If your child is 2, 3, or 4 years old, you may be wondering how to choose a preschool. Preschool is the first step on your child's academic journey and can serve as the basis for all future learning.
It's time to find a preschool or child care provider and you're completely overwhelmed, right?
Online data offers a wealth of information about public and private elementary schools, but finding a quality preschool can be more challenging.
Start by considering your family's needs and budget. Do you need a full-day preschool program with extended care, or is a half-day preschool program sufficient?
Are you looking for a program with a particular educational philosophy? Would your child be most successful in a center or a small home setting?
Once you've articulated your wish list, you're ready to start actively looking.
Aside from starting to learn the basics like the alphabet and numbers, preschool teaches important social skills like how to be independent, how to share, and how to follow directions.
In this article you'll find tips to help you when you begin choosing a preschool or child care center for your child.
What Is Preschool
Preschool, also known as nursery school or pre-k, is a facility that provides early childhood education to young children until they are old enough to start kindergarten.
Preschool learning is not mandatory and most preschools are private organizations. Parents who want to send their children to preschool need to look for suitable facilities and pay for the expenses themselves.
Some states offer public early childhood programs such as Pre-K or Transitional Kindergarten, but availability varies by state.
Is Preschool Considered a School
Preschools are not accredited schools. In most states, preschools are considered child care centers.
They are required to obtain a Child Care license and meet state safety requirements.
For some types of preschool, such as Montessori, there are organizations that provide accreditation to preschools that meet their standards. But getting accredited is not a requirement to operate.
Preschool Age Requirements
Each preschool has its own age requirement. Typically, they require the child to be at least two years old to enroll. The most common preschool age requirement is age three.
In general, 3 years old is the age when children can begin to benefit from being a part of a group.
This is when kids begin to engage in reciprocal relationships and show less separation anxiety when they’re away from their mothers.
Some preschools also require the child to be potty-trained. Most children are potty-trained by the age of three, which coincides with the age when they can start benefiting from the new settings.
Determine Preschool Readiness
The first step in getting ready for preschool is making sure that your child is ready. There is a great deal of variability—and what is right for one child is not always appropriate for another.
Once you decide your child is ready, choosing the best preschool can seem like a daunting process—but a lot of it is knowing what you want and what is best for your child.
Generally geared at kids aged 3 to 4, some programs accept children as young as 2.
Why Is Preschool Important
Studies show that early childhood education in general increases a child’s cognitive development, reduces grade retention and improves behavior during elementary years.
Some studies even find that when these students grow up, they tend to involve less in delinquency and are more likely to have a skilled job.
Research also finds that kindergarten readiness is a reliable predictor of future school performance.
Choosing the Best Preschool
From academics to socialization to transportation and even how long the school day is, here's how to carefully weigh each aspect of preschool and make a decision that works for both you and your child.
When to Start Looking at Schools
Many preschoolers start to take applications in January, and may hold open houses sooner than that.
Be sure to check with each individual program in advance to ensure you don't miss any important deadlines.
Start looking at schools during September prior to the start of the new school year (assuming it begins in January). In many cases, this is when the child is 2 years old.
Check with the school to find out the details on age qualifications and other factors such as potty training.
Ask for Referrals
Talk with your pediatrician or close friends to get their opinions. Ask them specific questions about a preschool program's philosophy, reputation, teaching staff, and curriculum.
Once you've narrowed the search down, it's time to visit the schools.
Pay Attention to That First Impression
Parents' intuition is usually right. How do you feel when you walk in the door? Is the space clean, bright, and inviting? Do you feel welcome?
Learn About Accreditation Programs
Not all high-quality preschools have the resources to go through these rigorous programs, but preschool accreditation does offer an added measure of reassurance.
Consider the Preschool Teachers' Qualifications
What qualifications do the teachers have? Do they participate in ongoing training? How do they interact with the children? How do they handle guidance and discipline?
Determine What Is Important to You
No matter what all the experts may say, you are your child's best advocate and judge of what type of environment they'll do best in. Think about your child's personality.
Are they shy? Do they make friends quickly? What do you want from your child's preschool? Are you looking for a rigorous academic program or something more social and/or creativity-based?
Compile a List of Schools Near You
There are a lot of different options out there. It's up to you to weed through them all and determine the best fit.
So, where do you start? Ask around. Anyone you know with kids is a good person to query, whether you know them from work, the neighborhood, playgroup, or the library.
In particular, focus on the folks who have kids close in age to yours and whose kids have similar personalities.
You may even want to have a chat with your pediatrician about what they might think, especially if your child has some underlying medical issues or mental health concerns.
Ask About the Curriculum
Philosophies and curricula vary widely from one preschool to another. Look for a preschool curriculum that offers rich content, hands-on learning, and developmentally-appropriate play.
Does the curriculum address fostering social and emotional development as well as academics? Children should be actively engaged in learning.
Visit the Outdoor Space.
Outdoor play has taken a back seat to academics in recent years. This trend, which began in elementary schools, is trickling down to preschools.
Yet, children's needs haven't changed and outdoor play is still as important as ever. Make sure your preschool provides plenty of time for outdoor play and exposure to nature.
Look for Signs of Community.
Your family will probably spend a lot of time at your preschool; it will become a place of community, where parents, teachers, and children support each other.
Does the preschool offer any events or programs to foster close relationships?
Read the Fine Print.
Be sure to read the parent handbook before you enroll. Find out about the school's hours, tuition rates, registration fees, and illness and vacation policies. Do the policies seem fair to all parties?
Do a Site Visit
At some point, doing a site visit to all of your potential choices is necessary. (If a school does not allow you to come for a visit, you may want to go ahead and cross it off your list.)
