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Parent handbooks that help sell your program

Updating your program’s parent handbook is a too-often neglected project but one that has impact on the health of your child care business. Parents are your paying clients. They need and deserve up-to-date information on how your program uses the money they pay.
A comprehensive, readable, and attractive parent handbook is a reassuring tool for parents who are learning to trust you with their children. It’s also your protection and defense when questions and grievances arise.

Tone and format
Whether you are starting from scratch or just revising an existing handbook, make sure your final product is reader friendly, accurate, and comprehensive.
Use simple words and short sentences. Avoid educational and government jargon. If your handbook reads like a law school textbook, your only readers will be attorneys. Lighten pages with digital photos of children’s art, classroom areas, and playground projects. Make the handbook simple to navigate by including a table of contents. Separate sections with tabbed dividers or use colored paper to code content areas.
Be careful to use inclusive language. Not all children have a mom and a dad, some have grandparent guardians, and some have foster parents. Strive to make your document work for every kind of family.
If the families you serve speak languages other than English, get your handbook translated. To find a competent translator, talk to your local public school administrative office. Many public schools routinely translate material they send home to parents. They can often suggest a person familiar with education issues who will charge a reasonable fee.
Accuracy is essential—the handbook is as much your policy guide as it is a parent resource. If you change fees, build a swimming pool, or offer occasional night care, your handbook informs parents about what to expect and how the change affects them. Information like this reassures them that their children are well cared for.
Maintaining accuracy while keeping costs low requires some creativity. Information that constantly changes, such as menus, lesson plans, and illness alerts, can be printed separately on an as-needed basis. Post these sheets on your parents’ bulletin board.
Some programs bind the parent handbook in a loose-leaf notebook. When information is updated, you print only the updated pages. The downside is that parents may not take the time to replace the outdated pages. Consider reprinting a whole section to make the task easier.
Smaller programs might save money by using their office computer printer or photocopier. Printers, including color printers, are relatively inexpensive. Print only as many copies of the handbook as you need. Ask volunteers to assemble the handbooks, or have a collating party at a staff meeting.
Consider developing a program Web site for maximum flexibility and ease of updating. Posting your parent handbook on your program’s Web site is efficient and easy to update. Before abandoning a printed handbook, however, make sure all parents have easy access to a computer with an Internet connection. Posting to the Web shouldn’t discriminate against some families! Printing a legible, advertising-free copy of the handbook should be an easy option.
While making your Web site accessible, beware of violating confidences and sharing personal information. For example, you may want to post a map, phone number, and e-mail address for your program but not the names and phone numbers of your teachers.

Introduce your program
Usually you will share your parent handbook at the time a family enrolls in your program. Often the handbook gives a page-by-page description of your program that you can highlight as you talk with parents. Add a line to your enrollment agreement, asking parents to acknowledge the receipt of the handbook—a first line of defense when a parent pleads “I didn’t know.”
The first few pages of the handbook describe the framework of your program—educational philosophy, program history, and mission. Describe the type of program—Head Start, church-based preschool, Montessori school, or public education pre-K, for example—and any unique features.
As you tell your program’s story, include information on curriculum. Name the printed curriculum guide, if any, that you use. If you are committed to emergent curriculum, explain how teachers guide children in their learning. The objective is to help parents understand that children build skills as they interact with people and objects in the rich environment you provide.
The introduction is also the place to note successes and achievements. Parents want the best for their children. Your management skills and the quality of your program are reflected by professional associations, accreditations, or community honors your program has earned.

Program-wide policies
Use this section of your handbook to describe the features that make your business run smoothly day-to-day. Business policies cover all possible eventualities and ensure parents equal treatment for their children and families. For example, having one tuition policy for your friends and another for children whose care is subsidized will destroy your credibility. Remember, consistency is as important to running a successful business as it is in guiding young children.
There are no absolutes—beyond licensing rules—in program policy. But some areas must be addressed. Make sure you develop clear, enforceable program policies that cover the following topics.
Confidentiality and privacy of families
Nondiscrimination statement
Operating hours
Attendance requirements
Holidays and unplanned, emergency closings for extreme weather, for example
and sign-out procedures
Arrival and departure routines including parking lot protocol
Release of children to someone other than a parent
Fees and fee adjustments including special activity fees (like piano lessons), late payments, checks returned because of insufficient funds, and late pick-up charges
Program liability insurance coverage
Safety and health requirements including
   • immunization and well-child documentation
   • accident and incident reporting procedures
   • emergency medical care provisions
   • procedures for children who get sick while in your care
   • support for mildly and chronically ill children
   • rules for dispensing medication
Required medical screenings
Food program including subsidized meals, food from home, and typical menus
Photographing children
Water play
Religious practices, if any
Guidance and discipline techniques
Transportation of children for program activities
Requirements related to reporting suspected child abuse or neglect
Tips for classroom visitors, including an invitation to parents to visit any time
Disaster preparedness including contact information
Causes for termination of services
Grievance procedures
A map of your building and playground

Children’s care and education
In addition to program-wide policies, include information on goals and activities by age level. A section on infants would describe holding a baby while feeding, for example, while a section on the 3-year-old class would discuss learning to use fork and spoon.
Outline a typical day. Explain how activities are based on how children of a particular age grow, learn, and build social and emotional skills. Many programs include a chart of developmental characteristics to reassure parents and to identify developmental red flags. This information educates parents about the importance of your role, and can be an important part of marketing.
Consider introducing this section with information on staff: teachers, assistants, and floaters. Provide each person’s name, photo, and short biographical notes, especially their training and experience.
Be sure to include information on the following topics.
Classroom environment including descriptions of interest centers, materials, and equipment
Inclusion of children with disabilities
Supervision of children
Children’s belongings including
   • cubbies
   • extra clothes
   • handling soiled clothing
   • diapering routines
Toilet learning
Classroom schedules
Nutrition and meal service including information on how you handle allergies and food restrictions
Naps and bedding
Field trips
Outdoor play
Supplies including contributions of classroom materials and providing diapers and food
Media use
Communication and assessment, including periodic parent-teacher conferences, daily reports for infants, and casual check-in conversations

Family resources
Use this final section of your handbook to help assure parents that you understand that teachers and parents are partners in children’s education. Offer support tools that help families feel welcomed and essential to the well-being of children.
Parents often need reassurance about transitions from home to school. Be sure to include information on what to expect from their child and from teachers. Children, for example, may resist coming, display fear, or shed tears. Teachers respond with welcoming comfort and reassurance.
Invite parents to take advantage of both general and program-specific opportunities by including information on the following resources.
Community resources including public libraries, clinics, and parks
Parenting education classes offered by local groups
Parent lending library
School-wide celebrations like your fall festival and spring parents’ party, for example
Parent involvement opportunities
Parent-program communication including newsletters, Web site information, and family mailboxes
Annual program evaluation
These opportunities add value to the child care services you provide. They can enrich the childrearing experience and save parents time and money.
A readable, informative parent handbook helps you avoid conflict, build loyalty, and recruit new parents as customers.

Billman, Jean. 1993. . Madison, Wis.: Brown and Benchmark.
Decker, Celia A. and John R. Decker. 2005. , Eighth Ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Rafanello, Donna. Does your parent handbook need a makeover? 167: January/February 2006 (66-67).

Editor’s note: In Texas, sample forms related to program administration are available to download from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Click on the link to Child Care Licensing and scroll down the page to Forms. Click on Day Care and choose the forms you want to download.
Many other states have similar information on their Web sites.