Effective Contract and Policy Points

As a provider, you can set whatever rules they want for their program. You can run a highly structured or unstructured program. You can use any curriculum you want or design your own. You are the boss of your own program. The only exception to this rule is that you cannot discriminate based on race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability. Your state may have further limitations on discrimination rules.


 Although providers are free to adopt any rules they want, we strongly recommend that providers put these two rules in their contract:

  • Client will pay at least one week in advance
  • Client will pay in advance for the last two weeks of care

If you enforce these two rules, you will never have a parent leave your program owing you money. These two rules are reasonable and affordable; if the parent can't pay this full amount in advance, you can allow parents to pay a little extra each week over time. For parents who receive state financial assistance, you may or may not be able to adopt these rules.

Hours of Operation 
The section of your contract that covers your hours of operation should describe the time period covered by the contract, including the starting date of the contract and the hours that you will provide child care each day. It is important to clearly state what periods of time the client is paying you for and to describe your payment terms for any exceptions or absences that occur during those times.

Starting and Ending Dates 

You should put a starting date in your contract, but not an ending date. For example, "The first day of care will be Monday, October 3, 20xx." If you don't include starting date, there may be some confusion about when the terms of the contract go into effect. However, you don't want to include an ending date because there's no good reason to do so, and it can only cause problems for you.

For example, let's say that you use an annual contract that ends on December 31st each year. On December 1st you give all your clients a copy of your new contract to sign, but one of them doesn't get around to signing it, and you forget about it until January. If you have listed December 31st as the ending date of your previous contract, then you no longer have a valid written contract with that client, which means that after that date she will be able to leave without giving you any notice.

Hours of Child Care

In your contract, specify the starting and ending times of your care for each child. For example, "Your child's hours of care will be from 6:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M., Monday through Friday." If you don't do that, the client may assume that she can leave the child in your program as long as you're open for business. If she notices that you're caring for other children after that time, she may assume that she can pick up her child later, too. However, you may have many reasons for controlling when your clients come and go-you may need to plan meals, stay within the legal limits of your enrollment, or just make sure that you get some break time. You also don't want a client to assume that if her child is enrolled in your program for 11 hours a day, she can bring the child for any 11-hour period during the day. In other words, you don't want her to think that it's okay to show up thirty minutes late in the morning and then pick up the child thirty minutes late in the afternoon. Another way to make sure this is clear is to include a statement in your contract such as "Late drop-offs do not allow for late pickups."

Handling Drop-Ins and Exceptions 

Once you set your hours, you need to honor them. This means that if a regular client notifies you that her child will miss a day and you want to fill that temporary vacant spot with a drop-in child, you will need to get a written, signed release for that day from your regular client first. Otherwise, if the regular client changes her mind and brings her child after all, you will need to send the drop-in child home (unless you are able to take both children). It doesn't matter whether your contract says that clients do or don't have to pay when their child isn't in your care. (Since this written release is actually a modification to your contract, you should file it with the client's contract.)

Here's an example: Your contract states that you will provide care for Sasha from 6:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., Monday through Friday. On Monday night, Sasha's mother, Jill, calls you and says that she will be keeping Sasha home on Friday because she's taking the day off work-so you arrange to take a drop-in child on Friday to fill the spot. However, at 9:00 A.M. Friday Jill calls to say that she's been called into work after all, and needs care for Sasha after all. Can you refuse to provide care in this case? No, since you have contracted to provide care during that time.

The answer would be different if you had asked Jill to drop off a signed note on Tuesday morning stating that she would not be bringing Sasha to care on Friday. If you had such a note from Jill, you could refuse to provide care for Sasha on Friday. But without a written modification to your contract, a regular client will always have the right to child care at the times stipulated in your agreement.

Setting Different Hours for Different Clients 

Your hours of operation don't have to be the same for every child in your care; in fact, there may be good reasons to arrange different hours with different clients. If your workday normally begins at 7:00 A.M., you can still arrange to begin care for one client at 6:00 A.M. because you only want one child that early in the morning or to give a client a helping hand in special circumstances. If your workday normally ends at 6:00 P.M., you can still decide to stay open until 11:00 P.M. to help a client who is having a family emergency. This doesn't mean that you have to extend your workday for any other child in your program.

Since it's your business, it's up to you to determine your hours of operation (and every other term in your contract). One provider told me that she sets her hours for each client so that she only provides care when the parents can't be with their children. She won't care for a child if one of the parents is home-to calculate a client's pickup time, she finds out when he gets off work and adds the time he will need to get to her home. Her rationale is that it's important for parents to spend as much time with their children as possible. However, most providers don't have such a strong position and will provide child care for a set number of contracted hours, regardless of what the parents are doing.

