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Preschool 101: Finding the Right Fit for Your Child

girl-shoppingI remember the moment I realized preschool had become a very big deal. My oldest daughter was about 3 months old and we were at the first session of a parent-infant class. I was desperate to get out of the house and meet other parents of infants. I walked in and sat down on the mat across from two friendly-looking moms. I couldn’t wait to connect, until panic set in when I heard their conversation.

They were discussing preschools. Not only were they discussing preschools, they were discussing ones where they had already wait-listed their babies. My initial reaction was like any sleep-deprived, hormonal new mom: My eyes welled with tears. My baby hadn’t slept more than a two-hour chunk at night, but I should be thinking about preschools already? Wow, I really missed the memo on this one.

As soon as I left class, I immediately called a more experienced mom (which meant anyone with a baby at least a week older than mine). Luckily that friend talked me down from the urge to fill out preschool applications. “This is Seattle, not New York!" she said. "They must be transplants, don’t worry about it.”

Again, because of my new-parent stupor, this seemed like a logical enough excuse. It worked for me until we got to the age when we wanted to send her to preschool. Then the anxiety of applications tried to suck me back in. Luckily I had a lot more confidence as a parent and a lot more sleep, meaning I could use all of the professional knowledge I had in my head to bring me back to reality.

Each year, the preschool panic seems to start earlier. I am not exactly sure how preschool went from social playtime to pre-college preparatory studies, but I know that’s how many parents feel around this time of year.

So what’s all the hype?

Preschool choices often bring up a lot of anxiety in parents. I hear parents worrying, “How do I know what’s best for my child? What if we don’t get in to the “right” preschool? Will they be ready for kindergarten?” As parents make their way through open houses and preschool tours, the decision begins to seem really big.

While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the frenzy, take a deep breath and remember to focus on the big picture. Preschool is a great opportunity for your child to be around peers, gain social-emotional skills, and get used to separating from caregivers. There is no “right” preschool. It’s about what works for your family’s schedule, your child’s personality and what type of community YOU want to be a part of. The last list I saw had 941 preschools listed in the greater Seattle area. There really are a lot of options and there will be a place for your child.

With so many choices, where should I start?

Start by focusing on your own unique child. Before worrying about which school to send them to, get a clear picture in your mind of what environment your child will thrive in. What does your child enjoy? What are her favorite activities? Some children thrive on social interactions and are happiest engaging in play with others, while some prefer to play solo a little more. Some like quiet settings, and others enjoy very energetic and active settings.

I remember visiting preschools for my first child. I had heard such wonderful things about a particular preschool, so it was first on our list to visit. It really was a wonderful preschool. Kids were happy, the staff seemed fantastic and it had many of the things we were looking for in an early learning environment.

What we realized, though, is that it was not a wonderful fit for our daughter. The focus of this school was on individual, independent play and learning. We had one of the most social children I had ever seen! She thrived in group activities, circle time, and social play. Had we just focused on the school, and not our daughter, we would have missed that critical piece.

The next question I would ask is, “What values are important to your family?” As a parent, you need to feel that this is a community you want to be a part of as well. This increases the likelihood that you will be involved in your child’s education and the new community your child is a part of.

Starting with your child and your family can help you remember that the main objective is not about getting in to the world's best preschool, but to find the right fit for your family, which varies as much as our children do.

What are all those different types of preschools we hear about?

There are a variety of early learning philosophies that parents may have heard about or schools may indicate they use. Some of these include Montessori, Reggio Emilia, cooperative, Waldorf, academic, and play-based. Some schools are deeply committed to one model, while many actually blend some of these styles together.

There is not one best model. Again, it very much depends on who your child is and what type of activities and environment she enjoys. What is critical about a preschool model is that learning takes place through play. When we get caught up in the hype of the right preschool leading to the right career 30 years later, it is easy to think our children need to be learning to read and write as early as possible. That mindset is dangerous for our children.

Play is the work of children. They learn to solve problems, take turns, practice flexibility, delay gratification, and regulate their emotions. In addition, play gives ample opportunity to develop empathy. More and more research on learning is showing that these social-emotional skills are the building blocks of academic success.

How do I make a decision?

Once you have thought about your own unique child and what is important to your family, I recommend four key steps to narrowing down your choices:

1) Identify your priorities. Think about your childcare needs. Yes, we want our kids to be at a school that is a good fit, but your needs matter too! Do you need a full-day program with extended hours? Do you want a half-day program?

There are many great schools, so location should be a consideration as well. The majority of families choose a preschool near where they live or work. It’s nice for children to have play dates outside of school time. Are you willing to drive to the area outside of school time as well?

Pay attention to curriculum as well. Does it include specific activities that you want your child to have, such as foreign language, music, or dance? Is there a particular community affiliation you would like to see in your child’s preschool, such as a cultural or religious affiliation? Is a diverse community important to you?

Lastly, how involved do you want to be? Some schools, such as cooperative preschools, have a higher level of expected parent involvement. Pay attention to the expectations of parents and be sure you can follow through if you choose to send your child there.

2) Do your research. Ask other parents, look at online reviews, attend preschool fairs, visit the school, and ask questions. Some areas to look in to include:

  • Daily Schedule: Do the children have some outdoor and free choice time each day?
  • Environment: Is the space warm and inviting? Are there plenty of toys and objects at child level? Is the space clean and bright?
  • Safety: Are there fire extinguishers and safety plans posted? Are there hazardous objects around or lots of things needing repair? Does the preschool have the necessary licenses and proper staff-to-child ratios?
  • Teachers and staff: Do staff members look happy in their jobs? Are they adequately paid? Do they seem calm? Asking how long teachers have been with the school may give some indication as to job satisfaction and teacher turnover rate.

3) Check references. Talk to parents with kids there. Most schools are more than happy to put you in touch with current or former families. This is a great way to find out the strengths and opportunities for growth of a particular school. Another way to get information is to kid-test it! Pay a visit to the school with your child and see what your child thinks. Also pay attention to how staff and teachers interact with your child.

4) Trust your instincts. You know your child best. You know your family best. If something seems off to you and you can’t quite put your finger on it, trust your gut. Also remember, this is not something you are committing to for life. It does not have to be perfect. If it has most of what you are looking for and no major red flags, chances are your child will thrive there.

What if my child does not get in?

It happened to us with our first child. We applied to two schools and were wait-listed at both. What did this mean for us? First I panicked about what I would do for childcare, then I moved on to feelings of rejection. Luckily I didn’t have long to wallow in self-pity. Within one week we were offered a spot at one of the schools and the second school offered a spot over the summer. The truth is that many preschools have so much shifting in enrollment over the summer that they have to keep long waiting lists so they can fill their spots. Even if you don’t get in to your first choice, you still may get a call over the summer offering you a spot.

My biggest piece of advice to parents is to try to step out of the preschool hype, and pay attention to the specific factors that are important to you. When you shift your focus to the bigger picture, the decision becomes less about the perfect school and more about the right fit for your child and family.

sarinaAbout the author: Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW is a parent educator and consultant in the Seattle area. She co-founded GROW Parenting to provide parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. GROW Parenting offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out GROW Parenting’s Blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education!

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