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    • List safe ratios for family child care settings and reasons why maintaining ratio is important.
    • Define active supervision and provide examples of what active supervision looks like.
    • Brainstorm ways to safely handle supervision challenges in family child care settings.




    Ratios for Family Child Care

    To determine the number of children to safely enroll in your family child care program, it is important to consider

    • If you will be working alone
    • If you will also be caring for your own children
    • The number of children or individuals requiring significant assistance for whom you can safely care

    It is also critical that you check with the licensing standards in your state and with your family child care administrator to know exactly how many children and of what ages you can safely care for at one time.

    The Department of Defense follows these guidelines when considering ratios for family child care homes:

    The maximum group size in a home is six children per provider, including the provider’s own children under the age of eight.

    1. When all children are under the age of two, the maximum group size at any one time is three.
    2. In mixed-age groups, the number of children under two years of age is limited to two children.
    3. When all children are school-age, the maximum group size is eight. 

    In general, safe ratios for small family child care homes, where there is one adult provider, mean:

    • No more than six children, including the provider’s own children under the age of 8 years
    • No more than two children or individuals who are incapable of self-preservation—in other words, under the age of 2 or older than 2 but with particular special needs. It is important to consider the level of assistance a particular child or person may need, as the overall ratio in the family care setting may need to be lowered to safely care for all individuals when there is a child with significant developmental or physical needs.


    Within some states or agencies, for example, within the military services, family child care providers may operate infant only child care homes, where all children being cared for are under the age of 2 (or in some states, 3). In these homes, a safe ratio is no more than three children, once again including the provider’s own children. 

    In addition, some family child care homes may provide overnight or extended care for children where the child stays in the family care provider’s home during nighttime hours, or for a couple of weeks, perhaps during a parent’s service training or deployment.  For clarification between extended care and overnight care, check with your service or local licensing agency about required ratios for overnight and extended care.

    Once again, it is important to check the regulations in your state or for your specific program, but a safe ratio for overnight or extended care is no more than three children, including the provider’s own children under 8 years of age. It can be challenging to carefully watch many young children for an extended time; these overnight and extended care ratios are in place to support a provider’s active supervision.

    Many states also allow providers to operate a large family child care program (sometimes called a group home), where there are at least two adult providers present and a larger number of children (e.g., typically eight to twelve children). Large family child care homes are defined differently in different states and by different organizations. So once again, it is important to check your state or agency standards. The limits on enrollment for this type of setting may also be determined by the physical space available in and outside your home.

    Maintaining appropriate ratios is critical to ensuring safe and high-quality care. Exceeding the ratios defined by your state or agency can make it difficult to provide good supervision and appropriately meet the basic needs of the children in your care; it can put the children and you at great risk. Beyond safety concerns, maintaining the defined ratios helps ensure that you can provide the time and engaged attention to individually support each child’s healthy development. According to Howes, Philips, and Whitebook (1992), when providers become overly taxed with their time, they are far less likely to have one-on-one conversations or plan quality experiences. And consider what you may feel like in a crowded space. Crowded spaces can make many people feel nervous or angry, and this can affect their behavior—they may become defensive, aggressive or withdrawn. The same can be true for children; the ratio standards help all individuals in your program, including you, feel secure and calm.

    Who counts in ratio and when do ratios apply?

    The ratios outlined above help to identify which children to count when determining ratio. All children present in the home, including one’s own, under the age of 8 (or for some states and agencies, ages 12 years and younger), must be considered when determining child-to-provider ratios. The child-to-provider ratio applies all the time, even if some children are sleeping. As discussed more below, supervision practices may be different overnight, and family child care providers may take a few minutes for personal time (e.g., to use the restroom), but defined ratios should always be maintained.

    It is important to note that although all individuals living in your household are required to undergo background checks before you can care for children in your home, these individuals do not count as providers unless they are also employees of your family child care program. Although a household member—or perhaps a nearby family member or friend—may be your designated backup in the event of an emergency, or if you are ill, you are the primary provider and should be present in the home at all times. Except for very brief times away to care for personal needs, only you (or for large family child care homes, you and an assistant) should be counted as providers in ratio.


    Supervision describes the ways adults help protect children from injury or other harm. Supervision is an active process. It involves watching, listening, interacting, monitoring, and preventing problems.

    According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (Caring for Our Children, 2011), "active and positive supervision" involves:

    • Knowing each child's abilities
    • Establishing clear and simple safety rules
    • Being aware of and scanning for potential safety hazards
    • Standing in strategic positions so that you can see all children at once
    • Scanning play activities and circulating around the area
    • Focusing on the positive rather than the negative to teach what is safe for the child and other children
    • Teaching children the appropriate and safe use of each piece of equipment (for example, use scissors while sitting and only on materials that are safe to cut because unsafe use of scissors can cause injury)

    You can see that supervision is much more than watching. It involves all your skills as a teacher and caregiver. Supervision is your responsibility and commitment to the families who have trusted you with their children. It includes completing your daily safety checklists each morning to ensure a safe environment, but it also includes your interaction and helpful guidance to support children’s healthy development.

