choices may be as a “narrowing-down” process. Parents are often juggling many simultaneous decisions and may have very little time to search. Parents may start with particular criteria unique to their situation and try to identify options and determine how well they meet these criteria. Once they have a “short list” of options that have cleared the first hurdle of meeting main priorities, they may then dig deeper by visiting and speaking with providers and calling references.
Information from CCR&R agencies and Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) ratings (where available) can be particularly useful starting points in a search. However, while some parents do know about these services, many parents’ main sources of information are friends and family, word of mouth, and internet searches. Increased outreach and education about CCR&R and QRIS – what they are, how they’re sponsored, and what they do – could increase awareness, interest, trust, and use of these services.
Once parents connect with CCR&R or QRIS services, what would parents find useful? Many parents plan to do their own research and make their own judgment, but have limits on how many providers they can visit and how well they can discern quality. Services can start by helping parents identify and narrow down a list of options. To do this, programs and policies need to have common, up-to-date, basic information that can be shared, preferably in searchable online databases. As a starting point, parents need to know about program operation (type, ages served, cost, hours, flexibility), any unique features or limits, and QRIS ratings if available. Quality information is also highly valued. Parents think QRIS ratings could be useful, but different parents have different perceptions of the information that would be helpful. For example, some parents want overall ratings or star levels, while other parents want details about caregiver qualifications, program activities, and specific aspects of quality. Many parents would also value the opinions of other parents who have used a child care program – a parent’s point of view can enhance information about a provider’s state licensure status or star rating. Once parents have a short list of viable options, services need to give access to “trusted advisors” who could provide more personalized support for parents to help determine how each option may fit the family’s needs.
Many parents make child care choices quickly with inadequate information and support and a great deal of worry. While we are still learning from parents about ways to provide child care decision-making assistance that provides the information parents seek and trust, delivered in ways they can access and use, we do know providers, parents and their children will benefit from this process.
Laura Stout Sosinsky, senior research scientist