Consumer Education

Helping parents understand, choose, and evaluate early and school-age care and education programs is one of the primary reasons a state creates a quality rating and improvement system (QRIS). For a system to be successful, however, messages should be designed for various audiences, promoting its value to a wide range of stakeholders. This section addresses a variety of strategies for reaching parents, consumers, and providers, as well as building support among policymakers, state and community leaders, and funders.

In Stair Steps to Quality, Mitchell (2005) notes:

“Not everyone will see the inherent benefits of QRS. Some may oppose QRS due to ideological concerns, which frequently include the belief that child care minimizes the role of parents. A strategy employed by supporters of QRS is listening to concerns, seeking common ground based on what is good for children, and responding with facts that explain why the QRS is being developed. Research on program quality is often part of the explanation, along with affirmation that parents are children’s first teachers and that many children are in out-of-home programs because their parents work.” (p. 18)

Several resources about this topic are available on the Consumer Education Resources topic page of the Child Care Technical Assistance website.

Print the Consumer Education section of the QRIS Resource Guide.

Reaching Parents and Consumers

Some states working to increase the demand for quality programs, as well as their availability, offer parent and consumer education on QRIS. A QRIS provides parents with a way to differentiate among the child care providers in their communities. Information about the quality of child care that each provider offers, including how it has met QRIS standards (such as staff qualifications, learning environment, and curricula), promotes more informed child care choices. Some states have adopted the strategy of requiring parents receiving child care assistance to choose providers that meet higher standards of quality.

States are also updating their websites with accessible, easy-to-understand information about the types of child care available, availability of financial assistance, and resources on how to identify quality. States that employ these approaches improve transparency and greatly reduce the burden placed on families looking for information so vital to their child care decisions. These efforts are supported by the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014[1] and the final regulations, which require states to provide information to parents about a variety of topics, including the following:

  • The diversity and availability of child care services provided through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) and other child care services the family might be eligible for; and
  • The quality of providers, which can be based on a state QRIS, if available, or other quality standards.[2]


[1] 42 U.S.C. §§ 9857–9858 (2015).

[2] Child Care and Development Fund, 45 C.F.R. § 98.33 (2016).

Surveys have shown that nearly all parents (96 percent) believe that all child care providers offer learning opportunities for children, and 78 percent believe that all providers are trained in child development before working with children (National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, 2009). Parents are often unaware of or do not understand the factors that indicate quality, and they are not familiar with their state’s licensing requirements. Others may be unwilling to acknowledge that their children are not receiving high-quality care. In addition, low literacy levels and limited English proficiency may also be barriers to accessing information. The Center for Law and Social Policy has several reports on meeting the needs of young children of immigrants and families with limited English proficiency.

In a November 2008 poll, parents identified safety, a learning environment with trained teachers, and cost as the three most important factors when choosing child care (National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, 2009). Earlier studies reflect that parents care about health and safety, how children get along with each other and with adults, opportunities for learning, the personality of the staff, and the program philosophy (Mitchell, 2005). Although it is important to educate parents on research-based quality criteria, using terms that reflect what parents in specific states understand and value will make the QRIS more meaningful to them.

A February 2011 brief entitled Understanding Parents’ Child Care Decision-Making: A Foundation for Child Care Policy Making provides a graphic to illustrate a complex decisionmaking process shaped by parent and child characteristics; parent values, beliefs, and preferences; community and employment characteristics; as well as a set of opportunities, constraints, and barriers (Weber, 2011). The report also notes that “Parental employment and family and child well-being outcomes flow from the decision-making process, but child care decisions are seldom one-time occurrences. For example, parents change jobs, or employers change work schedules. Children outgrow arrangements, or parents decide that arrangements are not good for children. Changes in child care subsidy policies or relatively small changes in earnings can make a family ineligible or reduce the benefit amount” (p. 7). Child care decisions must often be made quickly, making ready access to information even more important.

