5 ways to spy on your daycare provider

by Stacey Bradford for CBS MoneyWatch.com

I'm a huge advocate for day care. However, a recent article in Slate magazine reminded me that all facilities are not created equal. Indeed, the first child care center I sent my daughter to was shameful. But over the past two years I've figured out a way to differentiate the facilities that employ the Mary Poppins versus the Miss Hannigans.

Here are my five ways to spy on your child care provider:

1. Tour the Facility Multiple Times

You can bet that caregivers are on their best behavior during parent tours. If you want a more realistic picture, show up unannounced and ask if you can sit in on a class. Good day cares that have nothing to hide will often let you observe the children provided it isn't nap time.

2. Mix It Up

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Once you find a day care center you like, vary the time that you drop off and pick up your child. This will allow you to see how the teachers manage the kids during different hours of the day. Even just a 30 minute change at the beginning and end of the school day may show you if the patience levels of the caregivers changes dramatically.

Also, not showing up at a predictable time will keep the teachers on their toes since they never know when you will arrive.

3. Show Up Unexpectedly

If you really want to know what's going on during typical working hours, you'll have to show up at random times of the day. Since you don't want to day care director to think that you don't trust her or her staff, you'll need to come up with a good excuse for your visits. My favorite is saying that you forgot to pack your son's lunch.

4. Be a Social Butterfly

Even if you're feeling stretched thin, make it a point to become friendly with the other families at the day care center. First, this allows you to be in on the gossip and you could discover that other parents have a legitimate gripe. Also, it's a lot more difficult for a director to ignore your complaints and questions if you're considered a well respected mother or father in the school community.

5. Get to Know Your State Laws

Every state has laws about how many children can be in a class and how many caregivers need to be present. You'd be surprised by how many facilities try to bend the rules. My daughter's first school went so far as to shift kids between rooms during the day so no one knew how many kids were ever present. When I complained, my little girl was promptly kicked out. So do yourself a favor and research your region's standards and make sure your center is up to code. Many states will also post violations online so you can see where your son or daughter's day care stands.

Are you comfortable with your child's day care center? Do you ever drop in unannounced just to check on your son or daughter?

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