How do we choose a pre-school?


Our two year old has been in a home based family day care and is quite happy.  However, as more babies join the group the older children tend to leave, and we realize that a year from now he might not be as happy there as he is now.  I think we’d better check out the possibilities now so that we can make a decision before it’s too late, unless it’s too late already! How do we know if the preschool is going to be right for our child?

If you are planning to start your child in a preschool this year,  it's a good idea to begin looking early in order to give yourselves time to make a wise choice. How early? It’s true that you can begin visiting preschools a year ahead, or even get a jumpstart before your baby takes her first steps, but don’t fall in love with a program until your child is older and you know what setting will be right for YOUR child. 

Even if you are the type of parent who planned far ahead and put your child on a waiting list for a wonderful preschool, you still need to reevaluate your choice.   If you haven't visited the school in the last few months, or if your selection was based on recommendations rather than your own personal observation, take the time now to make sure that the program is a good match to your child's unique characteristics.  Things can change in any school, even the one you loved a year ago. 

Just as children differ from one another, so do schools.  For example, a small, cozy setting with fewer children might be just right for a child with a long attention span who loves to work on projects or play imaginary games.  A large, bustling setting with lots of children might overwhelm him.  A lively child who loves to run and climb and have many different activities from which to choose might need a big yard and a big selection of playmates. He might be seen as a behavior problem in the small, cozy, setting.   Although most children adapt best to a school with a predictable routine, some prefer to have the same choices available every day, while others do better if teachers provide a variety of new activities daily. Knowing your child, and choosing an environment that will be a good fit for her (not your fantasy of who she should be) is likely to result in a good choice.

If you are looking at a number of schools over time, creating a simple chart may help you compare measurable differences. You will want to include:

• Group size, total number of children, teachers for each small group, total number of teachers, the size of the facility, outdoor space, equipment, and opportunities for outdoor play are among the easily observed differences between schools. Hours of operation, location, and cost will be prime considerations. Other differences become apparent once you start to visit programs. You’ll be surprised how quickly the information overload can mount!

If you are like most parents, you may be unsure what to look for when you visit a preschool. Here are some suggestions to help you organize your observations.  You may not be able to observe everything you want to see in one visit, but this approach will help you to gather enough information to decide if this program is worth filling out an application and visiting again.

Does the preschool schedule and hours fit your needs?

The number of days and hours your child is in school each week will vary based on your feeling about how many hours he needs for social time and extra activities AND your need for him to be in care while you are working or busy with other responsibilities.  Some preschools, especially full day programs that open early are flexible about arrival and departure times, and may give you options for number of days per week. Other preschools have a morning arrival window and start the day with greetings and a circle time activity. Most children do best in a preschool where their hours and days are similar to most of the other children.  For example, if the other children have gathered for circle time before your child has his jacket off (or has left home!) he will not find it as easy to enter the morning play. If your child attends school every other day and most of the other children go every day, your child may find it more difficult to be a part of the ongoing games and play that other children continue on the days they’re at school. If your child’s hours are longer than most of the other children, he may find it more difficult to wait for you to arrive (although some children enjoy having more attention from the teachers.) 

The more hours and days your child is in care, the more important it is that the teachers form individual relationships with children. For children who are in care all day, preschool should be like a home away from home for children.  In some programs, especially when the group is larger than 12, one or two teachers will have a primary relationship with each child.  In that way your child has someone with whom he has a special relationship, and you have the comfort of knowing that someone at school knows your child really well. These relationships are important for a child’s sense of security and for good communication with parents. Researchers have found that group size has an effect on quality of care, and the larger the group, regardless of ratio, the lower the overall quality of care.

First Steps: Meeting with Staff  

Your first step in observing a preschool will be to meet with the director of the program to ask questions about overall policies.  Although this meeting can take place after your observation, meeting first may help you decide about whether the program offered sounds like what you want for your child.  Most directors will describe the philosophy or style of the program, and you will get a sense of what to expect when you visit the classroom.  Ask about whether the classes are staffed by teachers only or with teacher’s aides, who do not have to have formal educational training.  Even more important, ask about how long teachers have been working at the school.  Staff turnover may indicate a less well run school. It’s valuable to ask how the teachers adapt their approach to individual children’s needs or levels of maturity.  There’s no right answer to this question, but the response you will get will give you some information about how flexible the teachers can be.  Even if your child is a perfect match for the program’s expectations, there will always be some children who aren’t, and adaptable teachers are better at managing a wide range of behavior. 