Call ahead to schedule a mutually convenient time to meet with either the school principal, director, or a staff member to speak with.
You can also ask to schedule a preschool interview with a teacher and even take a tour of the facilities.
You may also want to find out if you can observe a classroom in action.
If you are permitted to do so, be sure you allow the teacher to conduct their lessons without disrupting them so you can observe how the children respond to their teacher and engage in the classroom setting.
After you've done a visit on your own and once you've narrowed down your choices, find out if it's possible to bring your child to the school to get a sense of their comfort level.
Many schools will welcome the opportunity to meet potential students, and a visit can also help your child start to understand what preschool is all about.
Ask About Teacher Support and Turnover
Teaching young children is a tough job and teachers should be paid fairly. It is hard to be a happy teacher when you are underpaid.
Ask the director about how the preschool supports its staff in terms of livable compensation, benefits and professional development.
Also check their teacher turnover rate as a high turnover is a sign of systemic problems.
Talk to Other Parents but Keep an Open Mind
Talk to current and past parents if you can. But know that not everyone has the same definition of quality. You may have to ask more specific questions to get an accurate picture.
Verify the License Is Up-To-Date
Every child care facility needs to meet a set of safety standards to be licensed. Occasionally, some preschools let their licenses lapse.
Before finalizing your decision, check if the preschool has an up-to-date license. A preschool that doesn’t renew its license should raise a red flag (or worse, some are unlicensed).
What to Look for at Every School
To meet a child's individual needs, you want to find a school that offers small class sizes and low child-teacher ratios.
The general guideline is one adult for every four to six 2- to 3-year-olds; six adults to ten 3- to 5-year-olds; no more than 12 students in a room for 2- to 3-year-olds; no more than 20 students in a room for 3- to 5-year-olds.3
The classroom should have lots of toys and other play items that are clean, safe, and in easy reach of little ones.
If there is an outside play space, make sure it is fenced in and ask if the staff is trained in first aid.
Teachers Have Formal Post-High School Training
Studies find that higher teacher education predicts higher quality care.
Look for teachers who have formal post-high school training, such as a 4-year college degree in child development, early childhood education, or a related field that addresses developmental needs of preschool children.
Teachers Are Positive and Caring
Early child learning is built on trusting relationships. Studies confirm that when teachers are positive and caring, children learn better and their development is more advanced5.
Positive teachers are happy and in good spirits. They are upbeat, helpful and smile often at the kids. They may pat a child on the back or hold their hands.
The teachers also repeat the child’s words, comment on what they say or try to say. They answer children’s questions and they don’t dismiss or ignore their concerns. Positive teachers are nurturing. They don’t engage in negative interaction such as scolding or yelling at the child.
Teaching Is Interactive and Engaging
Look at how teachers interact with the child during class.
Teachers should interact positively and frequently with the children. They ask thought-provoking questions and help kids to think deeper.
They encourage children to talk. They also praise the child’s positive actions and inspire them to learn.
Teachers should be engaging rather than merely lecturing. They may sing songs, tell stories, read books or describe events.
They use games and crafts to teach, and allow children to be active contributors to the classroom.
Besides academic topics such as alphabets, counting and shapes, teachers should also cover daily life knowledge3.
Use Positive Discipline and Patiently Guide the Child’s Behavior
Ask the school for a clear explanation of discipline policy.
All preschoolers are developing self-regulation and social skills. They need help to learn social rules and the words to express frustration.
Good teachers should practice positive discipline. They should enforce discipline by patiently explaining and teaching, not by punishing.
Under no circumstances should children be physically punished or given punitive time-out.
A Lot of Free Playing Time and Social Learning With Teacher’s Help
Free playing has been proven to be one of the best ways for preschoolers to learn.
Playing and physical activities stimulate brain growth and enhance early development. Free play promotes prosocial behavior and allows children to develop social competence.
Look for a play to learn preschool that not only incorporates plenty of free playing time in their schedule, but also has teachers who proactively guide conflict resolution and facilitate social learning (rather than just letting preschoolers “figure it out” on their own, because they can’t).
Transportation and Distance Are Also Important
How will your child get to school? Will they ride a bus or will you pick them up and drop them off? How far away is the school from your home?
These may seem like secondary concerns, but they are very important. If it takes a long time to get to school, your child may be all too excited by the time they get there.
At the same time, if preschool also functions as daycare for your child, a long car ride may serve as important quality time for your family.
A preschool close to where you live may make it easier for your child to foster the friendships they make in school, thanks to playdates and party invitations in the neighborhood.
How Long Is a School Day?
Believe it or not, preschool can be hard work for many kids, especially for those who have never been in a formal program away from home.
Many preschool programs are for a half-day or just a few hours and with good reason.
Many children, especially younger preschoolers, are ready for a break and need some quiet time even after just a few hours of preschool.
Some preschools also offer extended hours and full-day programs, however, which can be ideal for parents who work full-time.
Ask about all the available options and decide which one will work best for your child.
If you are unhappy with the option you have chosen or if your circumstances have changed, chances are you can always switch.
Consider Your Child's Happiness
Priority number one in choosing a preschool? Picking the place where your child will be most happy and comfortable.
Academics are important, but your child has a lifetime of formal learning ahead of them.
Preschool should be a place where your child can discover a love for school and foster an appreciation for lifelong learning.
When choosing a preschool, some of the things that may run through your mind are: that you want your child to be safe; to have a strong social experiences; to find a loving and nurturing place that has some boundaries; to feel comfortable, confident and to succeed; and to be prepared for kindergarten.
An ideal location for the preschool should consist of a safe neighborhood around. Opening playschool around residential complexes is a good option in accordance with safety and space requirement. The location should be pollution free with least possible vehicle traffic for keeping up with the safety concerns.