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Maintaining Safe Staff-to-Child Ratios

This lesson will help you understand why ratios and group size are important, what ratio is in effect for your program, and how to solve common problems.

  • Describe the importance of a safe staff-to-child ratio.
  • Recognize a safe staff-to-child ratio for a school-age program.
  • Practice safe staff-to-child ratios.



Why are Ratios and Group Size Important?

“The bigger the better” doesn’t necessarily apply to school-age programs. Children and staff benefit from following ratio and maximum group size requirements.  Smaller group sizes can help ensure that there are enough staff members to maintain safety in the school-age program. Small group sizes create an environment where school-age children can feel emotionally secure and can form friendships with the staff and other children. In this environment, staff members are able to be more responsive and can nurture relationships between the children. Staff members know the children well, individualize interactions, and promote independence. Limiting the number of children in a school-age program also can improve job satisfaction for staff members. 

What is a Safe Staff-To-Child Ratio?

There are two numbers to consider: the number of children per staff member and the number of children in the group.

The United States Department of Health & Human Services provides guidelines for ratios and group sizes. These groups recommend ratios of at most 1:12 when children are age 6 and older, and at most 1:6 when the program includes children age 1 to 6. In groups of infants, there should not be more than 4 infants for every adult. Group sizes should not exceed 30. It is important to remember that these are guidelines. Always check with your program’s procedures, as they will have a set ratio policy for you to follow.

There may be times when a lower staff-to-child ratio is necessary. In groups where kindergarten-age children are present, there may be a different staff-child ratio than in an older, multi-age group. Different types and levels of activities will also determine the appropriate staff-child ratio and group sizes. When school-agers are learning a new or different skill, the staff-child ratios and group sizes should be kept small. Activities involving potentially dangerous equipment or experiences (such as swimming or woodworking) or field trips may require a lower staff-child ratio. Group sizes may tend to be larger with low-risk activities such as art, reading or quiet board games. Ratios must still be maintained, though. More adults may be necessary to maintain the safety of all children. 

When Do Ratios Apply?

Ratios apply at all times that your program is in session. You must be vigilant about maintaining appropriate staff-to-child ratio. This is important for the children’s well-being as well as your own. The standard ratios apply indoors and outdoors. It is a good idea to have walkie-talkies or a phone available to reach another staff member in an emergency, summon help if needed, or if a staff member needs a break. 

Who Counts in the Ratio?

At least two paid staff members must be present in the facility at all times when children are present. Only approved and evaluated staff members are counted in the ratio (staff, program assistants, substitutes). It is not appropriate to substitute non-teaching staff such as the food service personnel or custodians for teaching staff. For brief periods, such as when a staff member needs to use the restroom, an administrator or approved classroom support staff member can be counted in the ratio. The program ratio may not include volunteers unless they can meet personnel qualifications and are regularly taking part in the program. Be sure to check with your program’s policy on volunteers before allowing a volunteer to be counted in the ratio. 

How Should Ratios be Maintained during Special Circumstances?

It is critical that you maintain ratio and maximum group size under all circumstances. This means you may need to be able to respond quickly and flexibly when unforeseen events occur. Natural disasters, medical emergencies, and other unpredictable events can be challenging. It is important to be prepared, have a plan, and maintain accountability for children at all times.

If a child has to be transported for medical care, a staff member must stay with the child. If this should happen, it is important that there are enough staff members or adults available to remain with the other children. There are times staff members will find themselves ill at work. If this should happen, it is important to make sure there is another adult available if necessary to maintain the proper ratio. 


School-age programs have developed a variety of ways to maintain accountability. Watch the following video and notice the different styles that one programs uses to keep accountability.

Maintaining Accountability

Watch the following video and notice the different methods that this program uses to maintain accountability.


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

  • 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 program 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. Also inform your administrator if you have more adults than are necessary. Those adults may be needed elsewhere, or your administrator may need to reconsider staffing schedules for maximum efficiency.


Emergencies happen in every classroom. Staff members get sick or adults need to get more supplies. Complete the Ratio Problem Solving Activity. Read these scenarios and decide whether the teams were complying with ratio. Then decide how they could prevent problems in the future.


Talk with your trainer, coach, or administrator about your roster and systems for monitoring ratio and how you maintain accountability. Spot check your program’s compliance. Using the attached forms as examples, record your daily attendance and ratio compliance.


The number of children in a school-age 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?
When do staff-to-child ratios apply?
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.). Itasca, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Office of Child Care, Administration for Children & Families, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2020). Ratios and group sizes.