Quality Early Learning

Quality Early Learning Checklist

Research tells us that our children’s healthy development depends on safe and positive experiences during the first few years of life. Choosing quality early learning is an important, but sometimes daunting task for parents of young children. Using ExceleRate® Illinois can make your search easier because we’ve done your homework. Search the website and see what programs have been recognized with a Bronze, Silver or Gold Circle of Quality. Make a list of the programs that interest you. You might want to visit several different programs, and providers, before you decide which is best for your family. Call each program and schedule an appointment for your visit. Once you are there, stay for at least an hour to watch activities, check the surroundings, and ask questions. The questions below provide a place for you to note important pieces of quality your program should have. Place a check in the box if the program meets your expectations.

Director/Principal Qualifications

  • Does the director of a center have a bachelor's or associate degree in a child-related field?
  • Has the director worked in early learning for at least two years?
  • Can the director explain to you what children need to grow and learn?

Teacher Qualifications

  • Does the teacher have a bachelor's or associate degree in a child-related field?
  • Has the teacher worked in early learning for at least one year?
  • Does the teacher give children lessons and toys that are right for their ages?
  • Do the teachers seem to really like children?
  • Do the teachers get down on each child's level to speak with the child?
  • Are children greeted when they arrive?
  • Are children's needs quickly met even when things get busy?
  • Are the teachers responsive to parents, making time to answer questions and sharing information about what children are learning?
  • Are parents' ideas welcomed? Are they ways for you to get involved?
  • Do the teachers and children enjoy being together?
  • Is there enough staff to serve the children? (Ask local experts about the best staff/child ratios for different age groups.)
  • Are teachers trained and experienced?
  • Have they participated in early childhood development classes?

Child: Staff Ratio and Group Size

  • How many children are being cared for in the program?
  • How many teachers are there? (Your child will get more attention if each teacher has fewer children to care for. The younger the children are, the more teachers there should be. For example, on family home provider should only take care of two infants.)
  • Ask for specific ration and group size for the room your child will be in. 


  • Does the program use a research-based curriculum?
  • Is there a daily balance of play time, story time, activity time and nap time?
  • Are the activities right for each age group?
  • Do children have access to a variety of toys and learning materials?
  • Can children choose between activities that are loud and quiet, individual and group?
  • Are toys clean, safe and within reach of the children?


  • Is the atmosphere bright and pleasant?
  • Are there different areas for resting, quiet play and active play? Is there enough space for the children in all of these areas?
  • Is there an outdoor play area with a variety of safe equipment?
  • Can teachers see the entire playgroup at all times?
  • Is equipment the right size and type for the age of children who use it?

Keeping Children Safe

  • Have all teachers undergone background checks?
  • Have the teachers been trained on how to prevent child abuse, how to recognize signs of child abuse and how to report suspected child abuse?


  • Are children supervised at all times, even where they are sleeping?
  • How do the teachers discipline children? (Hint: Discipline should be positive, clear, consistent and fair.)

Staff Training/First Aid

  • Have teachers been trained on how to keep children healthy and safe from injury and illness?
  • Do they know how to do first aid and rescue breathing?
  • Have they been trained to understand and meet the needs of children of different ages?
  • Are all staff, volunteers, and substitutes trained on and implementing infant back sleeping and safe sleep policies to reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, crib death)?
  • When infants are sleeping, are they on their backs with no pillows, quilts, stuffed toys, or other soft bedding in the crib with them?

Hand Washing and Diapering?

  • Do all teachers and children wash their hands often, especially before eating and after using the bathroom or changing diapers?
  • Is the place where diapers are changed clean?
  • Do teachers always keep a hand on the child while diapering?
  • Do teachers remove the soiled diaper without dirtying any surface not already in contact with stool and urine?
  • Do teachers clean and sanitized the surface after finishing the changing process? (Hand should be scrubbed with soap and warm running water for at least 20 seconds and then rinsed and dried. The water faucet should be turned off with a paper towel. 

In General

  • Do you agree with the discipline practices?
  • Do you hear the sounds of happy children?
  • Are children comforted when needed?
  • Is the program licensed or regulated?
  • Are surprise visits by parents encouraged?
  • Do you envision your child being happy here?

5 Steps to Choosing Quality Early Learning 

Start Early

 Allow adequate time for your search—generally 1 to 6 months. No matter what type of care you are considering—a center or care in someone else’s home—finding the right option can take some time.

Use ExceleRate Illinois

 We’ve done your homework so begin your search by using ExceleRate Illinois to see what options are available and have they achieved a Bronze, Silver or Gold Circle of Quality. Every early learning provider who participates in ExceleRate Illinois makes quality a priority but the higher the Circle of Quality, the more each provider makes meaningful improvements to their program that better prepare children for school and life.

Visit and Ask Questions

Visit the options you are considering. Find out about these key indicators of quality:

  • Adult to Child Ratio. Ask how many children there are for each adult. The fewer the children for each adult, the better for your child. You want your child to get plenty of attention. The younger your child, the more important this is. Babies need an adult to child ratio of no more than 1:4 (one adult for four infants), while four-year-olds can do well with a ratio of 1:10 (one adult for 10 children).
  • Group Size. Find out how many children are in the group. The smaller the group, the better. Imagine a group of 25 two-year-olds with five adults, compared to a group of 10 with two adults. Both groups have the same adult to child ratio. Which would be calmer and safer? Which would be more like a family?
  • Caregiver Qualifications. Ask about the caregivers’ training and education. Caregivers with degrees and/or special training specifically in working with young children will be better able to help your child learn. Are the caregivers involved in activities to improve their skills? Do they attend classes and workshops?
  • Turnover. Check how long caregivers have been at the center or providing care in their homes. Children learn best in relationships with trusted caregivers they know. It’s best if children stay with the same caregiver for at least a year. Caregivers who come and go make it hard on your child. Getting used to new caregivers takes time and energy that could be spent learning new things.
  • Accreditation. Find out if the program has been accredited by a national organization. Providers that are accredited have met voluntary quality standards that are higher than most state licensing requirements. The following national accreditations are aligned with ExceleRate; National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Accreditation, National Accreditation Commission (NAC), Council on Accreditation (COA), American Montessori Society (AMS) Accreditation and National Accreditation for Family Child Care (NAFCC).

Make a Choice

 Think about what you saw at each visit, and make the best choice for your child and family.

Stay Involved

The work isn’t over when you find good care for your child. You and your child’s provider are partners now. Here are some ways to be involved:

  • Have parent-provider meetings regularly, and ask questions.
  • Offer to volunteer time when needed, like participating in clean-up days, fixing broken toys.
  • Be there for your child’s birthday party.
  • Visit your child at the program and read a book aloud.
  • Join in special events, like field trips, Career Day, Black History Month, or other holidays.

Even if you can’t get time off from work during the day, you can still check in at drop-off and pick-up times. Ask the provider how things are going, and how your child is doing.

Visiting and participating in events at your child’s program sends a strong message. It tells your child and your child’s provider that you think what your child is doing and learning is important.