    Supervision in family child care can be more complicated than in center-based settings. As a solo provider, you have to be more strategic, as you are the only set of adult ears and eyes to ensure the children’s safety. In the Explore section below, we ask you to consider some common supervision challenges in family child care settings. We will also continue to highlight important supervision practices in the lessons ahead, as things such as the environmental set up can affect the quality of supervision.  

    Regarding supervision, the National Association for Family Child Care (2013) states that these should take place:

    • Children under the age of 3 are in the provider's line of sight at all times, except when the provider attends to their own personal needs for up to five minutes. The provider assures the safety of all children while attending to their own personal needs.
    • Children age 3 and older may be out of the provider’s line of sight for short periods of time, as long as the provider is close by and listens carefully to assure all children are safe.
    • Children under the age of 6 are never inside or outside by themselves. When children are inside, the provider is inside. When children are outside, the provider is outside.

    Supervision during routine care

    We will discuss feeding and toileting in more detail in the Healthy Course. However, as these are more complicated times to supervise, especially in family child care settings, we highlight below best practices for supervision. These are especially important rules for infants, toddlers, and young preschoolers.


    Follow these safety supervision guidelines during feeding:

    • Bottle-fed infants should be held during bottle feedings.
    • Older infants and toddlers should always be seated while eating and drinking. Choking or injury risk is greater when children are on the move.
    • You need to be within arm's reach of young children who are eating and maintain visual supervision. Choking is a silent accident.
    Diapering and Toileting

    For infants and toddlers, remember during diapering to keep a hand on the child at all times. Having materials prepared before diapering allows your hands to stay on task. Toileting routines exposes toddlers to water deep enough for drowning. Hand washing may involve a step stool, which toddlers can fall from. Remember, these types of care-giving routines may be routine for you, but they aren't for toddlers. Their motor skills are still developing. They are still learning to coordinate and balance, so accidents are more prone to occur. Bathrooms are not easy environments to make safe, so your awareness of hazards is crucial to prevent injury.

    For potty-trained preschoolers and older children, privacy during toileting is appropriate, but you should still be nearby so that you can hear and help as needed. You can also help ensure that each child washes his or her hands after toileting.

    In family child care settings, knowing the diapering and toileting schedule that fits your children’s age and developmental level can help with supervision. For example, perhaps you have set transition times in the day where toileting and diapering happens at once for all children so you can easily watch and assist all. You could also have a small basket of books or a set of safe manipulatives ready for children to read or explore when they are finished. Identifying these toileting and diapering times in your daily schedule will help you and the children develop safe routines.

    There will undoubtedly be accidents or dirty diapers that need to be changed outside of the schedule you establish. Before you open your program each morning, it’s important to have your bathroom and diapering area well stocked so all materials you will need are ready. You also need to consider, in the event that an immediate diaper or toileting visit is necessary, how you will supervise the other children. What safe activities can you temporarily provide and what safe space can you temporarily place the other children in so you can attend to the child who needs changing?

    Arrival and Departure

    The arrival and departure routine is the transferring of care to and from home. Greeting each family member and child upon arrival is a conscious and visible strategy to say "I am aware and happy that you are here." This says to families that their child is transitioning to your care for the day. Departure is similar. Greeting the family when they arrive and saying goodbye to the child and family completes the transition.

    To account for each child, you should have a sign-in, sign-out procedure for you and the families, so you have a record of the departure date and time and the name of the adult dropping off or picking up the child. Children should only be released to the adults that have been approved to pick them up. You should have a signed form from each child’s parents or guardian(s) that indicates who is permitted to pick them up and when. For some children, you may have additional documentation regarding their custody arrangements. Consult with your family child care administrator for policies regarding families with custody arrangements and disputes. Children should only be released to parents who have custody.

    Each Family Child Care Setting is Different

    Each family child care setting is unique; you will need to adapt the supervision to the children in your care—not only based on their age and developmental level, but also on their unique personalities, strengths, and interests. For example, for infants, especially those that are becoming mobile, or for toddlers who are just learning how to safely get their needs met, your proximity will let you directly help if, for example, an infant begins to grasp onto another child’s body to help her stand or a toddler needs help with the language to request the toy he wants. When determining the level of direct, engaged supervision necessary for various activities, consider the type, complexity, and level of risk involved. More supervision may be necessary when learning a new or difficult skill. Less supervision may be necessary in activities like reading or playing with soft blocks. Independence for older children should be respected and encouraged, although this should be balanced with direct engagement during appropriate activities.

    Overnight Supervision

    If you are caring for a child for more than 24 hours, you are permitted to sleep sometime between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. if all the children in your program are also sleeping. For overnight or extended care, you can watch no more than three children under the age of 8 years. If you are caring for children overnight, you should have mechanisms to safely monitor their sleep (e.g., an audio or visual monitor).


    Maintaining Ratios

    Consider the factors that determine appropriate ratios in your family child care home.


    Supervision is not a solitary task. You supervise best while interacting with the children in your care. You and the children will be talking, singing, giggling, making discoveries, having quiet time, sharing a book, exploring toys and materials, sharing one-on-one time, and engaging with peers.

