You know that scene from The Sound of Music, where Maria is frolicking on a mountaintop, twirling around and singing joyfully? That’s exactly how I felt when we finally settled on a preschool for A. What a relief! I wanted to scream from the mountaintops
As I wrote earlier, the stress and haste of having to choose a school was so unexpected and unpleasant. I had stupidly assumed that I wouldn’t get all wrapped up in the games parents play to get their child into the best preschool, thinking this will somehow mold his/her fate. But once I started visiting schools, I realized that I wasn’t going to send my sweet little girl off to be in the care of just anyone. I wanted her to be in an enriching, stimulating, creative, and respectful environment (and it occurred to me that this might be harder—and more expensive—to find than I had originally anticipated). [Image source]
On one of our first school visits, as I walked in the main doors, I immediately overheard a teacher scolding her class of three-year-olds about not staying in line as they walked to their next destination. Her voice was that of the overwhelmed mother in the grocery store who has finally lost it when her kid runs off for the umpteenth time. My gut reaction was to turn around and walk right back out the doors. I didn’t need to see, or hear, another thing.
I know we all lose it now and then, but I try my hardest not to speak to my child that way, and if I’m going to be paying you to look after her, I certainly don’t want you to lose your patience with her either. I wondered, was this what I was going to find at each school? I just happened to walk into this school at an inopportune, unscripted moment; how would I know if other teachers would react the same way when I wasn’t touring their classroom? I left feeling frazzled and disappointed about our preschool prospects.
But I came home and did my research. I looked into schools’ credentials, parent reviews, curricular choices, and staff qualifications. And for the next few schools I visited, I had the benefit of weeding through the so-so establishments to only spend time seeing the ones that I thought had merit up-front.
So, what was I looking for in a preschool?
- First, who’s giving me the tour (the director, a teacher, or a school assistant), and how knowledgeable are they? First impressions mean everything.
- Are the teachers degreed, preferably in early childhood education? How many hours of professional development do they receive each year?
- What’s the ratio of teachers to students in each classroom?
- Do they tend to stick around at the school, or is there a high turnover rate?
- Do they speak to their students kindly, patiently, respectfully?
- Do they have a sense of what’s going on in the whole classroom, even when they’re addressing one student or a small group?
- Is the classroom large enough to accommodate the group, and is it well organized?
- Is student work displayed prominently? Are there visible themes in their work (colors, seasons, shapes, etc.)?
- Are there stations with lots of different age-appropriate toys/activities for students to explore?
- Is there a schedule that allows for adequate group vs. individual learning; playtime vs. instructional time; downtime vs. activity?
- Does the school have developmentally appropriate playground equipment? And will my child be playing on it with other kids her age (and not older, rougher kids)?
- What kind of resources are available for the children (e.g. an on-site library)?
- Is the school accredited? Does it belong to any professional organizations?
Of course, there are sooo many other questions you could ask, but I found that these basics helped me get a feel for which schools had their act together, so to speak. I also found that once I started asking the right questions, the school staff took me more seriously, providing me with in-depth answers or additional handouts that would help address my concerns.
Are you getting started on a preschool quest of your own? May I share a few resources with you that I found immensely helpful in getting me informed enough to make a wise decision?
1. National Center for Learning Disabilities’ “Choosing a Preschool: Simple Tips for Parents”: a great resource for all parents, with easy-to-understand definitions of educational philosophies (like Montessori, Waldorf, etc.) and explanations of some of the “teacher talk” used to describe how children are expected to learn at a particular school (like the difference between “teacher-led” and “child-led” learning).
2. Disney Family.com’s “Preschool Checklist”: a ridiculously comprehensive guide to the best questions to ask about each of the following topics:
- The teachers
- The classroom
- The activities
- The schedule
- The other kids
- The school and its policies
3. BabyCenter’s “Preschool Director/Teacher Interview Sheet”: a handy and practical form you can print out and bring with you on each school visit, with questions and tips on the following topics:
- About the school
- Days and hours
- Interacting with parents
- Social skills
- Health, hygiene, and safety
- Food and sleep
- And some “additional considerations”
4. GreatSchools’ parent reviews: Looking for real feedback on particular schools? Just search for them by name in the upper right-hand corner of the GreatSchools website to come up with parent-submitted reviews (the good, the bad, and the ugly).
I hope you’ll find these resources useful! Are there any others you can share??