Next: Visiting the Classroom

If you can, try to arrive for your visit early in the morning.  You can learn a lot about a program from observing what happens when the children arrive. Are they greeted by a teacher? Do parents talk with the teacher or sign in with pertinent information?  Do most of the children seem to engage in activities easily?  If you observe separation problems, how does the teacher help the parent to deal with this issue?  Do children arrive at around the same time?  If so, how does your family's schedule fit in with the way the day is structured?  For many young children, the way their day begins at school will affect their behavior all day. A child who needs support during transitions may have difficulty in a program that expects children to transition independently.

What is the overall level of noise, activity, and stimulation, and how does it match up with what you know about your child’s style? For some children, a calm and quiet atmosphere is essential, and for others that same atmosphere may feel stifling to their natural exuberance.  

During your time in the classroom you may be able to ask a question or two of teachers, but remember that their primary job will be taking care of children. Try to avoid distracting them and ask if it is a good time to ask a(brief) question.

Age Groups

Are the children in groups based on age? Some schools have classes of children all within a same 12 month age range. Where will your child fit into the group when he begins?  If your child is one of the youngest, will the teachers make sure to give him special support?  If he is one of the oldest, will there be other children at his developmental level to play with?  If the preschool mixes ages, notice how the teachers adjust their expectations for children’s behavior.  For example, is a three-year-old expected to sit in a circle for the same amount of time as a four-year-old?  Do the ages mix well together, or are there play areas that are controlled or dominated by older children?

Group size

Group size is an important consideration, even more important than the teacher:child ratio.  In a large group your child has to negotiate relationships with as many as 23 different children, and in the course of the day there may be 6 different adults who are teaching and supervising.  Some children, especially those who have naturally good social skills, will enjoy having a lot of peers to choose from.  Other children haven’t yet learned to read social cues and discriminate what appropriate behavior is in different settings.  They will be overwhelmed by the unpredictability of multiple interactions and may be seen as having behavior problems.  If you do choose a program with a larger number of children, look at the space and note whether there seems to be ample room for the numbers.

Observing the Setting

Most preschools will have a  variety of areas in which the children play.  Some important areas include:

A block area, with a variety of large, easy-to- handle smooth blocks that fit together in units.  This area is important for many reasons.  Block play gives children a chance to use their imaginations as they learn about building and creating three-dimensional structures.  The unit block structure helps them to learn about mathematical concepts as they build.  If the setting is open and there are enough blocks and other toys to share, children can learn about sharing and playing cooperatively.  Notice if this area is welcoming to girls as well as boys—although girls and boys often play separately and have different interests, it’s important that neither gender is excluded from an area of play. 

A play house/kitchen/dress up area.Most preschools will have an inviting area where children can do pretend play in a home like setting. Pretending to be adults and playing out roles in family life is one of the ways that young children figure out the grown-up world. The equipment in this area should be clean and plentiful, and the area should be arranged in a way that children can figure out how to replace items they use in an orderly way. 

Fine motor skill areas.There should be several tables or areas with puzzles and "manipulatives" such as interlocking blocks, tubes, fittings, and threading tools.  As you observe, watch several children in each age group.   Do you see children working together or separately?  Younger children usually play on their own, glancing at other children to get ideas. Older children begin to collaborate. Do some children seem to have more dexterity in fine motor skills?  Do teachers seem to supervise enough to give guidance when needed?

Art. Some preschools have an area where arts and crafts materials are available for any child who wants to use them, often with different materials every day.  Other schools will have an art project for all the children to work on at a certain time. As you observe, notice the ways in which children approach art materials differently.  How do the teachers direct or supervise activities? Is the art project expected to look a certain way or are children allowed freedom to experiment with the materials?  Are children praised for certain types of art work?  What kind of social interactions do you see taking place in this setting?  

Music. Music should be part of a preschool program.  Do teachers sing with the children? Are there visits from music or dance specialists?  Does anyone play an instrument?  How are children encouraged to participate with singing, dancing or acting out the musical stories?  Do the musical activities include all of the children?

