I never realized how complicated choosing a preschool can be! Owen’s mom has been researching and visiting schools, and pondering this important decision for the past few weeks. I have gone along on a few classroom visits, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about how to choose a preschool too, it can be overwhelming for parents who are trying to make the best choice for their child.
A few years ago one of my professional goals was to build relationships between early childhood teachers in our school district and local preschools. I began by sending questionnaires to Kindergarten parents asking their opinion about the preschools their children had attended. Overwhelmingly parents were very positive about their child’s experience at preschool, which was great to hear. I think that takes some pressure off parents making this decision – most children have a good experience. But this personal decision is very emotional, as well as financial and practical.
I love hearing from teachers who have read this blog, and I know you are all professional and very capable of evaluating a program on your own. I also know that providing a program that parents will choose is important because preschools are a business that depends on tuition paid enrollments. Before I went to visit preschools with my daughter-in-law I needed to sit down and think through what I thought was important. When I was teaching, parents would ask me for preschool recommendations every year. Maybe this post will give you a few ideas if parents ask you too!
I recommend starting this process by making a few important decisions:
-Compile a list of possible schools
-Decide how far you are comfortable driving to take your child to and from school
-Set a limit for the amount you feel you can pay for a program, check to see if you are eligible for Head Start or a subsidized program.
-Decide if a specific type of program is a priority for you. Here is a link to some very simple definitions of different programs and terms you might come across. I found these definitions online – if you have more or conflicting information about one of these, please share that with all of us.
Think about your goals for your child in preschool, are you looking for a socially based program or more rigorous academics? A co-op or day care? Faith based or Montessori? There is not one answer that fits all children and families. What matters most is that the preschool experience helps your child gain an appreciation of what school is like and a positive attitude toward school.
-Think about how much time you’d like your child to spend at preschool – how many days per week, how many hours each school day.
-Then, if possible, talk to neighbors and friends whose children attend these schools.
Hopefully answering those questions will help you cross some programs off the list you created, and steer you toward a few schools you would like to visit.
My daughter-in-law told me she found plenty of check lists online about what to look for when she visits preschools, but most of them gave her questions to ask, but not how to evaluate the answers she was given. Here is a link to one checklist I found online – there are lots if you take a little time to search.
Today I would just like to share some of my thoughts about what to look for and things you might ask when you are choosing a preschool. Basically there are 3 parts to each preschool – the people, the place and the program. So I broke down questions I would ask, and my thoughts about what makes a quality preschool, among these 3 categories.
-What are the qualifications of the staff? I would look for preschool teachers and assistants to have some early childhood training. In our area most preschool teachers have a 2 year degree. Years of experience working with young children is often more valuable than a 4 year degree to teach high school.
-What is the staff turnover? If teachers don’t stay long that might indicate problems among the staff or dissatisfaction with the school.
-Who is in charge? How comfortable are you speaking with the director? I think it is important for teachers to understand and be able to explain why they are doing specific activities with the children. You should feel very comfortable speaking with the director of the program.
– What is the adult/child ratio? NAEYC’s guideline is one adult for every 7 children aged 2 1/2 to 3; with a limit of 14 children in a class. For ages 3-5 the ratio should be about one to ten, and up to 20 in a class.
-What is the age range of the children in the class? In a 3 year old class, what is the cutoff for entry – must they be 3 to enter the program? How many children will begin the class as a 2 1/2 year old, and how many will start the same program at age 3 1/2?
Some things you might notice about the teacher:
She should relate to the children at their level as much as possible
She should be warm and affectionate with the chidlren
She should communicate through conversations, not commands
It would be great if she delights in the projects, the play and the children’s interactions
Research shows that strong positive relationships with a teacher can predict children’s cognitive advancement at preschool. (They don’t care what you know until they know that you care!)
I came across a YouTube video of Vivian Paley, the well known author, Kindergarten Teacher and play advocate. She begins this short speech talking about the importance of imaginative play and ends talking about the special relationship between a teacher and child – it’s worth watching if you have a few minutes!
– Is the preschool licensed by the State or Social Services?
Preschools meet in elementary schools, church basements, and free standing buildings. Many preschool classrooms were not built specifically for that purpose, and which leads to a lot of creative storage solutions and challenging bathroom situations. When a preschool is licensed you know that the facility, materials, and general practices have been checked for health and safety, and approved. They adhere to an appropriate teacher/child ratio and teachers have the required credentials.
