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Today's Family Magazine

Finding the Right Preschool for Your Child

By Jan Pierce

When it’s time to search for the perfect preschool for your little one, you want to be sure you’re making the right decision.  If you’re lucky enough to have friends who’ve done their research and are happy with their choice, you’re fortunate.  You’ll have first-hand recommendations.

Be aware of the difference between daycare and a functioning preschool.  Daycare facilities provide custodial care, but don’t always offer an educational curriculum.  Daycares often take children of all ages and offer extended hours.  A preschool usually has limited hours and may or may not offer before- and after-school care.  In a daycare children of all ages may be grouped together while a preschool offers segregated age groups.

Where to begin
There are many considerations before choosing, but be sure you start your search early.  Many excellent preschools have long waiting lists.  In general you’ll be looking for a school that provides the following:
  • The convenience of proximity to your home and/or your workplace.
  • A solid reputation and up-to-date accreditation and licensing.  The state has approved the school.
  • Clear rules and regulations, health/illness policies, pickup and drop-off times.
  • Clean, well-kept facilities with adequate indoor and outdoor play areas.
  • Qualified, caring staff.
  • Stimulating curriculum and age-appropriate toys.
  • A philosophy and climate pleasing to you and right for your child’s temperament.
The NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) has a database of accredited preschools you can access at families.naeyc.org/find-quality-child-care.  This site lists currently accredited day cares and schools all across the nation and is updated weekly.  Spend a little time on their website for top-notch thinking about early childhood education.

Questions to ask
You’ll want to do your homework to find the right school for your family.  Here are some questions to ask before narrowing your search and visiting several schools:
  • Is there currently room for my child?  Is there a waiting list?
  • What are the fees?  How and when are we billed?
  • How do you communicate with parents? (phone calls, emails, newsletters, website, etc.)
  • What is your staff to student ratio? (NAEYC recommends one adult to every four to nine children as optimal at ages 2–3 and one to eight to ten for ages 4–5.)
  • Do your staff members have credentials and training?  Are they background-checked?  Up to date on CPR?  Receiving ongoing training?
  • What is your educational philosophy? (academic-oriented, exploration, faith-based, etc. Some distinct philosophies include Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio-Emilia.)
  • What health/hygiene standards are enforced? (immunizations, sick child rules, hand-washing, etc.)
  • How do you handle discipline?
  • Are meals and snacks provided?  Are naps taken?
  • What safety precautions are in place? (strangers on-campus, release policies, sign-in/out)
  • Can you give me a list of references? (be sure to follow up and call them.)
  • Can you provide a sample of your weekly curriculum and activities?  How often do you change the activities?
As you gather information you’ll be able to narrow your list down to two or three good choices. When you’re ready, go ahead and schedule a visit to the school.  Decide whether you want to do this with your child or on your own.

You’ll be looking for all of the above qualities of a good school, but more than that you want to get a “feel” for the school.  Do you feel welcome?  Are the children busy and engaged in work or play?  Is the facility pleasing to the eye and orderly?  Do you get the sense that you’d feel comfortable leaving your child in this school’s care?  Are the children happy?

Jot down your first impressions and any new information you find during the visit.  You may want to use the Preschool Visit Checklist provided on the next page.

If for any reason, you don’t feel comfortable with the school environment, trust your instincts and look for another school.  It might be preferable to find a safe daycare situation and use that until you can locate a preschool of the highest standards.

You want the perfect preschool and your child deserves it.  All the time and effort you put into your search will pay huge dividends in a happy, healthy, and well-cared for child.

Preschool Visit Checklist

(answer yes or no)
  1. Do the stated learning goals match mine?
  2. Do the goals address all areas of my child’s development including social play, control of  emotions, language skills, learning letters and numbers, engaging in science, art and physical development?
  3. Am I comfortable with the school’s discipline policies?
  4. Is the school licensed by the state?  Is it accredited by a national association like the NAEYC?
  5. Does the lead teacher have a bachelor’s degree or certification in Early Childhood Education?
  6. Are support workers trained?
  7. �Is there one adult for every ten children?
  8. Are there separate learning centers for various activities such as art, reading, dramatic play, writing, etc.?
  9. �Does the school use a well-known quality curriculum preparing children for kindergarten later on?
  10. Does the class follow a daily routine that offers a variety of activities? Do the children play both outdoors and inside?
  11. Are parents free to drop in without making an appointment?
  12. Does the school have a means of regularly communicating with parents?  Do they report the activities of the past week or month?
  13. Do you feel welcome?
  14. Are the teachers warm and caring with the children?  Do they have conversations with the children as they work or play?
  15. Are the children happy and engaged?
  16. Do children have the opportunity to choose their activities part of the time?
  17. Are the children talking and interacting with each other?
  18. Are books and read-alouds a regular part of the day?
  19. �Is children’s art work and other work samples displayed?
  20. Are the furniture, equipment and toys age appropriate?  In good working condition?
As you check yes or no to each of these questions, decide which of them are deal-breakers for your family and which are not as important.  Jot down notes as they occur to you and feel free to ask more questions of the staff and administrators.

Preschool Vocabulary

Becoming familiar with the following terms may help you make your preschool decision.

The Montessori Method focuses on maintaining the individuality of each child in the learning process. Each child learns at his or her own pace and students are not compared.  Teachers are specially trained at Montessori institutions.

The Reggio Emilia Approach focuses on providing opportunities for problem solving through creative thinking and exploration.

The Waldorf Approach places an emphasis on imagination in learning providing students with opportunities to explore their world through their senses, participation and analytical thought.

The Bank Street Approach places emphasis on learning through multiple perspectives, both in the classroom setting and out of doors.

The High/Scope Approach allows children to be in charge of their own learning.  They’re taught to make a plan for each day’s activities and participate in review sessions as they plan and brainstorm for the next day’s work.

The Orton-Gillingham Approach is a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia. 

Child-centered: This term describes a method that takes the children’s interests into account when planning activities.  The child is allowed to choose.

Teacher-led is the opposite of child-centered as the adult selects lessons and leads them.  It is a more structured type of learning.

Child-led: This method believes that children learn best when they are engaged and interested. It allows for a high degree of child initiation and allows individualized learning experiences rather than group work.

Faith-based: This term describes preschool programs run by faith organizations such as churches and synagogues.

Cooperative: These settings ask parents and families to assist in the running of the program. They may sign up to volunteer sometime during the week.

Developmentally Appropriate: This term means the school plans the curriculum and activities based on ones appropriate to the age of the children in the class.

Prekindergarten: This term may be used interchangeably with pre-school.  It means the program has a class enrolled in the year before kindergarten, usually age four.  These settings may be more structured to ensure the child is ready for the educational rigors of kindergarten.