Assistant teacher Morgan Stevens helps eight-month-old Gracie Loudis with her balance in the infants room at the Mercy Child Development Center. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

This story is part of a series on the Child Care Crisis in Springfield and Greene County.

For any parent, but especially for first-timers, trying to find child care is often an overwhelming experience.

You need to address some major factors — ages served, cost, location/hours, number of children there. Child care experts have compared it to the process of buying a car. You need to do your research, and you need to know what to ask and what to look for. 

Dana Carroll, vice president of Early Childhood and Family Development at Community Partnership of the Ozarks, works with providers at child care centers and homes across the Springfield area. She shared some tips for parents who are wading into the waters. 

1.) Confirm a provider is licensed. If they’re not, conduct a headcount

You can find information on licensed providers on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website. But Carroll said it should not have to be a challenge.

“There are two classifications for child care that we think it’s important that you understand,” Carroll said. “There’s six or fewer, and then there’s licensed homes. If a provider can’t provide you with a copy (of a license), or show you their license, then they should be serving no more than six children in their home at any one time. And no more than three of those should be under the age of 2.

“If they’re center-based, the center should have something hanging on the wall that says that they’re licensed to provide care. Or if they’re not licensed, then they need to be in a church or in a school. That’s just some of the very basics. If those things don’t happen, then you need to turn around and walk out.” 

2.) Take time during a visit to observe how providers interact with children

Are the teachers respectful and caring with kids? Are they communicating positively and calmly with them? Are they asking open-ended questions that allow kids to provide meaningful feedback rather than a yes or no answer? If the answers to those questions are “yes,” Carroll said that the provider knows how to work with young children. Yelling and heavy sarcasm are not effective communication tools, so look out for that. 

3.) Make sure the space is conducive to learning

A kid-friendly classroom often has a look to it. Kids’ artwork and vibrant posters grace the walls. There are areas dedicated to activities like music, science, art, reading and writing and dramatic play. If kids are using the space, that’s a good sign. 

4.) See what happens when something goes wrong

How does a caregiver respond when two children are arguing? Trained providers will talk it out with upset children, asking how they feel, why they feel that and how they might be able to help come up with solutions to resolve the issue. 

5.) Trust your gut if a place doesn’t feel right

If something about a setting, or a provider, feels off, honor that, Carroll said, and look elsewhere. “Typically, that means that it’s probably not the best one for you,” she said.

6.) Unless your gut is telling you all of them are bad

Carroll said this happens more often with first-time parents. It’s a normal feeling, she said. “If you go into two, four or five different programs, and you always have that same kind of uneasy feeling, you probably need to check and make sure that maybe it’s just that your uneasiness is about leaving your first child in a classroom setting,” she said.

Need financial assistance?

The federally-funded and state-run Child Care Subsidy program helps eligible families pay for child care.

The subsidies are based on the families’ income and are paid to the child care provider. The subsidy does not cover the entire cost of tuition, and families are usually asked to pay the difference.

As of April 2022, Missouri residents could qualify for child care assistance if their household income was 138 percent above the federal poverty level. That equals a maximum $36,564 annual income for a family of four. 

Also, low-income families, as well as children from homeless families or foster care, are among those eligible for the Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation’s Head Start early childhood programming. 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson