Thursday, February 17, 2011

choosing the right preschool

There is a lot of anxiety surrounding the issue of kindergarten readiness and choosing the right preschool for your child.  So much, in fact, that there has been a whole industry built on it.  And while many of the companies and products dedicated to prepping your child for school are helpful, the vast number of them can be overwhelming.  The most important step in choosing a preschool is to sit back and take a deep breath.  If you're stressed about your child's education, your child will be too.

After observing and working in a variety of early childhood education programs,  I've learned there is no one preschool philosophy that is best for all children.  While some kids may thrive in a play-based school, others may do better in a Montessori program, or a program inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach.

Another thing I've learned in my preschool experience is that just because a school has a certain philosophy on paper, it doesn't always match what goes on in the classroom.  So don't rule a school out just because you aren't crazy about their written philosophy, and don't give too much credit to the ones you like until you see them in action.  It's important to get into the classrooms and see what a typical day is like.  Notice the language the teachers use with the children, the general mood of the classroom, the flow of the day, the materials available to the kids, the art on the walls (is it all teacher-directed, or is there some room for creativity).  Remember you want to pick a school where your child is valued and respected and has plenty of ways to express herself.  However, do not confuse that with a school where the child is in too much power to a 3 year old can be a very scary thing for that child.  All children are looking for some guidance and structure from adults and some children will need more structure than others.

If the option to observe in the classroom isn't available, try to talk to parents who have children enrolled in the school to get an opinion other than the school director's.  When you do talk to the school director or admissions rep, go in with the attitude that you are interviewing the school, not vice versa (you can still be charming, of course).  Here are some important questions to ask during your interview:

  • What are the school hours and what is the yearly schedule?
  • What is the daily schedule in the classroom? (How much outside time is there?  Do you go outside in bad weather?  How much time is there for free play?  How much time is teacher-directed?)
  • What types of activities can I expect my child to engage in?
  • In what ways is the school connected to the local community?  Do you take field trips?
  • What is the student: teacher ratio?  Is that for the whole day or just part of the day?  How do you support your teachers?
  • What is the school community like?  Are there regular events to foster relationships between families and the development of school community?
  • How are parents involved in the classroom?
  • How often and in what ways will the teacher document and communicate my child's development? 
  • How will your program help to prepare my child for Kindergarten?  Ask for examples of how the curriculum will encourage your child's development in the following areas:
    • Social-emotional development
    • Gross motor 
    • Fine motor 
    • Creative problem solving 
    • Pre-literacy
    • Pre-math

It's easy to get caught up in the hype over certain schools.  When choosing a preschool, try to do so based on your child's needs and not the school's popularity.  Whatever school your child ends up at, the most important thing is that you remain calm and treat his/her school as a partner in your child's education.  If you go with a school that has a heavy social-emotional curriculum, but is lacking in early math and literacy, you can supplement the school's curriculum with your own pre math and literacy activities at home.

Best of luck with your search.  If you're just starting out and have no idea where to begin, check out savvy source for a list of schools in your area.

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