Communication is a Two-Way Street
Good communication is critical in any effort to avoid or prevent complaints. It should begin even before a child enters a program. Start off the relationship with a written contract. A contract initiates discussion about how a program operates and also serves as a written reminder of the agreement between the parent and the program. Contracts should be easy to read and understand. Signing a contract isn't enough, however. Both parties should jointly review its contents before enrolling a child.
Verbal communication is just as important. Taking the time to talk in person and getting to know each other before the child starts in care will set the stage for continued healthy communication. Time and privacy are important for good communication. While some problems can be resolved in a few minutes at pick-up and drop-off time, any serious misunderstanding should be discussed when both parties have enough time to share their feelings without others being present. If either party is angry, it helps to set a meeting time in the future. By the arranged time, the angry party will probably have "cooled off" enough for a good discussion to take place.
Honesty is another important ingredient in problem solving. If a parent is upset because a provider raised her rates, but complains about some program activity instead, a fruitful discussion will be difficult. A lot of time and energy will be wasted in discussing the stated complaint without addressing the real issue. It is crucial for both providers and parents to be honest about their true concerns. Nobody should have to guess what's upsetting the other person.
- Speak out. Sitting on a problem won't solve it.
- Think your concerns through before discussing it. Reacting out of anger or haste can make things worse.
- Find a time when both parties can speak freely.
- Make sure you have a clear understanding of the problem. Relying on a child's or another adult's version may result in misunderstandings.
- Keep the child (and other families and children) out of the dispute.
- Listen to the other person. There are always two sides to every story.
- Be as clear as possible about what you would like to see happen (or never happen again). Vague complaints are difficult to address.
- Try to leave the meeting with some kind of understanding, even if you "agree to disagree" and the child moves to another care center.
- Let the provider know if the situation does or does not improve.
Child care complaints seem to get most of their mileage from unfulfilled or unrealistic expectations. Parents most commonly criticize child care programs about:
- Enrolling more children than their license allows or not hiring the legally-required number of workers.
- Not supervising children at all times (children are left alone outside or during nap time).
- Closing at the last minute for vacations or emergencies without arranging substitute care.
- Keeping the TV on.
- Not giving children enough to eat.
- Using harsh discipline.
- Constantly changing the rules or not enforcing rules in a consistent manner.
- Failing to give parents enough advance notice about changes (change in hours, increase in fees).
- Having a high staff turnover or leaving children with assistants too often.
Providers, on the other hand, commonly complain about parents who:
- Pay child care fees late.
- Pick up and deliver children late.
- Bringing children who are sick to child care.
- Not notifying the program when a child is going to be absent.
- Expecting a provider to save a space for free while the child is on vacation or home sick.
- Not giving the program enough notice when leaving child care. (Two weeks is the acceptable minimum; a month is better.)
- Wanting to pick up spotless children from child care.
- Making "goodbyes" worse by lingering too long even after the staff has hinted; "It would be a good idea to leave."
When trying to decide what to do about a problem, a parent or provider should analyze the complaint and then decide how to proceed.
When either party thinks a program rule is being violated, first check with the written contract. Sometimes you may find your memory is playing tricks on you and what you thought was the rule is slightly (or significantly) different. Sometimes, upon checking, you will see that you were right! When this is the case, pointing out the rule to the offending party (in a "non-offensive" way) could end the disagreement. And, then again, it might not.
Some providers don't even follow their own rules and there are usually chronic rule-breakers in any parent group. Written contracts alone won't make these people conform. Parents and providers should be able to expect that a written contract will be followed. Otherwise, why bother to have one? If standing up for your rights results in bitterness, the relationship was probably never going to work anyway. In these cases, the provider or parent may simply decide to stop doing business with each other. On occasion, bending a rule can work for both parties. For example, if a parent always pays the child care fee late because a provider's payment schedule doesn't coincide with the parent's pay period, wouldn't it make sense for the provider to accept a different payment schedule from this family?
