It's the time of year when many parents must make decisions about what preschool or day care setting to choose for their child in the fall. There are a bunch of resources out there including: education.com , babycenter.com, and greatschools.net . Great Schools is particularly good because it includes parent reviews and public and private preschool options. All of these sites and many more will give you sound advice, most of it based on the same body of research.
I want to offer something a little different, based on my experiences as a teacher and a parent. So here are my tips for choosing a preschool from "the inside."
Step 1: Talk to your neighbors. Most advice sites suggest looking at distance, transportation and cost first when choosing a preschool. I am not sure that is the best way to make the best choice for your child. One great way to find a good school is to spend time in your neighborhood at playgrounds and community spaces talking to parents. If you are more Web 2.0 you can also put out a general request for advice on a social media venue like facebook, a blog, or a parenting message board. I suggest these things because the most reliable and perceptive information is going to be gained from someone who has had their child actually IN the school. Before making a decision based on your new friend's advice, figure out if she/he has a similar parenting style to your own. After all, the permissive parent who expects their kid to break a bone or two in childhood is going to have a different perception of what makes a good school than someone who expects their child to where a helmet every time they get on a big wheel.
Step 2: Go to the school. Look for creative projects that show individual decision making by children. Look for well-organized and defined areas of interest. Look for print on the walls and storage containers that are labeled. Ask about the daily schedule, school philosophy, teacher child ratios, etc. This is all important information. Especially the question about teacher/child ratio. National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has its recommendations and states have requirements documented by National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) but you really need to find out what a phrase like 1-10 or 1-12 ratio means. I worked in a daycare for a short time where the teacher/child ratio was 1-12. Having worked as a substitute in the public schools, I thought that meant 1 adult and 12 kids. In public school settings, the decision about staffing is made based on potential number of students who will be in a room, not the actual number at a particular time. What did this mean? In the daycare I worked at, 1 - 12 meant that you were by yourself no matter how many kids you had until the "second" adult came in at 10:00 a.m. From about 8:45 - 10:00 there were usually 24 kids in the room.
Asking detailed questions is the best way to find out the answers you need. Another really important question to ask during this meeting is: "What curriculum does your school use? Some schools use specific curriculum like High/Scope or Creative Curriculum. Others have an overarching philosophy that guides the curriculum like Montessori or Waldorf. Schools with this type of integrated philosophy/curriculum are more than willing to tell you all about how children are learning in their classrooms. However, most use a teacher-created curriculum which can mean everything from printed worksheets to making mud babies that grow grass hair. Make sure you understand how decisions are made about what your child will be doing at school. It is not the form of the curriculum that counts, it's the content. Would you want to spend all day filling out forms? This is what some worksheet driven curriculum amounts to; busy work.
Step 3: Ask "What if?" questions. This is how you can really tell if a director knows what is happening in their classrooms. Here are a few good ones. What happens if one child needs more attention because of behavior than all the other children? What if there are two needy kids? What what would happen if my child bit another child? Not that your child will actually bite another child but they might get bit and you want to know how this type of incident is handled. Finally, ask what is the best and worst thing about your school? This could be the most important question you ask because it tells you what a schools' priorities are.
Step 4: Spend time in the classroom (with your child if possible). When you do this you will not necessarily see what it will be like in the classroom on a daily basis. What you can see, if you look closely, is the space between a school's philosophy and practice. In many preschools parents are told that children are nurtured and cared for but, what happens if a child interrupts an adult conversation? Is the child acknowledged, ignored, rebuffed, or listened to? Is there a general sense of joy or fear? Does it seem like the children are pushing limits or comfortable with their expectations? Most importantly listen to how and how often the teachers interact with the children. Does the teacher participate in conversations with kids that include more than 2 exchanges? What is the content of the conversation? Are the teachers at the childrens' level or do the interact from across the room. All of these questions shed light on what a preschool is like on the inside, in its heart.