Choosing an Early Learning Program

Guides to Choosing the Right Quality Programs

The latest science tells us that the early years of life matter because early experiences affect a child’s brain development. Like the construction of a house, brains are built from the bottom up, with early experiences setting the foundation for the rest of development. High-quality early care, education and after school programs help children grow socially, emotionally, and physically and enter school ready to learn.

Child Care Center and/or Preschool

A program that provides early care and education for children in non-home settings. Children are often grouped by age into classrooms with one or two teachers. Child care centers have program directors, lead teachers, assistant teachers, and additional staff.

Family Child Care Home

Early care and education offered in a provider’s home. Children of mixed ages are often grouped together and some programs offer flexible hours. Family child care homes include the child care provider provider/owner and sometimes one or more assistants.

School-Age Program

Provides care and youth development to school-age children before and after school, during school vacations and summer breaks. The program may be located in schools, child care centers, family child care homes, or other settings.

Early Care and Education

How to Choose a Quality Program

  • Think about what is important for your family and child such as hours of care, activities offered, etc.
  • Search for programs that meet your needs: Contact a BrightStars referral specialist at 1-855-398-7605 or search online.
  • Narrow your search: Once you have a list of early care and education programs narrow your search by contacting the programs and asking questions to make sure they meet your needs.
  • Visit the programs: After you have narrowed your list, schedule appointments to visit the programs. Seeing a site in person and asking questions can be crucial to help you make the correct decision. Use the BrightStars Early Care Site Visit Checklist as a guide as you visit programs.
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What Does Quality Look Like?

A Healthy & Safe Environment

High-quality early care and education programs follow national health and safety best practices, including frequent and proper hand washing, and proper diapering and toileting procedures. Indoor and outdoor spaces are safe and free of hazards. Meals are nutritious and prepared and stored safely.

Adult Supervision

Interactions with caring and responsible adults impacts your child’s daily experience. Rhode Island special education minimum ratio regulations for public school is 15 children to 2 adults for preschoolers.
Indicators of higher-quality programs include: Staff show awareness of the whole group and provide careful supervision adjusted for different ages and abilities and provide frequent personal contact. Staffing patterns provide for adult supervision of children at all times.

The Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) sets the following minimum ratios for children:

Trained & Qualified Educators

The program should have trained and qualified educators to work with the children. This is critical to ensure that the educators can recognize and provide for your child’s learning and development. At the higher levels of quality, educators have college credits and/or degrees in early childhood education and training in the Rhode Island Early Learning and Development Standards (RIELDS).

Promotes Learning & Development

It is important for your child to have many opportunities to learn and practice skills. Programs should have a stimulating environment for all children, including children with disabilities and developmental delays. High-quality programs use a curriculum to maximize children’s learning and development and gathers information about each child to meet their individual needs.

Welcomes & Includes Families

High-quality programs communicate regularly with families and offer opportunities for family involvement. High-quality programs use a variety of strategies to communicate with families, including family-teacher conferences.

Early Care and Education

Choosing A Quality Program For Children With Special Needs

When choosing an early care and education program for children with disabilities or developmental delays the first consideration is the general quality of the early childhood program. Participation in a high-quality environment is important for all children but can be even more critical for children with special needs.

When choosing a particular program, it is not only important to identify the general quality of the environment but to think about desired results. According to the joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children(NAEYC), “the desired results of inclusive experiences for children with and without disabilities and their families include a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential.”

To meet these desired results, high-quality early childhood programs must ensure that all children have access to both the physical and learning environments, individualized and intentional accommodations and supports allowing for participation in all classroom-based activities, and systems-level supports including structures for collaboration among families, educators, and specialists.

In addition to accessing the Early Learning Program Search, visiting early care and education programs and speaking with directors is essential. Some of the following questions may be helpful during these visits.

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When speaking with directors:

  • How does your program prepare for the successful participation of children with disabilities?
  • How do you collaborate with the local special education department to support children with disabilities within your program?
  • Do teachers have time out of their classrooms to meet with families and specialists and to participate in any necessary training?
  • Do teachers adapt and modify activities and carry-out embedded learning activities which are designed in conjunction with the specialists?
  • How does your program communicate with families regarding progress?

When visiting classrooms:

  • Is the atmosphere bright, cheerful, organized, and child-focused?
  • Can all of the children access the indoor and outdoor learning environments, toys, and materials?
  • Do the adults appear to celebrate individual difference and support children at different levels of development?
  • Do adults interact positively with children and assist as necessary in interactions between peers?
  • Are adults available to facilitate learning during play?
  • Are all children actively involved in positive learning activities?
  • Are there routines in place to assist children in transitioning smoothly between activities?
  • Do the learning materials, books, and pictures reflect diversity, including children with special needs?

Early Care Program Checklist

How do you determine which program is best for you and your family? Bringing this checklist along when visiting programs may help you. We also encourage families to ask child care programs whether they have earned or are working toward national accreditation or BrightStars Quality Rating.

A Healthy & Safe Environment

  • Are the indoor and outdoor spaces for children safe and free of hazards?
  • Are children supervised at all times, even when they are napping?
  • Do adults and children wash their hands before eating or handling food and after using the bathroom?
  • Are there procedures for handling emergencies?

A Stimulating Environment & Opportunities to Practice Emerging Skills

  • Are adults warm and welcoming? Do they engage in conversation with the children throughout the day?
  • Is the space organized and are children able to reach and use many different type of materials and toys?
  • Do the adults read to the children daily or encourage them to read, if age appropriate?
  • Do children have frequent opportunities for active play both indoors and outdoors?

Low Child to Adult Ratios & Small Group Sizes

  • Does the number of children in a group meet Rhode Island licensing standards?

Welcomes & Includes Families

  • Does the program welcome families any time the children are in care?
  • Will the program regularly provide you with information about your child’s activities and development?
  • Do families have input in program decision making?

Trained & Qualified Staff

  • Does the director/provider have a degree in early childhood education or related field?
  • Do teachers or providers have any formal education in early childhood? (Ex. Child Development Associate, RI Early Childhood Teaching Certificate, college credits in early childhood education, degree in early childhood or related)