There may be nothing that instills more fear and apprehension in parents than the task of finding the right preschool. The choices can be overwhelming, the deadlines are impossibly early, and the pressure to get it right is huge.
Or maybe you're one of those laid-back parents who is not at all worried about it (but those deadlines really do creep up on you, we swear!).
Either way, never fear: Follow our 10-step guide and you will be the most prepared parent on the block.
1. Start your search at least one school year prior to attending, if possible. Tours are typically offered October through January the year prior to the time you want to enroll, but some schools have rolling admissions that will provide opportunities to enroll and attend as soon as slots become available. If you didn't start one year ahead, don't freak out. Call around and visit as many schools as you can. Most have wait lists, and there are often last-minute openings. Be persistent (but not annoying) by checking back in and being proactive.
2. The best ways to find preschool programs are to attend preschool fairs, get recommendations from fellow parents and scope out programs located close to home or work.
3. Schedule a tour. You can attend an open house to hear about the philosophy and admission process, then submit the application and fee. Usually you can tour the school while classes are in session, and sometimes you can even bring your child to spend time in the classroom (though sometimes having Junior along can be more distracting than beneficial). Be ready with a notebook on the tour, and bring a list of all your questions.
4. Know how often and how long you’d like your child to go. Children usually attend preschool for two years between the ages of 2.5 and 5 years old. Often, preschools run half-day programs around four hours every weekday or less for a nine-month school year. Some preschools have full-day programs (and some full-time daycares have a preschool component), and some half-day programs offer before- and after-school care. There are exceptions to the rule (for example, Montessori programs often have longer days). Children with special needs may qualify for 12-month programs if the nature and degree of their disability suggests that they might regress during summer months without preschool services. Some parents opt for a half-day preschool and hire a nanny if they need additional hourly care.
5. Signs that a preschool program is well-run:
- Assess the quality of children’s relationships with the staff. Pay close attention to the language used in the classroom and the friendliness of the staff. Observe a few different classrooms while school is in session to see how the teachers interact with students.
- Home-to-school connections are important. Preschools that have high family involvement are often the schools with the strongest programs. When families are involved, children do better, teachers feel supported and everyone works together for the children’s learning and development.
- High-quality preschools have structure: They follow a specific philosophy or model and have specific guidelines for addressing challenging behavior.
- Discipline policies should emphasize positive approaches to teaching children new skills and proactive strategies for behavior management such as classroom rules, routines and social-emotional lessons or curriculum.
6. Look for signs that a preschool program is not well-run:
- Be cautious of programs that do not utilize a consistent, research-based curriculum. The curriculum should also be aligned to state learning standards for preschool, which will ensure that your child is prepared for kindergarten.
- Be cautious of programs that only emphasize reactive strategies for challenging behavior (such as punishment or consequences) without describing what will be done to help the children learn new skills to replace inappropriate behavior.
- Are the adults passionate about what they do? Do teachers have the proper training, certification and support to implement the educational approach and/or curriculum being utilized by the school? Investigate retention of staff: High turnover is never a good sign.
- Children need space to play and engage in gross motor activities. Notice if the classroom feels cramped, dirty, dark or unorganized. Preschool classrooms should be of an adequate size with clearly designed centers and/or play areas.
7. Find out policies on potty training. Many, but not all, preschools require that children be potty trained. If your target school requires potty training, figure out what your approach will be to work with your child on using the potty.
8. Know the recommended adult-to-child ratios. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends that infant groups should be no larger than 12 children with an adult-to-child ratio of 1:4. Preschool classroom groups should not be larger than 20 and the adult-to-child ratio should not exceed 1:10.
9. Keep up on trends. Preschools also try to offer things important to their specific communities. Some trends are logistical such as offering organic, vegetarian or gluten-free food as well as employing eco-friendly practices. Other trends relate to the approach to academics. Renee Metty, founder of both The Cove Preschool & the West Seattle Preschool Association, notices a push for Japanese and Mandarin language as well as “forest” or “outdoor” preschools, which hold a significant amount of class time outside, rain or shine. "Our trend follows more of the business trends of those 21st century skills: right brained thinking, innovation and creativity. We focus much more on social emotional learning than reading, writing and math," Metty says. Decide what trends, if any, are most important to you.
10. Know what’s important and trust your gut. Sometimes family needs will narrow your options down significantly, including considerations such as how far the school is from home or work, what your daily childcare needs are, and the cost. Ultimately, you have to trust your gut. Ask yourself when you’re looking at schools: Do they treat the children with respect? Are the school’s values in line with your family values? Will this preschool environment set your child up for success? Most importantly, can you picture your child happy at the school?
(Sources: Renee Metty, founder of both The Cove Preschool & the West Seattle Preschool Association; Myriah Rosengarten, Ph.D., a nationally certified school psychologist.)
Kali Sakai is a freelance writer and blogger. She lives in Seattle with her techie husband, preschool-aged daughter and infant son.
What’s the difference between daycare and preschool?
If you go to the preschool fairs, you’ll see daycares and preschools mixed together.
“The primary focus of daycare is to ensure that children’s basic needs are met such as food, toileting, and supervision, while preschools typically focus on teaching children new skills and Kindergarten preparation,” says Myriah Rosengarten, a nationally certified school psychologist.
Preschool programs not connected to a daycare usually follow a specific approach to learning as well. Another main difference is that a preschool is typically half-day (with some exceptions like Montessori) while daycare is all-day and often has extended morning and afternoon or evening hours.