In addition, the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE) released Household Search for and Perceptions of Early Care and Education: Initial Findings from the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE) in October 2014. This brief provides insight into how parents perceive early childhood education arrangements and how and why they search for care. Among the findings are that many parents rely on family and friends for information about child care options as well as web-based searches. These findings, among others included in the brief, can inform effective outreach and communication strategies to increase the numbers of parents seeking quality care as indicated by QRIS.

In its July 2015 report, Elevating Quality Rating and Improvement System Communications: How to Improve Outreach to and Engagement with Providers, Parents, Policymakers, and the Public, Child Trends offers the following:

The success of state QRIS requires effective outreach and engagement with a range of stakeholders. These include family child care and center-based early care and education providers (including child care, Early Head Start, Head Start, and pre-kindergarten programs) that enroll in the QRIS and must invest time and resources to meet new quality standards. As states are successful in getting providers enrolled and quality rated, they have an interest in sharing this information with parents and families of young children so they can search for high-quality early learning providers discernable by the QRIS rating. Even in QRIS settings such as Head Start and public school pre-k programs, where parents and families may not have choices about where to enroll their children, QRIS communications affords states the opportunity to distribute resources to parents about supporting children’s development. (p. 3)

Most QRIS award easily recognizable symbols, such as stars, to programs to indicate the levels of quality. Most people understand a rating system with stars because of its use with the hotel and restaurant industries, for example, a five-star hotel. An early and school-age care and education program’s voluntary participation in the system should be viewed as a commitment to quality improvement. Parents need to understand that even ratings at the lower levels mean that the program has exceeded minimum requirements. Although the name given to a rating system cannot fully convey its purpose, the marketing campaign will be more relevant and compelling if the name is easily understood.

Twenty states with profiles in the Quality Compendium included the dollar amounts allocated to raising public awareness about their QRIS. Allocations ranged from $10,000 (Idaho) to $800,000 (Colorado). Outreach activities and strategies vary from state to state but might include establishing a marketing campaign, print investment, or television and radio broadcasting. Visit the Quality Compendium for additional information about state-specific activities.

Regardless of strategy, any outreach activity should consider and be responsive to the diversity of languages spoken by parents, providers, and the general public in the state. Consideration should be given to using multiple strategies for broader reach.

Easy and widespread access to information on ratings is essential. States typically send providers who participate in QRIS certificates that indicate the quality level they have attained; providers may choose whether to display these documents. Some states include the rating on the license even if the QRIS is not part of the license itself (rated license) as a way to increase its visibility. An sample license is available on North Carolina’s website.

The following list summarizes some strategies that states have used to increase initial awareness among consumers:

