There are lots of preschools out there and even more methods of teaching kids. Here’s how to choose the best option for your little learner.
I knew exactly what I wanted: A preschool with an academic focus that would challenge my 3-year-old son a couple of days a week.
I didn’t need child care. And I didn’t want to overdo it on the classroom time.
But here’s the problem: There are a lot of preschools. And most of them offer limited or not very useful information on their websites.
Spalding method? Balanced curriculum? I quickly realized I had no idea what to ask about on the phone and even less clue of what to look for when I narrowed down schools to tour.
If you’re as overwhelmed as I was, here’s where early-childhood experts say you should focus your efforts:
Academics aren’t your top concern
Yes, you want a program that follows Arizona’s Early Learning Standards. But your kid isn’t necessarily going to emerge any smarter or better prepared by attending Montessori, faith-based, Spanish-immersion or STEM-focused programs.
The reality is that all of those options – and yes, even home-based care – can provide the learning environment kids need to succeed, said Liz Barker Alvarez, chief policy adviser at First Things First, a voter-initiated early childhood program that also has ranked the quality of roughly a third of Arizona’s licensed providers.
I know. We focus a lot on how high kids can count and how many letters they know. But academics are only one piece of a well-rounded preschool program, Barker Alvarez said.
Quality preschools give kids lots of activity choices and learn through play, she added. They also spend a lot of time teaching soft skills students need to be successful, like how to share, wait your turn and work with people who aren’t your siblings or friends.
Focus on the teacher and staff
A preschool can talk a good game, but carrying it out in real life is another thing entirely – and that largely depends on the staff’s skills and training. You want experienced teachers in the classroom, said Wendy Oakes, an Arizona State University assistant professor who specializes in early education.
Ideally, that means teachers have formal child development training, because preschoolers really do learn differently than older kids. That’s why activating their minds through play is so important, Oakes said.
But be realistic: Pay is often low and turnover rampant in preschools. You may not find a place where every staff member has a Ph.D., or even a formal degree (though the program director or lead teacher certainly should have a degree).
That said, you absolutely should ask about teacher backgrounds, qualifications and turnover rates. A quality program will be upfront about these things.
Always visit before you enroll
If information is missing on a preschool website, you can get lots of basic questionsanswered over the phone, including program hours, cost, student-to-teacher ratios and generally how they structure a day.
It also can be a good weed-out tool: If staff puts you off or refuses to answer your questions, it’s a good indication of how they’ll treat you and your child once enrolled.
Once you have a few schools on your short list, set up some tours. If possible, visit when class is in session so you can see how teachers interact with students – and ask to bring your child so you can see how they connect.
Pay attention to how you and your child are greeted during the visit. Is it welcoming? This also will speak volumes.
What to ask, look for during a tour
Once you’re in the classroom, First Things First has a great checklist full of questions to ask and things to observe, such as:
- Does the teacher make eye contact with children, speak to them at their eye level, smile and listen without interrupting? You want to see positive, nurturing interactions.
- Are children playing together, and how are they encouraged to resolve their differences? Again, you want positive, nurturing interactions.
- Are there ample books, art supplies, musical instruments and science materials within kids’ reach? Easy access to these tools helps kids learn.
Oakes also suggests:
- Look at the walls. Are they full of children’s work? That’ll give you an idea of what kids are learning and how much the school values their work.
- How does the teacher communicate what your child is learning? You need regular interaction to know how you can best reinforce it at home.
- Be upfront with your expectations and what you know about your child’s abilities. If he already knows most of what’s being taught, for example, ask how the teacher might tweak lessons to help him grow.
After your visit, ask your child what he liked best about the school and the teacher.
And always follow your gut. Because, really, you know best.