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Today's Family Magazine

Finding the right preschool program for your child

Mar 21, 2017 03:26PM ● By Today's Family
By Kristi Ward

Open houses for preschools are popping up like spring flowers.  That means it’s time to make the first of many important decisions regarding your child’s education.

Since preschool has the power to make your child sing with glee — or clutch your leg in terror — you’ll want to investigate thoroughly so you can find a great preschool that works for your child.

The basic requirements of a quality preschool include a certified preschool teacher, a secure facility, licensure with the state, clearly defined hygiene and illness policies, hands-on crafts, plenty of imaginative toys and a 12-to-one student to teacher ratio.

But what makes one preschool better than another?  What makes one attract loads of families (with some on a waiting list), while another struggles to fill classes?  How do you find a great preschool?

Trust word of mouth advice.  While waiting for your child’s gymnastics-karate-swimming-ballet-whatever class to finish, ask the wise parents who are also waiting where they sent their older children and whether or not they had a good experience.  Word of mouth is still one of the best ways to get reliable information.  You’ll get inside knowledge on how a teacher handles behavioral problems, separation anxiety issues, learning difficulties or the myriad of other life-stuff that happens when working with children.

Visit the school, meet the teacher and trust your first impressions.  The preschool teacher should have a degree in early childhood education, hands-on experience, an approachable personality and a keen eye for safety.  Depending on their role within the program, the support staff should also have training and experience with children.  Bottom line: the teacher and staff need to be patient, properly trained, experienced and friendly.  Preschool is not the place for adults who snap easily at children.  Notice if the teachers kneel down to your child's level when they meet.  Listen to how they talk with your child.  Observe how the teacher reacts when (not if) something gets spilled or messed up.

Like good real estate, location is important.  The preschool’s location will affect your schedule because you will drive back and forth frequently.  Although a trendy preschool 20 miles away may have a top-notch reputation, driving an hour round trip will deplete your gas budget and quickly wear on your nerves, especially if you have a cranky baby in the car.  Also, if preschool friends live nearby, you can possibly work in some play time on off days, helping your child to further develop his or her social skills.

Class size.  A party or a gathering?  Class size can make or break your child's preschool experience.  Does your child come alive in large groups or does she withdraw to the safety of your pant leg?  Nobody knows your child better than you, so determine beforehand if your child thrives in small or large groups.  The average preschool class is 12 students, but with an aide, the class size could double to 24.  A larger class means more noise and activity.  If your child can’t handle this, he or she may not learn amidst the chaos.

How much will it cost?  Average tuition costs for preschool in the northeast Ohio area vary based on the number and length of preschool days, association with a private school, whether or not before/after day care is offered and quality of the facilities.  Cooperative preschools, where parents assist with the fundraising and operations as well as assist the teacher in class, usually cost less.  Realize that co-ops require more of your personal time.

Review the curriculum and daily schedule.  A good curriculum will include hands-on, sensory-based learning.  Can they get their hands dirty?  Will they paint, work with clay and dress up in imaginative clothes?  Young children learn through actively using all of their senses, so find out if this is part of the program.  What does the teacher expect them to know at the end of the year?  Will you receive progress reports?  Will your child be assessed?  The curriculum should prepare them for kindergarten, which includes knowing the alphabet and numbers, writing their name, knowing how to put on their shoes and coat and attending to potty details.  And as important as letter and number recognition are, make sure the school still allows good old-fashioned play time.  Children learn through play.  A good preschool will have a stimulating, colorful play area with plenty of imaginative toys -- and the children will be allowed to play in it at their own free will for a portion of the day.

What if your child shows developmental delays?  Preschool provides opportunities for social development, giving you a sneak peak into how your child will handle group learning.  This may be the first time your child will be expected to sit in a group, pay attention, absorb new material and answer questions with someone other than you.  How will your child handle it?  How will the teacher respond?  This is where an experienced, patient preschool teacher is priceless.  If your child has developmental delays, a good preschool teacher will spot the clues and provide guidance, which is critical because early detection and intervention are the keys to successfully managing learning difficulties.  Ask how the teachers handle these cases and what resources they refer families to when a child shows signs of developmental delay.

The drama of drop-off and pick- up.  Do you walk your child to the preschool door, meet the teacher and leave?  Or do you go into the building and get your child situated in class?  These logistics will affect your child and your schedule, so ask about them up front.  Some parents value going inside the school because they want the social connections.  They want to know other families, the staff and feel comfortable in the school.  Others want speedy transitions to get back home or to work.  If you have a sleeping infant or a cranky toddler in the car, an outdoor pick-up/drop-off routine will make your life much easier. Also, ask how the teacher handles clingy children at drop-off.

Religious affiliation.  Some preschools operate within a church, but don't offer a religious-based program, while other preschools incorporate religious-based activities and services into the curriculum.  Ask how religious-based preschools teach the faith material you are looking for, whether or not the students attend religious services and what requirements are necessary for enrollment.

Preschools for special needs children.  Certain preschools offer programs geared only to children with learning disabilities such as autism, ADHD or sensory-based learning delays.  These schools tailor their teaching methods to the child, allowing them to learn and grow at their pace and level.

Does the school stand alone or is it affiliated with an elementary school?  Many Catholic schools offer preschool through 8th grade classes, a convenient and community-building feature for parents with multiple children attending school. Other preschools stand alone and operate as a business or nonprofit organization, such as a co-op.  Others operate as part of another business or organization, like a community center.  If this is your first child attending preschool, this point probably doesn't matter.  If it’s your fifth child, it may be a high-priority item.