The Definitive Guide to Picking the Right Preschool
Even if a preschool has achieved a five-star rating, standards can fall very quickly if there has been high staff turnover or if the school ownership has changed within the last few months.
Step 2: Check to see if the preschool has accreditation from AdvancED or NAEYC.
Accredited preschools must jump through additional 'hoops' to meet stringent curriculum, training and testing requirements. Both accreditation organizations are well known for their high standards, so you can feel confident picking an AdvancedED or NAEYC accredited preschool.
Step 3: Now you have a short-list! It's time to schedule tours at each preschool.
Here are some tips:
- When you call to schedule a tour, make sure you are not visiting at naptime because you won't be allowed into the classroom.
- Most preschool classrooms have one lead teacher, one assistant teacher, and if it is a full-day program, one "closer." These individuals will spend the most time with your child. When you set up your tour, mention that you would like to meet your child's class teachers for a few minutes.
- Have realistic expectations. Preschools, by definition, are bustling with activity. When you arrive for your tour, don't be surprised by this. In fact, this is a good thing because 'organized chaos' is exactly what your child will experience in elementary school, so it's best to expose her at a young age. It makes the transition to kindergarten much easier.
- During 'Center Time' many classrooms allow children to pick art, blocks, or other 'centers' they want to play in. If it looks chaotic, no worries. That means there is freedom of choice, movement and expression in the preschool.
- If you see a child staring into space, that's fine too. Too often, preschools are too structured and don't give children enough time to just 'be.' Daydreaming is part of a happy childhood! Every classroom should have a "cozy corner" where children can be quiet.
- Look beyond appearances. Some preschools clean up really well for parent tours. Toys are neatly shelved and children are on their best behavior. "The best preschools let parents see what it's really like," says Lynn Rasmussen, owner of Kids 'R' Kids RTP in Durham. "You want to see a true representation of life at the preschool."
- Use situations to ask questions. During your tour, if you see a child crying: don't be alarmed. It may be his first day at preschool, or maybe he didn't sleep well the previous night. These things happen. It may appear that a teacher is ignoring the crying child, but a few before you walked in, she may have been consoling him.
- Ask questions! "Different families have different ways of correcting behavior," says Monica Miller, field marketing specialist Bright Horizons Family Solutions, which has locations throughout the Triangle. "You want to make sure it aligns with the center where you are enrolling your child because consistency is key."
- Pay attention to nonverbal cues - and the walls! Is the children's art celebrated on the walls? Do the children seem to like and respect their teachers? Do the teachers get down to eye level when they communicate? Seventy percent of human communication is nonverbal, so you can learn a lot from simply observing.
- Pay attention to safety precautions and protocols. Does the main door have keypad access? Is there full visibility into the classrooms from the hallways? Does the school offer secure remote video monitoring, and is that important to you? You also need to evaluate if the preschool is prepared for emergencies. Where would the preschool evacuate to, and how you would be notified? Some parents want to see where their children will take shelter in the building in case of a tornado or severe thunderstorm. Pay close attention to the playgrounds. Do you see any nail pops on the inside of fences? Sharp scissors and cleaning products should be out of reach - and if your child is under age 3, make sure there are no plastic bags in the classrooms either.
- Evaluate the curriculum. The curriculum must be age-appropriate and based on the development of the child's brain. For example, a younger 2-year-old's brain is very different from older 2-year-old's brain and yet some preschools offer the same instruction to both cohorts.
Step 4: Make a final decision.
- Align with your own values. "Aligning childcare with family values is first and foremost," Miller says. "In this era of farm-to-table and organic, I'm seeing families who have nutrition as a high priority." She says guidance and discipline are other big components to consider for families.
- Ask one consistent question to each preschool. Miller recommends that parents ask the following role-playing question during each preschool tour: Johnny and Amy want the same toy. Johnny hits Amy. How would your preschool resolve the situation?
- Consider your child's unique needs. Some preschools creates special learning opportunities: Dr. Seuss' birthday, St. Patrick's Day, July 4 and Memorial Day, for example. If your child is easily bored or very bright, this preschool may be a good fit. Other preschools organize festivals and carnivals. "A shy children can come out of his shell in a safe environment - this helps with the transition to kindergarten," Rasmussen says. "Extroverted children can't wait to perform on stage!" Does the preschool invite outside coaches to offer extra curricular activities on the premises? If your 3 year old jumps out of bed with a squeal of delight every Wednesday because Coach Alyssa is coming to teach soccer, this preschool may be right for her. If your child is speech delayed, some preschools will allow a therapist to work with your child during school hours. This can save you time driving to therapy appointments.
- Follow your gut. After visiting your shortlisted schools, narrow it down to one or two finalists. Then, trust your own instincts. As a parent, you know best what's right for your child, and for your family. "It is all about a feeling you have once you have toured the school, met the teachers and the owners and reviewed the curriculum," Rasmussen says.
It's easy to second-guess yourself, especially if a neighbor or friend recommends a different school. But at the end of the day, you need to know one fact: there is no "perfect" preschool. But you can find one that works for your family.
Neesha Mirchandani is a marketing consultant and mother of a rising kindergartener in Raleigh. Reach her at impactstars.com, twitter.com @neeshamirchi or via Google+.