Saturday, February 12, 2011

What to Look for in a Preschool

Whether you're a parent or a teacher, in my opinion it's important to know what to look for in a preschool.  If you're searching for your child, you're looking for an environment in which your child can grow and flourish in a caring environment during early years, and if you're a teacher, you're hopefully looking for the same types of things for yourself.

Throughout my career, I've worked in a variety of environments and done about every job known to man in child care environments, from assistant teacher to director and everything in between.  As a mom, my children attended both part- and full-time centers, with similar yet markedly different philosophies.  They flourished in both environments because of the similarities more than the differences.  These similarities are also the very things that made me a good teacher and happy employee.

I could easily write a chapter, if not a book, on what to look for when looking for a preschool, but I'll try to hit the main points.  All of these should apply for both children as well as early childhood educators who are looking for work.

First, when you enter the center, how does the environment feel?  Is it warm and cozy?  A bit nutty?  Is there someone in charge or nobody there?  I have long held that you can tell immediately the tone of an elementary school by how you are treated by the secretaries.  Pleasant secretaries generally work in pleasant environments.  The same is true for the staff that you encounter upon first entering a child care center.  Pleasant staff generally work in a pleasant environment.

Is the space itself--both in and out of the classrooms--comfortable and homey?  What does it communicate to you?  Is it in good repair and safe?  Do you see bright colors, children's unique artwork, photographs of children at work?  Is there a parent corner to either sit and relax or to grab some helpful informative brochures?  Is there a family or parent board that gives you information about the center?

When looking in classrooms, does it appear that there are enough adults to meet the needs of the children?  This can be a tricky question.  All states have varying ratios and it's important to know the ratio of adults to children in your state.  However, in my opinion, it's just as important to see if there appears to be enough adults to manage the group of children.  Some groups of children simply need more adults to assist them to be successful.  Along with this, ask yourself if the size of the group is overwhelming or feels comfortable to you.  Unfortunately, many corporate childcares now try to place as many as thirty to thirty-five children in a classroom with multiple teachers.  Regardless of how many adults you have, there is no way teachers can provide quality learning experiences when there are thirty-five children in a room.

Note the daily schedule.  Are there periods of activity mixed with periods of more quiet experiences?  In addition, is there a good balance of teacher-directed activities with child-selected activities?  The majority of time young children spend in preschool should be spent in learning centers where they can choose what they would like to participate in and who they would like to participate with.  Is this the case at the center you're looking at?

Does the staff appear to be trained and knowledgeable in working with children?  Don't be afraid to ask how long teachers have worked at a center, and don't be afraid to observe their work.  Do they approach children positively and with a problem-solving attitude, or are they punitive?

Many states are now moving toward a rating system for child care centers.  Contact your local department of human services and find out about your state's rating system and what it means.  This will help you to "decode" the quality of the center you're visiting.  Ask if the center is rated, and ask if it is accredited and by whom.  Child care centers that are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) generally offer a higher quality program than other centers.

Watch the children themselves.  Are they involved? Do they seem to be enjoying themselves?  Do they get along with one another, or is there a lot of arguing or fighting?  Remember that some arguing and fighting is typical at this age, but it is important for teachers to be able to help children to talk through their differences.

Keep in mind that your child will be spending the majority of the day in a particular classroom with a particular teacher, so those are the areas you need to focus on.  If you are an educator interviewing for a job, keep in mind that this space and these children will be your classroom.  Does it seem like a good fit?  As a parent, you may love the director and the feel that you get upon entering the center, but if the actual classroom doesn't seem like a good fit for you, it's probably best to keep looking.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, find out the center's policy regarding parents "dropping in".  In some schools, there may be a special room or observation booth that allows you to watch your child.  In schools that do not have this, I highly recommend unannounced "visits", even if it's just to drop something off at the front desk.  It's important that your child not be disrupted, but unexpected visits tell you a lot about a center and how people behave when they're not expecting company.

Regardless of the type of curriculum or school you choose, your child (or you!) will be much happier in an environment that meets your specific needs and developmental issues.  Thanks for reading, pass it along, and click the links--they actually pay me for that stuff!

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