    Because of your supervision, the children in your care are free to learn about themselves, their environment, and the people around them, which promotes a holistic approach to development. Active supervision aids in children’s cognitive, social-emotional, and communicative development.

    When it comes to supervision, try the following strategies:

    • Anticipate children's actions.
    • Move through all of the spaces where children are.
    • Frequently scan areas to ensure safety.
    • Limit contact with other adults, a cell phone, the television, or other electronic distraction.
    • Stay within arm’s reach of infants during tummy time. 
    • Consistently check equipment for damage.
    • Frequently make eye contact with children.
    • Always keep one hand on an infant while diapering.
    • Immediately act to prevent injury.
    • Provide interaction and support during play and learning.
    • Quickly and effectively respond to children's distress.
    • Provide closer supervision for high-risk activities.
    • Sit close to non-mobile infants when mobile infants or older children are near.
    • Always place infants on their backs to sleep.
    • For young children, be present to support each child’s safe use of the toilet.
    • For older preschoolers and school-age children, give privacy during toileting but still be able to hear and help as needed.
    • For young children, be present and closely watch each child wash his or her hands.
    • Remain in an arm's reach of young children who are eating.
    • Maintain visual contact with children who are going to sleep, are asleep, or are in the process of waking.

    Keep in mind that a strong provider is able to simultaneously interact with a child or small group of children, perhaps reading a book or exploring play dough together, while also monitoring all the children in her or his care. For family child care providers, you should take time to identify if there are certain activities in which it is more difficult for you to engage with some children and safely supervise all. For these certain activities, it is useful to take time planning out how all the children can engage in these experiences at once. How can you make sure these experiences are open-ended enough to accommodate children of different developmental levels so they can all be involved and you can more effectively supervise? You can also help identify low supervision activities that children may choose if other children are engaged in an activity that requires more of your supervision.



    Thoughtful Supervision During Special Times

    As noted above, family child care settings can offer unique challenges in supervision, as you are often a provider working by yourself without a coworker to attend to the children during important aspects of the daily routine. Look over the scenarios in the Supervision Activity below and think about how you would safely provide supervision for the children in your care. How might your strategies change depending on the age, needs and developmental level of the children? In each of these scenarios, your supervision is compromised either by the lack of sight or the necessity to multitask. After brainstorming, look at some of the suggestions we provide and see if they align with your own ideas. Talk with your family child care administrator or colleagues in your field about your ideas.

    • What happens when you need a few minutes of personal time to use the bathroom?
    • What about during meal preparation for snacks or lunch?
    • What about speaking with and attending to families during pick-up and drop-off times?



    It is important to know where the hot spots are in your family child care home and in the outdoor spaces you use. Draw a map of where you care for children in your home or the playground area you use as directed by the Active Supervision: Identifying Hot Spots Activity. Spend some time observing children. Each time you see a problem behavior or an injury, mark an X where it occurred. At the end of the day or week, look for patterns. Which areas have the most X’s? Discuss your results with your family child care administrator, trainer, or colleagues.

    Remember, active supervision involves all your skills as a teacher and caregiver. Review the Hot Spots Activity. Read the scenarios. Identify the problems related to supervision. Then brainstorm possible solutions. Share your responses with a trainer, coach or family child care administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.


    Active SupervisionFocused attention and intentional observation of children. Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers must be directly supervised at all times. School-aged children may be out of the provider’s line of sight for short periods of time, as long as the provider is close by and listens carefully to assure all children are safe
    Extended CareWhen a family child care provider watches a child, or small group of children, continuously for a period of a few days to a few weeks; this is more common in military settings when family members may be away for training or deployment
    Infant Only HomeA home child care setting where one provider cares for three children or less, all under the age of 2 (or 3, depending on state requirements)
    Large or Group Family Child Care HomeA home child care setting where there is more than one provider and a larger number of children, typically eight to twelve
    Overnight CareWhen a family child care provider watches a child, or small group of children (no more than three) between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
    Small Family Child Care HomeA home child care setting where one provider cares for six children or fewer, all under the age of 8 years old




    Based on the information from this lesson which of the following determine the total number of children you can safely enroll in your family child care program?


    Maintaining appropriate child to provider ratios is important because…


    Why do some activities and routines need closer supervision?


    True or false? Interacting and engaging with the children in your care interferes with active supervision and creates an unsafe environment.

    References & Resources

    American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. (2011). Caring for Our Children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs, 3rd ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Also available at

    Harms, T., Clifford, R. M., & Cryer, D. (2005). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, revised edition. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

    Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. (2010). Health and Safety in Family Child Care Home: Participant Guide.

    Howes, C., Phillips, D. A., & Whitebook, M. (1992). Thresholds of Quality: Implications for the social development of children in center-based child care. Child Development, 63(2), 449-460. doi: 10.2307/1131491

    Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2002). Infant/Toddler Caregiving; A Guide to Routines, (2nd ed.). Sacramento: California Department of Education.

    Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R. M. (2006). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale, revised edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

    McWilliam, R. A., & Casey, A. M. (2007). Engagement of Every Child in the Preschool Classroom. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.