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Maintaining Safe Adult-to-Child Ratios

Following standard ratios and group sizes greatly helps keep children safe. This lesson will help you understand why ratios are important, what ratio is right for your program, and how to solve common problems.

  • State program’s staff-to-child ratio.
  • Identify exceptions to the program’s standard ratio.
  • Name which staff members count in ratio.
  • Implement strategies to maintain accountability.



Have you ever been to a crowded concert, shopping center, or sporting event and thought, “There are just too many people here!” For many of us, these crowded environments make us feel nervous and sometimes angry. Sometimes these environments make us feel defensive. We try to protect our space and our belongings.

Young children feel the same way when they are overcrowded. For this reason, child development programs put limits on the number of children in a classroom. They also limit the number of children each adult is responsible for.

These limits are good for many reasons. First, smaller groups are easier to supervise for safety and in the event of an emergency. Second, small group sizes allow children to interact and form friendships with peers. Third, small group sizes allow adults to respond quickly and sensitively to children’s needs. Adults can get to know the children well, individualize interactions, and promote independence. Limiting the number of children in a classroom can also improve your job satisfaction.

What is a Safe Staff-to-Child Ratio?

Staff-to-child ratios have two parts: (a) the number of children per staff member and (b) the maximum group size.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) program standards (2018), the American Academy of Pediatrics (2019), and the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (2019) provide guidelines for ratios and group sizes. NAEYC recommends a maximum group size of 20 for children ages 4 and 5 (ratio 1:10). If the majority of the class is 3 years old, the maximum recommended group size drops to 18 (ratio 1:9). These group sizes and ratios are guidelines. Your program may have different standards based on level of staff support, training, and monitoring.

There may be times when a higher staff-to-child ratio is necessary. For example, if a child with a disability (including medical needs or who uses a wheelchair) enters the classroom, additional adults may need to be on call in the event of an emergency. In addition, different staff-to-child ratios are required during field trips. More adults are needed to keep children safe when you leave your building.

    When Do Ratios Apply?

    Ratios apply all the time! You must be vigilant about maintaining an appropriate staff-to-child ratio. This is important for the children’s well-being and for your own. The standard ratios apply indoors and outdoors. Whenever you are responsible for children, you must monitor and maintain a ratio. It is a good idea to have walkie-talkies or phones available to reach another adult if help is needed. Never leave a classroom out of ratio.

    The only exception to the standard ratios described above is during rest time. When children are napping, it is acceptable for one adult to remain alone with the group of children. An adult who leaves the classroom must remain in the building, though, and be readily available in case of emergency. Good judgment must be used. If many children are awake or if a child has special mobility or health needs, another adult may be necessary.

    Field trips may be another exception to standard ratios. As described above, group sizes may double, but ratios must be maintained. More adults may be necessary to maintain the safety of all children. See Lesson Ten (Special Considerations for Trips Away from Your Program) for more information.

    Who Counts in Ratio?

    Only approved staff members (teachers, teacher assistants) count towards the adult-to-child ratio. It is not appropriate to substitute non-teaching staff, such as the food service worker or bus driver. For brief periods, as when a teacher needs to use the restroom, an administrator or approved classroom support staff member can be counted in a ratio.


    Teachers and programs have developed a variety of ways to maintain accountability. Watch as Michele talks about strategies she uses to maintain ratio in a unique open classroom that serves two groups with 20 children each.



    This video describes strategies for maintaining ratio.


    It is important to maintain accountability for all children at all times. Follow these guidelines:

    • Always know how many children are in your group. You should be able to state how many children are in your care at all times.
    • Regularly count children name-to-face. Count at every transition, whenever leaving one area and going to another, and at regular times throughout the day.
    • Use a classroom roster that allows you to record the clock time when children arrive and depart. Record the total attendance for each hour.
    • Inform your administrator immediately if you go over ratio or under ratio. Extra staff may be available in other classrooms.


    Emergencies happen in every classroom. Teachers get sick, or adults need to get more supplies. Read these scenarios and decide whether the teams were complying with ratio. Then decide how they could prevent problems in the future. Read and review the Ratio Problem Solving Activity and discuss your answers with a trainer, coach, or administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.


    Talk with your trainer or administrator about your roster and systems for monitoring ratio. Spot check your classroom’s compliance. Every hour, count the children in your care and the adults present. Download and record it on Ratio Log below or one required by your program.

    If you are a CDA candidate, use the CDA Child Care Licensing/Regulation Agency handout to identify the contact information of your state’s or installations’ agency that regulates childcare centers and family childcare homes. This is a required resource collection item for the CDA Professional Portfolio.


    The number of children in a preschool program compared with the number of supervising staff members


    True or false? As long as you meet the staff-to-child ratio, you can ensure the safety of all children at all times.
    Who can be counted in ratio?
    Carla is alone in a classroom with 11 children. A mother arrives to drop off another child. This will put Carla out of ratio. What should she not do?
    References & Resources

    American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. (2019). Caring for our children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs. (4th ed.). American Academy of Pediatrics.  

    Harms, T., Clifford, R. M., & Cryer, D. (2014). Early childhood environment rating scale. (3rd ed.). Teachers College Press. 

    McWilliam, R. A., & Casey, A. M. (2008). Engagement of every child in the preschool classroom. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company. 

    National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2018). NAEYC early learning program accreditation standard and assessment items. National Association for the Education of Young Children. 

    National Early Childhood Program Accreditation Commission, Inc. (2019, September). NECPA standards book and resource guide (2nd ed.). National Early Childhood Program Accreditation Commission, Inc. 

    U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. (2015, December 29). Public Playground Safety Handbook. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.