Provider Policies: Celebrations of Birthdays and Holidays

Everybody loves a party, and your clients are likely to expect you to acknowledge birthdays and holidays in some way. Since these kinds of celebrations vary widely in family child care, it's helpful to explain your approach in your policies so that your clients will know what to expect. Some providers encourage the children in their care to bring presents when one of them has a birthday; others avoid an exchange of gifts in order to reduce the financial burden for their clients.

If you don't already have a celebration policy, you could poll your clients and ask them what days or events they would like your program to celebrate and how they would be willing to participate in those celebrations. This is an area where you may want to have some flexibility in order to meet the changing needs and expectations of your clients.


Most family child care providers ask their clients to bring an extra set of clothing in case the child's clothes get soiled or wet during the day. This is another area that can be helpful to put in writing. For example, your policy might ask your clients to put an identifying mark on their clothes to help you identify the clothing for each child. You could also ask your clients to bring appropriate seasonal outdoor clothing in the winter and summer months. Your policy might also describe how you will handle situations in which a child needs a change of clothes but his parent hasn't brought any clothing. If you choose to use extra clothing that you happen have on hand in this scenario, you may want to charge a fee for this service. (If you do, don't forget to spell out this fee in your contract.)

Food and Nutrition 

Your policies can also explain what kind of food you will prepare for the children and when you will serve their meals. Since preparing and serving food can take a large part of your day, sharing your meal schedule may help your clients understand the consequences of arriving late. You can also post your menus on a bulletin board or make them available upon request. If you encourage your clients to visit your program during the day, let them know whether they are welcome during meal times and how they might be able to help you if they are.

Other policy issues related to food and nutrition include special diets and infant feeding. Ask new clients whether their children have any food allergies and explain how you will handle special dietary requests. With the parents of infants and young children, discuss when and how to wean the child from a bottle to a cup or from a formula to solid food, and whether it is acceptable to give the child a pacifier. You will need continuing communication with the parents to make these kinds of transitions run smoothly.

Naps and Quiet Time

If you have to manage your daily schedule to meet the needs of several children, it may not be possible for you to be flexible and allow some children to follow a different schedule. If so, it's helpful to explain this in your policies. Otherwise a client may ask you to give her child a longer or shorter nap, or no nap at all. It will be easier to insist on following your usual schedule if you cover this topic in your policies.

In this section you may also wish to describe what you are doing to protect infants from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), such as making sure that infants are always laid down to sleep on their back.

Supplies Provided by Clients

It can be expensive to keep on hand all the supplies that the children in your care might need every day. One way to cut your costs is to ask your clients to provide some or all of certain supplies for their child. For example, these supplies might include diapers (disposable or cloth), baby wipes, baby bottles, a pacifier, a nap blanket, sunscreen lotion, insect repellent, and so on. In your policies, you might also explain how you will label and store these items to satisfy your clients that the items they supply will be reserved for their child.

Early Drop-Off and Late Pick-Up

Providers work very long hours caring for children. A national survey indicates that they care for children an average of eleven hours a day, or fifty-five hours a week. When you are working so many hours it can be very frustrating when clients drop off their children early or are late to pick them up. Providers around the country have come up with many different solutions to this problem.

First, it's important that your contract states that your regular fee covers a specific time during the day so it is clear if a client is early or late. Usually the most common way that providers deal with these situations is to charge a late fee (or early fee). It makes sense that you would charge for all the time that you are working. Often providers give parents a ten or fifteen-minute grace period at pick-up time before the late fee applies. Some providers have no grace period at all. One provider's contract says that if a client is ever late to pick up her child she is immediately terminated! When asked, she said that no client had ever been late. Most providers would not take such a drastic step.

Here are some examples of a late fee or other consequence when parents drop off early or pick up late: 

    • Client will pay $0.50/$1.00 per minute if child is dropped off earlier than scheduled or picked up later than scheduled.
    • Client who notifies me of early drop off the night before will not have to pay an early drop off fee.
    • Client who notifies me of a late pick up at least an hour before the scheduled pick up time will not have to pay a late pick up fee.
    • Client will be allowed to drop off early or pick up late ____ times a year without charge. For all additional early drop offs or late pick ups there will be a fee of $____ per minute.
    • Client will be allowed to drop off early or pick up late ____ times a year without charge. If there are any additional early drop offs or late pick-ups our agreement will end.
    • Provider is willing to provide care after the regular pick up time. The rate after the regular pick up time is $____ per minute.
    • Fees for early drop off or late pick up are due at the end of the day.