Some disagreements have nothing to do with rules or regulations. The parent and the provider simply have different views about children and child development. Unless the disagreement is so strong that changing care providers is the only answer, compromise may work. Before voicing your concern, take the time to decide if some middle ground might be acceptable. For example, perhaps you, as a parent, need Susie to be super clean only on Friday nights when you go to Grandma's house. You might ask if you can send extra clothes that day and have the child changed just before pick-up time. Another example might be that one of your child care parents is always late on Mondays. In this situation, the provider may be willing to charge a flat, additional fee on an ongoing basis to avoid the hard feelings every Monday. It is up to each of you, parent and provider, to decide whether maintaining the relationship is worth a compromise.
It seems useful to point out here that, if a parent really takes time to screen carefully when looking for child care, many disagreements of this type can be avoided. Parents who visit a program several times before making a selection are probably not going to have as many surprises (or disappointments) as the parents who only shop for child care over the phone. There is no substitute for seeing a program in action. Programs can also help by not promising services or activities they have no intention of delivering.
Child care programs have great flexibility in setting their rules, hours, rates, schedules and activities. If a program is unwilling to change its method of operation to please an individual family, the family either has to live with the situation or change care. Sometimes the provider decides to end a child care relationship when personal differences are unresolvable.
Parents whose children attend a child care center, rather than a family child care home, sometimes have more difficulty resolving problems simply because more people work in the program. First, try discussing the problem with the staff members involved. Keep in mind, however, that in some centers, staff are not allowed to discuss complaints with parents. In those cases, and when you cannot reach satisfaction by talking to staff, you will need to talk with the center director. Find out the exact "chain of command" when enrolling in a center.
On occasion, parents may find that the problem resulted from staff misinterpreting the rules or creating rules the director knew nothing about. Or, they may find that the director is more than happy to alter or abolish the rule, in particular one that imposes a hardship on more than one family. On the other hand, the director may back up the staff, but give parents a better understanding of a partuciular policy.
Some complaints involve the health and safety of children. Licensing regulations specify that:
- Programs should not exceed their licensed capacity.
- Programs should employ the number of staff required by their license.
- Children should be supervised at all times.
- Child care facilities should be safe places for children.
- No corporal or humiliating punishment is allowed in child care - no spanking, no smacking of hands, no withholding of food, no calling names, no isolation in the dark, etc.
- Once a parent points out a licensing violation to a program, she has the right to expect instant if not immediate compliance.
A provider who habitually over-enrolls may not respond to gentle calls for compliance. If a program ignores a parent's initial complaint, most parents look for a new program. Removing and safeguarding your own child is not enough. Few, if any, programs ever get closed down based on a single complaint. Parents should not agonize too long over whether or not to report a serious violation. In most cases, the licensing staff will make an unannounced visit and, if the complaint appears valid, direct the program to come into compliance. Complaints can also be registered anonymously. Simply call the local licensing office and let them know you want to make a complaint about a child care program. Don't use this mechanism for registering complaints about a program's general rules or program style. Licensing agencies have no jurisdiction over these "personal" areas. Complaining to licensing agencies should not be used for revenge when a parent is unhappy with a program for a nonregulatory reason. In the end, the program will be cleared when it is found that the complaint has no merit. Bogus complaints just clog the system and slow down the licensing staff from investigating the real ones.
Here are a few truisms about complaints:
- Parents are rarely going to be completely satisfied with every aspect of the program they select. Likewise, programs may never have complete agreement with every parent whose child they enroll. Differences of opinion are unavoidable and, in some cases, healthy.
- Problems can't be solved unless they are discussed openly, and hopefully, with good will on both sides. Criticism should always be as constructive as possible and accompanied by some suggestions on how to improve the situation.
- Parents and providers should abide by the rules they agree to when the child was enrolled or they should jointly change the rules which aren't working. Compromises made when the parent and provider like and trust each other are usually good for all concerned. However, no compromise will work if the two parties don't have a basic sense of trust in each other.
- Remember that complaints made with care can lead to the successful resolution of problems.