  • Website listings—Listings on websites can prominently display the providers’ QRIS levels to help parents identify quality child care. Web bloggers, especially those connected to websites frequented by parents, can be key messengers for similar information. The brief Designing Family-Friendly Consumer Education on Child Care (2017) by the National Center on Early Childhood Quality Assurance provides research-based information to support the design and implementation of consumer education websites.
  • Public service announcements or paid advertisements—People with public relations expertise can help craft the best message and identify the best television and radio stations and times of day to reach the intended audience. The use of nonwritten materials, such as television and radio announcements, can be especially helpful for families with low literacy levels and limited English proficiency. Tennessee succeeded in getting TV stations in the state’s four major media markets to run a weekly feature announcing the results of programs that were rated. Media outlets in Ohio, including Time Warner, agreed to run a Step Up To Quality (the state’s QRIS) public service announcement free of charge.
  • Brochures and posters—Materials about the importance of choosing quality care for children and how the ratings can help with that choice can be shared at libraries, pediatrician’s offices, employment offices, social service and health agencies, places of worship, and other locations where parents go. Many hospitals provide a packet of information to parents after the birth of their children, and they could include information on child care and QRIS. It is important that these materials provide a simple, compelling message.
  • Billboards—Although expensive, billboards can be a very successful way to reach both families and the public at large to remind them of the state’s commitment to early education. In metro areas, bus placards are also a highly visible approach.
  • Service providers—Providers that could share information include child care resource and referral (CCR&R) agencies, the state child care licensing agency, the agency that authorizes child care subsidy or other benefit programs, home visitors, early intervention resource managers, and pediatricians. When possible, educate these messengers so they feel comfortable with the message and support it.
  • Electronically distributed news releases—State agencies often have access to a network of state newspapers. News releases should include contact people with the local licensing or CCR&R agency who can provide community statistics or recommend people to interview. Providers can be given a template that they can submit to the local newspaper with announcements about their ratings. A county newspaper in Kentucky published the ratings of child care providers and the number of children served by each provider. States may also distribute newsletters, emails, or other forms of electronic communication to the public.
  • Magazines—Periodicals read by parents can feature articles about choosing child care. A Denver magazine featured a front-page article on Colorado’s former QRIS Qualistar Early Learning ratings, causing calls to Qualistar to increase from 300 to 15,000 calls that month.
  • Videos—Many states have developed videos that describe their QRIS or what to look for in quality child care. These are typically posted on websites, are available on social media sites such as YouTube or Facebook, or are shared in a variety of settings, including provider trainings and other public events.
  • Social media—Facebook, Twitter, texting, and smart phone apps are growing mechanisms for communicating to a wide audience, and they are increasingly the preferred method of communication among young parents. Many CCR&Rs and some state agencies have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and several states are developing smart phone apps for child care searches. Determining the best time to launch an awareness campaign aimed at families deserves thoughtful consideration. Early in the program, it is important to build an understanding of the QRIS and encourage parents to seek providers with higher ratings. As a note of caution, parents may become frustrated and concerned for their children’s well-being if they cannot find providers with higher ratings. This disappointment may be lessened if a measure of accessibility is set (for example, a percentage of programs participating or participation levels by county) before launching a marketing campaign. Rhode Island decided to delay the launch of its parent outreach campaign until 20 percent of the licensed centers in the state participated in the initiative.


The challenge of every marketing campaign is that customers generally do not pay attention to information unless it is something that is meaningful to them at the time. Promotional and educational efforts, therefore, must be ongoing or repeated periodically. Parents with a child already in child care should be encouraged to ask about their program’s QRIS level. The cultural and linguistic diversity of families requires that information be available in many languages and formats.

In addition to the strategies listed previously, most states post QRIS ratings on the Internet. QRIS websites can be a very effective way to disseminate information to consumers, funders, and providers. However, the sites need to be easily accessed, attractively designed, easy to navigate, and kept up to date with the most current information. States can provide information in multiple languages over the Internet, which is a growing source of information for all families. In some states, parents can choose to sort and view programs based on their QRIS levels.

The following are examples of states that have information on their QRIS websites specifically for parents:

Information about state QRIS consumer education efforts, including funding method and allocations, can be found in the Quality Compendium under the “Public Awareness” tab in the state profiles.

Several public and private agencies, such as the state licensing and child care subsidy agencies, CCR&R agencies, and community service providers, may have a role to play in ensuring that parents have up-to-date information on QRIS. It is helpful for states to have a mechanism that various partner agencies can use to communicate their approaches to information sharing.

Arizona Parent Survey

The Arizona Child Care Demand Study (2012) was a large-scale, survey-based research project designed to find out when and why Arizona parents use child care; how they make child care decisions; and what they think about the quality, cost, and accessibility of early care and education programs in their communities.

First Things First commissioned a team of researchers from the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University to conduct detailed interviews with more than 1,300 parents from across the state; interviewers asked parents about the early care and education arrangements they have made, or wish they could make, for their kids.

Delaware Family Friendly Website and Stakeholder Electronic News

Delaware created a family-friendly website, Great Starts Delaware, that included a wealth of information for parents on topics including the Delaware Stars program, why quality matters, early brain development, and early learning at home.

As part of the effort to drive families to the website as well as Facebook and Twitter, the Office of Early Learning ran a promotional contest that invited the public to visit the website, like their Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter. A simple sign up entered participants in a weekly random drawing for a family fun pack, in which they could win gift cards to movies, bowling, activity centers, or museums, with multiple winners in each county. In just the first 5 weeks, more than 150 people entered, and more than 40 family fun packs were awarded. In one month, traffic to the website more than doubled; the website saw a total of 5000 unique visitors during the campaign.

