What is the “Best” Preschool?

As shocking as it might seem to those of us just trying to slog through the winter months, it is time to jump into action and plan for the preschool year next September.

The process of choosing a preschool for your child can seem overwhelming, as it is the first time for many parents that they are asked to delve into the details of their child’s academic future. What parents remember doing in school as children does not always correspond to how schools are engaged in teaching now. In addition, preschool memories are at best murky for parents, and sometimes we overlay how we learned in elementary school onto what we expect out of a preschool. As parents it is important for us to remember that the needs and development of a three-year-old are vastly different from the academic needs of a third or fourth grader.

It is overwhelming to start learning about all of this just at the time when you are expected to meet registration deadlines. It is, after all, winter. We should all be snug under a blanket reading a good book to our children rather than working so hard to plan for something months and months away. This is why the early childhood staff of Hopkins offers this list of advice and criteria to help you make the best judgment as to which preschool system would suit your child’s and your family’s needs.

When deciding how to best judge a preschool, the early childhood staff suggests assessing the following areas. Pay careful attention to the details in each of these areas, and then decide what provides the best environment for your child. Remember, there are a wide variety of preschools in our community, and they offer a wide variety of programs. Schools sometimes market perks to parents which may not match what your child needs from a preschool. Look carefully at each program and see how it will work best for your own individual child, rather than deciding beforehand what is “best” based on marketing materials.

The first way to assess a program is by looking at the building itself and understanding the program details. This includes understanding how the preschool operates, and how this will affect you as a parent. Understand the communication system used by the school and the teachers. How will you know what went on during the day? How will your questions or concerns be addressed during the course of the school year? In addition, find out how you can be involved in the classroom activities. Are there volunteer opportunities that you can take advantage of? Are there activities within the classroom that you will be invited to join? Another program detail to address is whether or not there is an advisory board for the school. Do parents have a formal opportunity to provide insight, work with the teachers, and help to meet the goals of the program? It is also helpful to find out if parents arrange play dates for the classmates outside of class time. This can build deeper connections between the students.

Look to see the level of diversity within the classes. A wide variety of cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and worldly experiences in the classroom provide a rich experience for the children. When assessing this aspect of the program, it is important to understand how the school celebrates holidays and yearly rituals. In what ways are families invited to share their traditions and experiences? A parent needs to be comfortable with the way the teachers will be celebrating and talking about these sorts of events throughout the year.  So much of a young child’s “work” is learning the social graces of getting along with others. Building a strong foundation of respect for all people based on day-to-day familiarity is a fantastic way to teach children how to get along with others.

When looking at the classroom, examine what is being displayed on the walls. The artwork, pictures, and posters used to decorate the room can provide clear insight into the daily activities of the classroom. Assess what the teachers are using to represent their methods of teaching and the outcomes of their lessons.

Get to know the staff. Minnesota state law requires that the ratio of children to adults in a preschool program is 10:1. Remember, the staff of a program are much more important than what a simple ratio tells you. The teacher is your child’s first introduction to the joy of school. Therefore, it is beneficial to know as much as you can about this person. For instance, what is the expected education level of the teachers in the school? What is the process for teacher development and staff training? How many years of experience has the teacher had with preschool children? It is helpful to understand the teacher turnover rate within a program. Teachers who have stayed with a program for a length of time often have a genuine love of what is going on within that program.

Interaction between children and staff is important to watch. Does the teacher make an effort most of the time to get on the child’s level to communicate? Are the teacher’s words developmentally appropriate and easily understood by the children? Does the teacher model the sorts of behaviors expected of the children? These sorts of interactions provide the environment that your child will be entering every day, so make sure you are comfortable with what you see.

It is helpful to get a sense of what we as parents expect of a preschool, but it is also important to have an understanding of what the program will expect of your child. Often preschool programs require that your child be potty trained. Some children have a difficult time meeting this expectation. Remember that the preschool program is asking that the children who enter their program are potty trained, they are not expecting that all children who are between the ages of 2 ½ and 3 ½ be potty trained. If your child is not yet potty trained, do not feel pressure to “catch up” to others. Pressuring a child to perform in this area in order to meet a deadline for school could cause many difficulties around potty training. Preschool registration can happen whenever your child has reached this milestone.

