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Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.
Wherever you are on your journey to open a licensed child care facility, it is probably the right time to pause and reflect on the purpose of licensing. While licensing can sometimes feel like an inconvenience, it’s an incredibly helpful system to have in place for parents, providers, and the children they serve. By completing the child care licensing process in your state you are communicating to parents that you understand the health and safety requirements necessary to run a child care program, and you are committed to following the rules and regulations.
Here are some helpful tips for thinking about your relationship to your state and local licensing offices.
First of all, outside of a few specific and well-defined scenarios, getting licensed is not optional. Scenarios where you might not need to get licensed include running a fully outdoor program, or caring for fewer children than requires a license. In general, if you are caring for a group of unrelated children, you need a child care license. It might be tempting to entertain the idea to try your luck and fly under the radar, but this is a huge risk you’re taking– both as a business owner and an individual. Many parents are not comfortable with leaving their children in the care of someone who is not bound to any specific rules or regulations. This will make running a sustainable business very challenging. Additionally, should an incident occur, you want an objective regulatory body to investigate and sort it out. You don’t want to be on your own for that.
With that established, let’s discuss some things to keep in mind about licensing. For one, licensing can definitely be slow. Like any government-run process, there can be hiccups and holdups and confusion and multiple contradictory answers. You should plan for this, so as not to be taken by surprise, because even if it is slow and confusing and frustrating, it’s important to follow through to ensure the safest and healthiest environments for kids and families and teachers. Chances are you will need to be both patient and persistent. But you can do it. Millions of people before you have successfully navigated the process.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of an us vs. them mentality, when it comes to your local licensing office, but let’s re-frame that. It’s important to remember that we all have the same shared goal, both licensing and providers. We want what’s best for kids. As much as you can keep this thought at the forefront of your mind it will better allow you to persist and build a strong relationship with your licensing agent.
And that’s possibly one of the best-kept secrets: your licensing agent can be an amazing resource for you and your program. Building a strong and trusting relationship with your agent can make your life so much easier! Doesn’t the thought of having a person you can call for help sound amazing? This will be especially true if you are intimidated by the thought of licensing and inspections. Of course it can be nerve wracking! It’s not easy to have a relative stranger come in and look at your home and your business and your paperwork. It’s very easy to feel judged and defensive. Building a friendly and trusting relationship with your contact at licensing and the person who will be visiting your program on a regular basis, will make the whole process more comfortable.
Licensing is not just about health and safety, it also helps legitimize the field of early care and education as a whole and professionalize your child care business. Think about it: your child care program is a professional business that requires a professional license, and that sets you apart from the unlicensed programs or the nanny down the block. The field of ECE on the whole is one that is often underpaid, under respected, and underappreciated. And especially if you’re running a business out of your own home, it can be easy for parents to forget that you’re a business owner and professional. Having a state-recognized license is a tangible reminder of what you’re doing day in and day out.
Licensing is about more than just compliance, it’s also about quality. Being unwilling or unable to consistently stay in compliance with licensing regulations can be an indicator to parents that your program is not high quality. Parents want what is best for their children, and if they do not perceive your business to be safe and high quality, they will look elsewhere. It varies by state, but in many states your licensing record is public, and parents can look it up at any point before or after enrolling in your program. This is an important thing to keep in mind because once you’re licensed you want to make sure you’re staying in compliance to avoid any potentially harmful infractions from becoming part of your licensing record. Parents will do this research, so being proactive and preventing violations is important.
Getting licensed sets you on a path for continued professional growth and development. By obtaining a license you’ll be able to participate in your local quality programs, and to work with a network such as Wonderschool. Both of these can be a great springboard for a successful, long lasting, and exciting career in Early Care & Education.