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Finding the Right Preschool

Some parents are matter-of-fact about sending their child to preschool. They may have older children who have gone to preschool or friends and neighbors who have placed their children in preschool programs, so they know what to expect. Other parents may struggle with the idea of sending their 2-, 3- or 4-year-old off to school for all or part of the day. It may be hard for them to imagine that anyone else could meet the needs of their child.

When parents are considering preschool, it can be a big job to decide when and where to enroll their child. Making a choice about preschool depends on a child’s temperament and the skills they have or are developing, and finding a program that meets their needs.

Some questions parents can ask themselves in considering preschool readiness are:

  • Is my child shy or very talkative?
  • Can my child separate from parents with a minimum of fuss?
  • Can my child ask adults for what they need?
  • Is my child able to be in a group?
  • Is my child able to follow simple directions?

Choosing a preschool can be daunting because there are different styles and philosophies. Thinking about your child’s characteristics and asking for recommendations from friends or relatives can be a good place to start. A good preschool program should be able to serve children with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Another way to think about it is to turn the question “Is my child ready for preschool?” into “Is the preschool ready for my child?” The ­National Association for the ­Education of Young Children calls this a “state of mind” rather than a “state of readiness.”

When we think of school, many of us remember paper-and-­pencil activities.

Consequently, some parents may think that children need to know the alphabet or know how to count to be ready for preschool. In fact, these skills are less important than social-­emotional skills. Many ­children will learn the alphabet and counting in their preschool years. Others may not learn those things until kindergarten.

The big challenges of early childhood are learning to take turns, sharing space and paying attention. A program that focuses predominantly on pre-academic skills such as reading and counting may not provide enough opportunities for exploration and play. According to NAEYC, “Play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation and promoting language, cognition, and social competence.” Learning these social skills is a better predictor of school success than knowing letters and colors.

Of course, the best way to know which preschool is best for your family is to visit and get a feel for the culture and environment. Make appointments with several preschools a month or two before you plan to enroll your child. Be sure to start planning early. Many preschools ­enroll four to five months before the regular school schedule. Give yourself enough time to make a thoughtful decision and keep in mind that some schools have waiting lists.

When you visit, be ready with questions to ask and things to look for. The ­following questions were generated by the parents and toddler teachers in the Early Childhood CARES classrooms.

  • Is the room clean and inviting? Are there toys and activities your child will like? Do the children appear engaged?
  • What are the qualifications of the staff? What is the staff-to-child ratio?
  • How does the program handle discipline?
  • How many children are in the class? Is the room big enough to accommodate them comfortably?
  • What is the daily schedule? How many transitions? What if my child doesn’t want to participate in an activity?
  • Are the activities child-directed (children can go where they want and choose what they want to do) or teacher-directed ? Think about which style best suits your child.
  • Are art and sensory play a regular part of the day?
  • Does my child need to be potty trained?
  • Who provides snacks? What are the guidelines for snacks?
  • Is there an outdoor play area? Does it look safe? Are there options for physical play indoors if it is raining?
  • What about security? Who can pick up my child? Is the classroom secured so that your child cannot walk out unattended?
  • Does the program take children on field trips?
  • How is information shared with parents?

Depending on how these questions are answered, you may find a program that is just what you were looking for. However, you may also find that none of the schools are for you. It’s important to find a good match for your child and your lifestyle. You may have to keep looking.

Sometimes, the questions are answered well, but the program just doesn’t have the right “feel.” Pay attention to that feeling and do more research. The first indicator of a good match is often the sense of confidence that a parent feels for a program. Your confidence will communicate ­itself to your child, making their preschool experience a likely success. Preschool should be fun and exciting and set your child on a path of enthusiasm for learning.

Jane Wagner is an EI/ECSE Specialist for EC CARES.

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