-Do you have a good feeling when you go into the classroom?
-Check for general cleanliness and organization. Clutter and disorganization can affect some children negatively. When you look at the classroom from your child’s point of view it should be welcoming and friendly. All visible materials should be there for the children to use each day. Stored items should be out of sight, behind doors or curtains if possible.
-There should be adequate toys and play items for the amount of children. These materials should be clean, safe and in easy reach of little people.
-Materials and shelving should be labeled so the children can clean up independently. That is an important skill for them to be working on in preschool.
-Is the bathroom easily accessible? Are children allowed to go to the bathroom whenever they need to, or do they have to wait and go as a group? Are sinks located close to the bathroom and accessible for children? Are sinks available in the room to for hand washing before snack or after messy projects?
-Research also shows a clear relationship between physical play and brain function, as well as long-term health benefits. Is there room for kids to run around? Do they have a climbing structure, tricycles, balls?
-Are outside play spaces safe and fenced?
-Is the parking lot safe? How far do you have to walk (maybe bringing along younger siblings!) to get into the building?
-A few programs offer drop off service, where a staff member or volunteer greets your car and helps your child out, and into the building. This can be very convenient, but you also miss out on the chance to see what activities are set up for the day, have a quick word with the teacher if needed, and help your child get settled for the day.
Teachers should be able to tell you not only what they do in the classroom, but also why they do it. In every classroom the time is limited and teachers need to carefully prioritize and choose how to use this precious time. For every thing you choose to do, you must eliminate other things you won’t have time for.
-Do they focus on important social skills like gaining independence, sharing and following directions? Do they incorporate activities designed to help children delay gratification and wait for their turn?
-Do they plan concrete activities because they know that children learn best through hands-on, active learning that engages their senses and emotions? How much time is spent on coloring sheets and worksheets?
-Do they encourage collaboration, interaction and discussion? Cognitive and social development are enhanced when children work to discover the hows and whys of their actions. Today Owen was using my warming tray to melt crayons and “discovered” that blue and yellow make green. He was so excited – we’ve read Leo Lionni’s Little Blue and Little Yellow many times, but it wasn’t real to him until he accidentally mixed the colors on his own.
-Can the teacher describe or give examples about how they promote problem solving and creative thinking?
-Are children allowed to choose some of their activities each day? Children benefit most from open-ended materials like blocks and construction toys, play dough, dress up and dramatic play, and creative art supplies. These should be available for a good portion of time every day. When teachers step in to take a role in the play it is even more valuable. Sometimes free choice activities are mostly games or materials designed by teachers to fulfill an objective. The children are really self directed if they are allowed to choose what to play with, and how they would like to use the materials.
-How is play woven into the day? Do they encourage imaginative, pretend play? Are there opportunities for physical play?
-Do they include lots of rich literature and story telling? Do they usually follow up reading with discussions, role playing or retelling, or projects that relate to the story? Developing comprehension skills is a vital step in learning to read, and it begins when children are engaged and involved in stories they hear.
-Do they integrate letters and numbers into play as well as routines of the day? Some parents tend to evaluate a preschool based on how many numbers and letters their child is learning. Research from NAEYC shows that children who recognize at least 8 letters when they enter Kindergarten are usually successful in school. When preschools spend a lot of time focusing on letters and numbers they do not have time for many of these other rich, valuable experiences. This is especially important in a class of 3 year olds who will be exposed to letters and numbers over and over before they reach first grade. One of the best ways to encourage children to learn letters and numbers is to show them how they are used – letters in their name, letters in words around the room – like “on and off” on the light switch, and “open and closed” on doors, numbers on the clock or a telephone, etc.
-Are they open to unannounced visits from parents? Do they ask you to call before stopping in to observe or pick up your child?
-What is their discipline policy? I think discipline is an opportunity to teach. Of course teachers must keep every child safe and they often need to stop inappropriate behavior. In order to help the child learn to make better choices the teacher needs to be sure the child understands what (s)he did wrong, and help the child come up with some ideas of better ways to handle the situation.
I don’t think any parent will find a perfect preschool program. When you choose from the list of schools that fit your basic needs you are looking for the best fit for your child. As a parent you can help your child love preschool by always talking about the school and the teacher in very positive terms. When you are excited and eager to hear about what goes on every day, your child is likely to love it too!