In addition, the Office of Early Learning published a monthly electronic newsletter for a variety of audiences, including providers and parents. Content included the names of programs awarded three, four, or five stars, updates on Delaware’s early childhood work, practice tips using the Delaware Early Learning Foundations (state early learning guidelines), profiles of local leaders in early childhood education, and summaries of recent policy and research trends. Early childhood programs participating in Delaware Stars received marketing materials to help them communicate with the families they serve and those they hope to serve in the future. The Office of Early Learning also created a promotional guide for programs along with a calendar featuring program activities in which families can engage to spur understanding and support for Stars.

Kentucky Had an App for That

Kentucky had two portals available for assistance in locating STARS-rated programs:

  • Kids Matter was a smart phone app for finding child care in Kentucky. Users were able to search for a subsidy eligibility specialist or a child care program, and the app included a child care checklist, an “ask the experts” feature, and links to additional resources.
Minnesota Studied Parent Choices

Parent Aware for School Readiness (PASR) sponsored a Parent Aware Ratings campaign including radio, online, TV and neighborhood ads that drove consumers to A 2013 random sample survey of Minnesota parents of 0–5 years of age found the following:

  • 61 percent of parents who recalled the ads said the ads “made them stop and think about the need to have prekindergarten children in stimulating learning environments.”
  • 72 percent of parents who can recalled the ads agreed that “all parents should be asking questions about a child care provider’s Parent Aware Rating.”

78 percent of Minnesota parents of young children who recalled the ads said that all things being equal, they would choose a rated provider over an unrated one, while only 4 percent would choose an unrated provider.

North Carolina's Marketing to Multiple Audiences

North Carolina felt that the success of its star rated license system would show through high participation rates resulting from consumer demand and the providers’ sense of ownership of the system. The state created a low-cost, high-impact marketing campaign with the following activities:

  • Used the website to keep providers and parents informed
  • Developed a web-based tool that allowed parents to search for child care by rating and provided them with detailed program information
  • Distributed thousands of posters, in English and Spanish, with attractive pictures and simple statements such as, “Is your child care as great as your child?—Demand the stars”
  • Distributed materials on the rated license, including business cards and postcards with the web address; distribution was through local partners such as Smart Start partnerships, child care resource and referral agencies, health departments, departments of social services, libraries, business human resources offices, and offices of obstetricians and pediatricians
  • Participated in partner-sponsored Star meetings for providers to give them an opportunity to learn about QRIS and begin the application process
  • Gave providers press release templates along with their Star license to make it easy for them to send information to their local newspapers; arranged for local partners, on an ongoing basis for the first year, to host local media events when a group of programs in their area received their star ratings
  • Arranged for the Governor to visit the first program to receive 15 out of 15 points and provided additional press coverage for this accomplishment
  • Distributed monthly letters to legislators that listed programs in their area that had earned the Star license and a template for sending a congratulatory letter to the program
Oklahoma's Public Awareness Strategies

Oklahoma delayed the launch of its Reaching for the Stars public awareness campaign for parents until most counties had a program above the one-star level. To inform parents, the state used television and radio public service announcements, advertisements before movies in theatres, brochures and posters in many public places, and billboards. When child care providers attained a higher level, they were given a certificate, window decal, and newspaper article template to submit to their local newspaper. Some licensing staff loaned them yard signs and banners to proclaim their achievement. A provider’s Star status was clearly displayed when a parent used the online Child Care Locator to obtain a list of licensed facilities. For providers, all staff received a lapel pin reflecting their program’s Star status, and they were recognized at early childhood state conferences.

Wisconsin's Media Campaign

Wisconsin’s media campaign for its YoungStar QRIS included a press release, billboards, and radio spots aimed at parents with young children. In addition, full city buses were covered with the content from the billboards.

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