Every parent seeks the “best” preschool for their child; but the truth is that there isn’t any one best school.
The “best” school is the one that works most for you and your child. There are, however, some basic markers that do characterize a quality preschool. Here’s what you should look for when investigating preschool options:
Preschools can fall anywhere on the traditional/progressive education, teacher-directed/child-centered, formal/informal, academic/play-based continuum. These educational concepts characterize the knowledge, skills, attitude, and expectations within various philosophical frameworks, and can imply deeply personal values. Parents need to assess what they are most comfortable with and choose a school accordingly. The important thing here is to offer your child a school environment that is somewhat aligned with expectations set in your home environment.
Ask to view examples of topics covered in the curriculum, learning materials used in the classroom, and activities designed for the students. Are special classes, such as music, body movement, or art offered?
It’s important, too, that schools offer children a good balance between structure and autonomy. Observe how boundaries are negotiated for the children at the preschool. Are there many rules? Is there a consistency in how rules are enforced? What kinds of reinforcement methods or consequences are used? How is separation at the start of the school year handled?
The physical environment of classrooms and of the school in general plays a critical role in the learning process. Pay attention to it when you visit schools — is the environment safe and clean? Is there sufficient natural light? Are there outdoor areas for play and fresh air? Does the environment seem inviting and friendly? Do the classrooms feel warm and welcoming? Is there ample evidence of children’s work?
The key to successful school experiences is an open-door policy and clear channels of communication between teachers and caregivers. How broadly does the school define the concept of “family”? What methods of communication are utilized to keep parents in the loop: home visits, parent-teacher conferences, classroom newsletters, social events, secure web-based technologies that allow the exchange to be interactive, but still protect privacy? Evaluate how these may fit into already established modes of communication your family uses.
The educational backgrounds of the teachers are a factor you should consider. Lead teachers should hold a graduate degree in early childhood education, be state-certified, and have experience working with young children. The percentage of certified teachers in the school and the rate of teacher turnover are also significant factors.
Look for a school where children, teachers, and administrators reflect diverse backgrounds. How does the school celebrate holidays? How does it talk about different cultures? How are the circumstances of children’s lives, such as adoptive families, single-parent families, gay families, and children with varying abilities, handled?
Ask for information on policies for school closings, holidays, birthday celebrations, illnesses, arrival, and dismissal. How do the policies fit in with your expectations? Some schools are stricter than others on these matters. What security measures are in place? If the school offers lunch or a snack, will they accommodate and make allowances for food allergies? Does the school have a late fee policy?
Find out what kind of parent/family involvement is expected. It is optional in some preschools, while in others it is mandatory. If you work full-time, assisting in a school may not be possible for you. Additionally, determine whether or not caregivers are welcome in the classrooms. It’s a good idea to find out if there are any hidden costs besides tuition and if monetary donations are expected.
Because we live in such a busy world, it is really important that the commute to school for you and your child not be an additional stressor in your life. Look for schools which are close to either your home or workplace. Apart from the daily commute, easy access to your child in case of an emergency is critical.
One of the best indicators of a good preschool is when you see classrooms with children who look happy, healthy, and engaged, and where you see children, teachers, and school administrators smiling often. And finally, an important reminder — if parents feel excited about a school, it is likely that the enthusiasm will be reflected back by your child.