In Start Your Own Child-Care Service, the Staff of Entrepreneur Media Inc. and writer Jacquelyn Lynn explain how you can start a child-care service, whether you want to start a small homebased operation or a large commercial center. In this edited excerpt, the authors offer tips on hiring and training the right staff for your child-care facility.

According to Gingerbread House owner Janet Hale, one of the most challenging parts of owning a child-care center is managing the staff. “Each teacher does [things] differently, but I have a philosophy and a way of treating children that I want them to use,” she says. “I want them to do it my way.” And you’ll likely want the same thing, which means you must hire smart and train right.

The child-to-staff ratio is one of the factors that will strongly affect the type of center you run. Listed below are the American Public Health Association/American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations by age for group size and child-to-staff ratios. Your state’s regulations may be different from these recommendations.

  • For a child who is 0 to 24 months, a group size of 6 with a child-to-staff ratio of 3:1 is best.
  • For a child who is 25 to 30 months, a group size of 8 with a child-to-staff ratio of 4:1 is best.
  • For a child who is 31 to 35 months, a group size of 10 with a child-to-staff ratio of 5:1 is best.
  • For a child who is 3 years old, a group size of 14 with a child-to-staff ratio of 7:1 is best.
  • For a child who is 4 to 6 years old, a group size of 16 with a child-to-staff ratio of 8:1 is best.

Child-care center operators agree that one of their biggest challenges is finding and keeping qualified caregivers and assistants. Help-wanted newspaper ads are expensive and often don’t produce much response. You may want to try online sites, such as Craigslist, Careerbuilder, and Monster. You may also include an “Employment Opportunities” section on your website. Beyond that, be creative: Network among people you know including current employees, put notices on bulletin boards in churches and community areas, and check with school placement offices. Students working on their teaching credentials are often a good source of staff, particularly when you’re searching for qualified part-timers.

Caregiver characteristics and qualifications

The better qualified your staff is, the more attractive they and your service is to prospective customers. So what should you look for in the way of characteristics and qualifications? Specific education, certifications, and experience levels will likely be dictated by your state law. But in general, your caregivers should have an understanding of child development and some training in early childhood education to make them sensitive and responsive to all the children in their care.

The caregivers on your staff should be warm and loving and also have mature, healthful, positive attitudes about life, love, sex, and interpersonal relations. Remember that impressionable children pick up on the attitudes and behavior of the adults around them with amazing acuity. Good caregivers are sensitive to each child’s individual, developmental, and cultural characteristics.

Caregivers must be educated or instinctively adept at disciplining children fairly, without traumatizing them. They must have the skills to implement play and instructional activity for groups of disorganized, rambunctious, strong-willed youngsters.

Background checks

Screen potential caregivers very carefully; negligent or inappropriate employees can harm the children, damage your reputation, and bring lawsuits. Ask all applicants whether they've abused children in any way in the past. Let them know you'll be conducting a background check to verify all their answers. Though it's unlikely that many people will admit to a history of child abuse, it's possible that the attention you direct to the issue will discourage them from seeking employment in child care.

Don’t try to conduct the background checks yourself—this is a task best left to an expert. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200 for a professional background check, depending on how much detail you need. Check your telephone directory under “Investigative Services” to find a resource for background checks, do an internet search, or ask other business owners for a referral.

Once they’re on board

The hiring process is only the beginning of the challenge of having employees. You need to provide a complete orientation for new employees.

Your orientation and initial training should include:

  • A complete tour of your facility
  • Thorough discussion of the goals and philosophy of the facility, including some historical background of how it was formed and has grown
  • The names and ages of the children for whom the caregiver will be responsible and their specific developmental needs
  • Any special adaptation(s) of the facility required for a child with special needs
  • Any special health or nutritional needs of the children assigned to the caregiver
  • The planned program of activities at the facility
  • Routines and transitions
  • Acceptable methods of discipline
  • Policies of the facility in regards to communicating with parents
  • Meal patterns and food-handling policies
  • Occupational health hazards for caregivers
  • Emergency health and safety procedures
  • Security policies and procedures
  • General health policies and procedures, including hand-washing techniques; diapering techniques; toileting care; appropriate diaper disposal; food preparation, serving, and storage techniques (if the employee will be preparing food); formula preparation (if formula is handled); child abuse detection, prevention, and reporting; how to teach health promotion concepts to children and parents; and recognizing symptoms of illness

A proper orientation ensures that all staff receive specific and basic training for the work they'll be doing so they can carry out their responsibilities in a safe and effective manner.

Temporary employees

Qualified temporary classroom help can be difficult to find. When a caregiver calls in sick, your first source of assistance should be in-house. If you, as the director, are able to take that person’s place, or if you can call in off-duty staff to cover, your problem is solved. If that's not possible, or if your temporary need is longer-term (such as when a caregiver suffers an extended illness or goes on vacation), you'll need to find a qualified substitute.

Start by advertising in local newspapers and locally targeted online sources for substitute teachers/caregivers and establish your own network. The same teachers who work as substitutes in preschools and kindergartens may also meet your state’s requirements to work at your child-care facility. Credentialed schoolteachers who work as substitutes may be interested in being on your list for substitute work as well, particularly if you make the pay appealing.

If your advertising doesn't produce a sufficient pool of substitute candidates—say, one-third to one-half your staff size—contact your local school district and find out how to contact the pool of subs it relies on. Also, if many of your aides are students working on graduate degrees in teaching, they may have classmates who aren't interested in full-time work but would like some extra money on occasion. If they're qualified, give them a brief training session—paid, of course—and have them on standby for emergencies.