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A Tale of Three Nannies, Finding Good Childcare, Part III. Looking for Mary Poppins?

July 2004

1. Screening
The idea is to try and avoid wasting your time or the applicant's. Preliminary screening over the telephone may be useful to weed out obvious incompatible candidates. If there are still a significant number of people you are considering, have everyone fill out a written application form. This will make sure that you don't forget any questions or answers. You might also consider handing out the application form during the initial interview in order to help you decide who you want to invite back. Warning signs are applicants with unexplained gaps in unemployment or an unstable work record, lack of previous experience, or a missing key requirement for the position (e.g., a valid driver's license or training in infant-child resuscitation) or with some unacceptable characteristic, (e.g., smoking). Written applications also serve another purpose by demonstrating the applicant's commitment.

2. The Interview
While it is useful to do some of the screening over the telephone, in order to rule out misfits, there is NO substitute for personally interviewing an applicant or visiting the potential facility.

Group childcare - Main issues here are turnover and number of children per staff. Is the facility licensed? Be sure to make multiple visits. Look - at the children, at the staff, at how staff and children interact. Pay attention to the environment and physical plant. Are they well-maintained? Listen - to what the caregivers are saying to the children. Count - the number of caregivers and children. Ask - about any specific needs you have and whether the facility will be able to accommodate them. Can the facility provide references? Be Informed - about the facility's philosophy and approach to childcare. Be aware of rules and regulations.

Nannies/au pairs - How comfortable is the person with following your instructions, even though it may not be what they would do with their own children? Finally, since you will be interacting with this person every day, you need to consider your own interactions with the applicant, i.e., do you and your partner get along with the applicant?


3. Check all References
Don't skip this step! Ask former employers about the nanny's strengths and weaknesses and why they're no longer employing her - you'll want to hear how she has and hasn't worked out for other families. In most cases, you'll be talking to other parents who will be sympathetic to your concerns. Be sure to do your own background check, whether or not you are going through an agency. This includes checking the DMV. For families in California, also go to www.trustline.org. Trust is an essential part of any relationship between a caregiver and family. But in my mind, the trust must be earned.

4. The Trial Run
There's no better way to make a decision than to see for yourself how a nanny is on the job. Ask each applicant under consideration to come to your home one at a time for a few hours or even a few days, ideally while you're still on maternity leave. You will need to pay for his/her time but do not pass up the opportunity to directly observe how s/he interacts with your child. Trust your instincts and pay attention to the details--small and not so small.

5. Be a Good Employer
A good childcare provider is priceless. This is a relationship that absolutely depends on trust that must be built between both of you. Communicate well and always consider his or her needs as well as your own.

  • Be on time. In other words, be considerate of the provider's time. This applies both to drop off and pick up. Many facilities charge stiff rates ($1/min or more) for being late.
  • Spend time both at the beginning and end of the day to review important items. Given our harried schedules, it is tempting to just drop the child off or head out the door the minute the nanny arrives. But communication is essential for good childcare. Give the provider some idea of how your children are doing that day. Warn the sitter of any anticipated problems with a child (for example, "Johnny always cries for 30 minutes after we leave or Jenny didn't sleep well last night and may be a little cranky").
  • For a new nanny, take a day or two off work to give the nanny a chance to get used to your child's routines before you leave the two of them on their own. Show him/her around the house, indicating where necessary items for the children are, where the telephone is located, where the TV is and how it works, and how to lock doors.
  • Be absolutely clear about your job expectations. Review what your child likes or is permitted to do, to eat or to watch on TV. Be sure to clearly explain anything you do not want your children to do. (e.g., eating in front of the TV; or tell the sitter ahead of time that you don't want him/her to fall asleep no matter what time you get home, if this is the case).
  • Stress any safety precautions such as, "Don't tell anyone who calls that we are not home" and "Don't open the door to strangers."
  • Have all essential contact information clearly written out and in a convenient location. Be clear about what to do in emergency situations.
  • Consider having something in the house for the nanny to eat and drink, and tell the sitter those items are for him or her.
  • Consider checking in with the nanny at least once during the day to make sure all is well. Periodically drop in unannounced to observe how things are going.
  • Pay the nanny promptly and as agreed. How would you like it if your paycheck were late?

6. Signs of a Good Caregiver
Direct questioning may work with older children, but it can be difficult for young children to articulate what they like or don't like about a caregiver, and obviously impossible for the pre-verbal. You will need to rely on signs and clues from your child's behavior. For instance,

  • How does your child greet the caregiver? Does s/he light up at the first sight of him/her? Does s/he look forward to time with his/her caregiver?
  • What does your child say about the caregiver? A nanny may do everything well, but if she truly enjoys being in the company of children, your kids will know and show it. Her enthusiasm will be reflected in their words and actions.
  • How does she problem-solve? Is she creative? Proactive, but also knows when and how to work with you to provide the best possible care for your child? If your child has run out of paint, for example, does s/he look for alternatives? If your child isn't sleeping, does she talk to you, ask for advice or help?
  • Is she prompt and reliable? Nannies are humans. But is s/he considerate of your needs? For instance, does s/he give you ample warning when she's unable to care for your child because of an emergency and even helps you find a substitute caregiver. Does s/he respect your wishes?
  • How does she communicate? One nanny we had was young and enthusiastic, but it was difficult to get detailed descriptions of how my children's day went. This was frustrating for me because I didn't have a good sense of what my children's day was like. While this was in part due to some shyness and language difficulties, ideally, the caregiver will make it a point to keep you informed of daily activities by writing you notes or setting aside some time for the two of you to catch up. She'll understand that you will want to know how your child is doing and will keep you abreast of any problems, big or small.
  • Your child's room is clean and so is your child. Excellent care includes cleanliness and good health. Your nanny will be aware of good hygiene rules around your child and will stick by them.
  • Is safety a primary concern? While I make it a point to screen applicants regarding their approach to safety, the final test is in the home. For instance, how does s/he cross a street with a child? Does s/he always make your child wear a helmet when riding a bike or scooter? Does s/he always buckle up your child in the car seat?
  • Is she flexible? How well does s/he tolerate occasional lateness? Of course, this doesn't mean that she should be taken advantage of. If you are late, either pay her for overtime and/or come home early another day to reciprocate.
  • How does she handle discipline issues? Is she firm but fair? There will be times when this is difficult, even for a parent, but a good nanny will maintain her objectivity and professionalism and not lose her temper.
  • Does s/he update her skills? The best nannies will keep up on their first aid/BCLS certification and may even take coursework to hone their childcare skills. Consider paying for this coursework. You both will benefit.

Published by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service
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