Saturday, June 25, 2011

Quality Preschools

A friend of mine was lamenting her job just yesterday.  She's a preschool teacher and has found herself in a common situation--hired to teach in a preschool where the director seems to have a poor understanding of child development.  For educators, this is a nightmare.  If you're a teacher, you need enough room to teach and air to breathe.  When you've got other people breathing down your neck and they're not even espousing reasonable expectations, it's very difficult to feel like you can be an effective teacher.

So what's a parent to do?  In my opinion, parents don't have to have a degree in early childhood education, but they do need to understand the following:

1.  Teachers who hold a bachelor's degree in early childhood education are trained to teach children from birth through age eight, just as english teachers are trained in english and math teachers are trained in math. We have taken multiple classes that specialize in early childhood development and prepare us for the classroom.
2.  Teachers who are in preschools aren't there because they cannot get a job in public school.  They are there, almost always, because they have a passion for working with young children.
3.  Children sometimes behave differently at home and at school.
4.  Although your child's teacher may be excellent, it does not absolve a parent's responsibility for being involved in his or her child's development and education.

Often, parents don't really know what to look for in a quality preschool, and so they fall back on the expectations that they remember from their childhoods mixed with a bit of what they've heard from other parents or in the news.  Usually this comes across as expecting children to learn to listen to teachers, learn the alphabet and their numbers, and write their names.  None of these are actually the sign of a good preschool.

Quality preschools focus on developmentally appropriate practices.  These are practices in the classroom that meet the developmental needs of a child.  For instance, it is very common for two year olds to practice how to wash their hands appropriately.  Four year olds may be learning some basic patterns or letter sounds.  Infants are being nurtured and having their needs met in a timely manner.

Quality preschools have a warm, comforting feel about them.  Classrooms resemble the home environment and should have a "pleasant buzz of activity".  Children should be moving freely around the room during free choice time.  Teachers are pleasant, classroom rules are clear to each child, and the children helped make the rules.  The classroom is shared by all children as well as the teacher and is referred to as "ours", not "mine".  There is a balance of children being able to choose activities and activities being chosen by the teacher.  Children are respected by teachers and are encouraged to work out their problems with one another rather than being punished.  There should be a wide variety of activities to choose from, and children are appropriately supervised.

Some teachers may debate this, but I am a firm believer that the primary purpose of preschool experiences should be socialization.  When children have had practice working with other children prior to kindergarten, they tend to do better when entering school.  They understand how to wait for a turn, how to ask for help, and how to work with a partner.  These are all critical skills in our public schools today.  Even if you choose to pursue a more academic type setting for your preschooler, it is imperative that the children are given plenty of time each day to play together and make their own choices.

I also believe it is critical for parents to share the same values as the philosophy of their child's preschool.  If your child's preschool stresses academic structure but you're more of a play-to-learn type of parent, it won't be a good fit; neither will a child-centered preschool work for a parent whose expectations are worksheets and lots of papers.

Obviously, parents can't be in a preschool center every day, nor are most parents as knowledgeable about what good childcare looks like.  To assist, there are national organizations that provide accreditation for childcare centers.  Accreditation is an optional process but generally indicates a higher level of quality interactions and care.  In addition, each center (with the exception of centers run by churches) must be licensed by your state.  Licensing requirements vary state to state, but generally this information is available online, as well as recent licensing reports for all licensed centers.  Many states are going to a leveled licensing center, to give parents more information about the quality of a center; generally the higher the level that a center achieves, the higher quality it is.  If for whatever reason you are unable to find the information online, most states require centers to share licensing reports with parents.  You only need to ask your director, and s/he should be able to furnish you with the latest report.

So, you parents may be asking, what's MY job in all this?

First and foremost, your job is to communicate clearly with the staff about your child.  It's always better to give too much information than not enough.  Your mention that your child didn't sleep last night helps your child's teacher understand his or her behavior today.  Letting the teacher know you're potty training at home is critical--children are most successful when they are trained in all situations at the same time.  Even your loving mother-in-law's visit may throw your child off his or her regular routine.

Next, it is a parent's responsibility to supply what the provider asks for.  Most children have a supply list they need for preschool or childcare.  This usually includes a change of clothing.  This is incredibly handy not only for potty accidents, but also if your child gets too wet in the sensory table, spills juice by accident, or is covered in...something!  If you supply diapering supplies, check them regularly and ALWAYS send a couple more than you think your child will need.  Better safe than sorry!

Third, parents are responsible for reading the information that comes home with your child.  Yes, I know it's a pain in the butt.  But--and this is SUPER important for busy moms and dads--it helps to keep you in the loop as to what your child is doing.  If you ask your child, you will probably have this conversation:

You:  Honey, what did you do today in school?
Child:  Played.
You:  What did you play?
Child:  I dunno.
You:  Well, who did you play with?
Child: My friends.
You: What are their names?
Child:  I dunno.

That's given that your child doesn't answer the first question with "I don't know".  All those papers we teachers send home to you are for your benefit as well as mine.  We try to keep things clear and keep you up to date on what we're doing.

Finally, and I can't stress this one enough, parents are responsible for ongoing monitoring of their children's day-to-day care at the facility, and bringing concerns to the appropriate person.  You are NOT required to give notice before you stop by to see your child.  As a parent, I often swung by at lunch time to see my children, or even to just peek in on them.  If you have a child who will become upset if s/he sees you, don't plan on making your presence known.  Even if you hang by the front desk, you can generally tell if the center is a stressful place to be or a comfortable one.  Laughter and calm voices indicates a good place.  Screaming children and teachers does not.

So the bottom line of what to look for?

1.  A clean and well-maintained center with enough for children to do.
2.  Respectful, communicative staff;
3.  Values that you share and respect;
4.  Ideally, an accredited center.

In the last post that I wrote, I made some large generalizations and was rightfully called to the carpet for it.  Childcare is incredibly expensive.  Because of cost, many parents look for shortcuts to lower their childcare costs.  I am no more immune to this than anyone else.  When my children were in after school childcare, I was forced to evaluate the cost versus quality of their care.  I was not happy with what I was seeing when I picked my children up; nor was I happy with what I was paying.  Fortunately, I was able to juggle my hours a bit so that we could avoid the after school care altogether.  This post isn't supposed to be about saving a few bucks, but here's a bit of advice:  in all honesty, most of the time, you get what you pay for.  So if you find the caregiver who's charging fifty bucks a week and will keep your child 24 hours a day, you might need to be a little skeptical and watch closely.  My advice?  Consider developing a babysitting co-op, or hire one babysitter to watch two families' children and pay the sitter a bit more than usual.  If the average cost of a babysitter per week in your area is a hundred dollars, consider having a friend's children join yours, pay your babysitter $150, and you both still save $25 a week.

Thanks for reading!  Comments are always welcome, and pass the link on to your friends!

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