Stories. Storytelling and reading to children are important "pre-reading" activities for young children--much more important than learning the alphabet or learning to write one's name.   Do teachers read to the children?  How often during the day are children being exposed to books?  Children who love to listen to stories are going to be motivated to read the stories to themselves someday. A cozy and comfortable area where children can choose books to “read” on their own is important, not just for independence but also to provide a place where less extraverted children can be separate grom the group.

Circle time. If the music or stories are a part of "circle" time when children gather together, notice the differences in each child's ability to sit still or pay attention.  How long do the children as a group seem to be able to sit still?  Are the expectations of teachers realistic? Do teachers respond to children who get restless or don't pay attention by finding ways to help (sitting next to quieter children or the teacher) or by asking children to leave the group?  If your child has had circle experiences before, such as at library story times, do you think she’ll be able to adapt to expectations here?  Is the time primarily teacher directed with children answering questions, raising their hands?  Even though these skills are important for children to learn before kindergarten, they may be too advanced for a three year old. 

Outdoor and Active Play. Preschoolers need space outside and inside to run and climb and release their energy.  If an active child doesn't get enough time to play vigorously, he's likely to be disruptive or aggressive when he's expected to be quiet.  Most preschoolers need a large, accessible outdoor space or a very creatively designed indoor space in order to get the exercise they need.   When you observe the children playing actively, notice how safe the outdoor setting seems to be.  Is the equipment in good condition and sized for preschoolers?  Is the area for running and riding toys smooth enough to prevent accidents?  Is the area beneath the climbing structure adequately protected with sand or other cushioned material?   Can all of the children be observed at all times, and are there always enough teachers present to supervise? Is there adequate space and enough equipment for all the children to play actively?

Transitions, Naps, and Meals.

For young children, the time of transition between  activities and the routines of the day are as important as any other events in the preschool day.   Notice how children are helped to end one activity and to begin another.  You will see differences among children in their ease of making transitions.  What techniques do you see the teachers using to ease transitions?  If there a rest or nap time, how is this time enforced? Can the school accommodate to your evening schedule—longer naps if your child stays up later, shorter naps if you like him to be in bed early?  How flexible is the program in meeting the needs of children who need more or less sleep?  At snack or mealtime, the food served to the children should nutritious and appropriate for the age level.  Are there rules about behavior at meal and snack times--do they seem to work, and are these pleasant, quiet times for the children?  What are the rules about food brought from home--do they fit your needs and values?  Do you see the children learning about healthy eating habits?  Feeding is an area where many parents and teachers have strong beliefs and emotional attachments to those beliefs.  If your feelings about eating habits or nutrition are in conflict with those of the program, decide whether you can set those feelings aside before you enroll your child, since you are unlikely to persuade them to change the program to suit your family.

Health and Hygiene.

It's a fact of life that preschoolers in groups get sick a lot.  A preschool can prevent some illness with good hygiene, but it is inevitable that your child and her playmates will miss school throughout the year because of illness.  Especially if you are working outside your home, you will want to be clear about how the school prevents and manages illness. Does the school have written policies for illness?   

How often are toys cleaned and sanitized?  Is the kitchen area cleaned regularly and is food cooked and stored safely?  Are supplies kept locked out of children's reach in bathrooms and kitchen?  Is bedding for each child kept separate?  Are the children breathing in each other's faces at nap time?  Are children always under adult supervision?

Are children expected to be toilet trained and are accommodations made for children who are still needing help? Be sure to directly observe the areas where diapers are changed or where children use the toilet. Is the diaper changing area cleaned after every use, are the diapers disposed of in a closed container, and do the caregivers wash their hands after every change?  Is the bathroom child sized, and are the children given supervision but adequate privacy?  Do children wash hands after using the bathroom?  Do children wash hands before eating and use paper towels to dry?

This is a long list of areas to observe.  Even so, some parents would say that it doesn't include items that they think are equally important as the ones I've mentioned.  However, if you take the time to go through the process of carefully observing and asking questions about what you see and don't see, you'll have a very good feel for the program you're selecting.  Follow up your observation by collecting several references from parents whose children are currently enrolled in the program, and, if possible, references from parents whose children have left.  Once you've done this kind of investigation, you can feel confident that you've chosen a program that is worth trying. As exhausting as this process seems, keep in mind that your child's preschool experience will take up a major part of her days for the next few years.  It's worth spending the time now to assure that you will feel confident about your choice later.