It is important to understand what self-help skills will be required of your child throughout the day. Are there things that you are currently doing for your child that they will be asked to do for themselves during the school day? Can your child manage with clothes and outerwear (for instance jacket, mittens, hat)? Will the students be expected to pour milk or water from a small pitcher? When the teachers sing the “clean up song”, what will the children be expected to help with? What will the teachers be asking of your child, and how can you practice these skills now to create success in preschool?

Teachers expect that children will be learning many skills during the preschool years. Some of these are the academic foundations for later learning, but much of preschool is geared toward helping children learn to get along with each other, learn to follow rules in a group, learn to adjust to the demands of a school day. This is a very difficult shift for children, and requires a lot of energy from them. Throughout the school year it is likely that all children will have some sort of difficulty with meeting these expectations. Teachers expect that there will be challenging behaviors from children and between children. It is important for a parent to understand what the behavior expectations of the students are, and how the staff will handle the situation when expectations are not being met. Parents need to feel comfortable with the system of discipline used within the preschool system.

The teachers should also expect children to be excited and lively and engaged in the activities that are provided for them. When observing the classroom, check to see that the day-to-day environment provides a place for children to explore and enjoy their surroundings. Children learn best when they are immersed in something that interests them greatly, surrounded by people who care about their well-being and encouraged to “dive in” to activities that are developmentally appropriate. Teachers should expect children to do just that within the classroom.

Preschool curriculum. A quality preschool curriculum is, as often as possible, open-ended and play based. This means that activities for learning do not have a definite “right” or “wrong” answer, but that the materials encourage exploration and understanding through play. The preschool program should not have all the children doing the same thing at the same time in the same way.

It is important to note, however, that most preschool programs have a certain amount of time set aside for “group time”. In this instance, all the children are expected to do the same thing at the same time. This group time generally includes story time, songs, calendar activities and special seasonal events. This portion of the school day usually lasts about as long as a three-year-old’s attention span — somewhere between 10-20 minutes.

The preschool should be set up to incorporate a variety of activities. For instance, it is important to understand how the large motor needs of your child will be addressed. Is there a large play space or gym? What is the school’s policy for playing outside? In addition to training the small motor skills of your child through art work and more detail-oriented activities, the large motor movements of your child should be daily addressed.

A portion of the classroom should encourage dramatic play—the acting out of the roles that children come into contact with every day. For instance, a “house” area is usually a favorite of children in preschool. Other ideas that the teacher might have throughout the year are “store” , “bakery”, or “fire house”. These role-playing activities are beneficial for your child’s social / emotional health as well as the development of their “world view”. Preschools often avoid popular culture toys and play items. Items that are already “labeled” (by already having a name, such as Sponge Bob, or Dora) tend to be played with in prescriptive ways. Often preschools will avoid these sorts of character toys and use more generic items, which allow children to explore different ways to play with them. Other play areas to look for in the classroom are: a library area that is soft and comfortable and invites students to page through books at their own pace for enjoyment, an arts area that invites open-ended projects, a sand/water table that encourages sensory experiences, separate and distinct areas of the classroom that allow free movement from one activity to another.

Assessing progress throughout the year. What does a “successful” year in preschool mean to the school, and how will they show that your child has accomplished this? What formal and informal tools are they using to understand what your child is learning throughout the year? It is important that a parent is comfortable with the curriculum goals of the school, and comfortable with how those goals are being assessed in the student.

Another piece of sage advice to heed is to make sure the school will be a good match to your own individual child. When observing, find a child in the classroom who has the same characteristics as your child. For instance, is your child shy around groups of people? Is your child active and have the need to burn lots of energy? Do you have a child who tends to concentrate for long periods on one activity? Find a child in the classroom who best matches your own child and see how the staff interacts with that child. Find out how the staff and the environment meet that child’s needs. In this way you will have an idea of how your own child might flourish in this environment.

Ultimately, understanding how your preschool of choice operates and what their goals are will help you to feel confident it is the right place for your child. As a parent you will make the most informed decision because you know best what your child needs. Take the time to assess the schools you are interested in, and then feel comfortable that the decision you make for your child will begin a wonderful school career!

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