Time versus Money

Even with a late fee in their contract, many providers feel uncomfortable with enforcing this rule. To resolve some of the conflict surrounding this issue I strongly urge providers to answer this question: What is more important to you—time or money? If time is more important to you and your regular hours end at 6:00 p.m., this means you don't want to work after then no matter how much a client is willing to pay you. You want the time to spend with your family or for yourself. If this is the case, you need to set a high consequence for the client to stop the behavior.

That could mean charging $1 a minute or more for a late pick up. One provider complained that a client kept showing up late even though her late fee was $50 a half hour! Since the client didn't hesitate to pay the late fee the provider needs to raise it even more to change the behavior.

If money is more important to you, this means you would be willing to work after 6:00pm if the amount of money was right. If this is the case, you want to set your late fee low enough so that enough clients will be late and you can earn some extra money. A $1 a minute late fee is $60 an hour and many clients may not be willing to pay this. If you lowered your late fee to $0.50 a minute ($30 an hour) you may find more clients feeling like they can afford to be late.

One provider told me of a different kind of solution she came up with to address this problem. She did not like having a late fee because it was associated with guilt and blame, and it created tension between her and her clients. Instead she said that after her regular pick up time she had an "evening rate" which was higher than her regular rate. She said that by calling this an evening rate rather than a late fee it reduced the stress for both her and her clients. Obviously this provider considered money more important than time so this solution worked for her. 

Holding Fee

Most providers have faced at least one of the following situations:

  • A pregnant parent wants to enroll her infant in your program four months in the future.
  • A current parent will be staying home with her child during the summer and wants to bring her child back to your program in the fall.
  • At an interview, a parent asks if she can start bringing her child in three weeks.

Because you set the rules for your business, you can make your own decision. Some providers promise to hold the opening but do not charge the parents; some charge a small fee; and some charge their regular rate during this time. Whether you apply the fee charged to the first few weeks of care delivered after the child returns is also up to you.

I have heard from many providers who held an opening for several months for a small fee or for free, only to find out days before the care was to begin that the parent was not bringing her child. During the holding period, these providers had turned down the opportunity to care for other children, and as a result they were very upset when they thought about all the money they had lost.

I strongly recommend that if you hold an opening for a parent, you ask them to pay for this promise. If the parent doesn't want to pay a holding fee, tell the parents that you will be happy to care for their child if you have an opening when they want to return. But don't promise to hold the opening. It's that simple. The only time, in my opinion, that you should consider not charging a fee for holding an opening is if you are not otherwise planning to fill the opening.

How much should a provider charge to hold an opening? 

Before you do decide to charge a holding fee, you should consider what you are giving up. Let's say your normal rate is $100 a week. By holding a space for a child for three months (12 weeks), you are giving up $1,200 in income unless you charge a holding fee. If you can easily fill the opening during the holding period, then perhaps you should charge your full rate, or close to it. If the opening will be more difficult to fill, then perhaps you should charge less. But if it is hard for you to predict how easily it will be to fill your openings, then I believe you should consider charging at least half of your normal rate.

Should you apply the holding fee to the first weeks of care?

Not in my opinion. The holding fee is to compensate you for giving up the right to fill the opening. You are losing a lot of income during this holding period. If you apply the holding fee to the weeks after you begin care, then the parents are really getting you to promise something that they don't have to pay for. This is not fair. Require the parent to pay the holding fee upfront, or have them pay you a set amount each week. If they fail to make their weekly payment you should notify them that you will no longer hold the opening. Don't call the holding fee a "deposit," because you don't want to imply that the fee will be applied to child care delivered at a later date. If you do decide to apply the holding fee to the first weeks of care, then put in writing that this holding fee is "non-refundable" if the parent does not return on the day that is agreed.

Many providers struggle with the issue of whether or not to charge a holding fee as well as what to charge. You deserve to be paid for any promise you make to hold an opening.


Do not be hesitant to enforce your rules if a parent violates them. The way to enforce your rules is to give parents a consequence for not following them. If a parent is late, charge a late fee. If a parent refuses to pay you on time, give the parents a fair warning and then terminate their child's care if their behavior doesn't change.

Parents who are given clear rules to follow and understand the consequences of not following them are less likely to cause problems.           Providers can enforce their contract differently with different parents (as long as it doesn’t violate anti-discrimination laws). If this is done, providers should treat all parents in the same situation the same. For example, there could be a different rule for single parents, parents going through a family crisis, parents who enroll in the current year, etc.

Photo Credit 1: Chris Harrison 

Photo Credit 2: Janet

Photo Credit 3: taxcredits.net