Finding the right preschool or child care program for your child can be a daunting task. Parents face a nationwide shortage of program options, especially those who live in a “child care desert” and one that has been exacerbated by Covid-19. In addition to merely finding accessible programs there’s the matter of trying to identify high-quality programs, and ensuring a particular program will meet your family’s unique needs.
Some studies have found that only 8-10% of preschool centers nationwide are rated high in quality, but this statistic only reflects child care centers and preschools that have been Accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. It is true, however, that high quality early learning experiences ensure that children are less likely to fail a future grade, are more likely to graduate high school and go to college, and less likely to end up in the justice system.
What should parents prioritize on their preschool search? All Wonderschool programs follow a Quality & Safety Promise that goes above and beyond licensing requirements to ensure a high-quality experience for families, but there are a lot of preschool options for families, so we put together a quality indicator checklist of what parents should look for during their search:
Only consider options that are licensed by the state regulatory agency for all center-based programs and family child care homes. Other programs such as forest schools and microschools may not be eligible for a license - this will vary by state but the program owner/director should be able to explain to you if they are/are not licensed, and if not, what other regulations they follow.
Ask about hours, educational philosophy and curriculum, teacher credentials, teacher turnover rates, and guidance strategies. But don’t get too hung up on teacher credentials, cautions Daryl-Lynn Johnson, director of Unity Preschool in Evanston, IL. “Credentials don’t necessarily mean a better teacher.” A great teacher may not have a masters in education; many years experience can be even more valuable. “If a teacher has a masters in early childhood education, that’ll be more meaningful than a masters in elementary education,” says Johnson. Also, when it comes to turnover, she says, “You want a balance. A place where the teachers have been forever is not necessarily better. That might mean they’re stuck in their ways. Some turnover is actually a good thing.”
View the school calendar and inquire about family activities, volunteer opportunities, and visitor policy. The preschool program should have an open visitor policy for parents. Also make sure that the calendar itself works for your family—is the program year-round, or is it closed during certain weeks or months that you’ll need care? Do the hours of operation work for your family?
For babies, a program should follow the individual schedule of each child, so that they eat when they’re hungry, sleep when they’re tired, and aren’t trapped in a seat the entire day. For toddlers and preschoolers, a more structured day with a predictable schedule and routine is best.
How often do they take the children outside? Ideally, all children, even babies, go outside daily – even multiple times per day.
Ask about any quality assessments or ratings completed by the program, which can easily help indicate a high-quality environment. If you wish, says says Sarah Erdman, Lead Teacher at FB Meekins Cooperative Preschool in Vienna, Va, “You can also check and see what kind of [Child Care Licensing] violations they have been cited for. This may be no big deal (“Oops, we messed up some paperwork”) to big deal (“Oops, a child was badly injured under our care").
What are the teacher/student ratios? Compare these to your state regulations. Lower ratios are another indicator of a high-quality program.
Are teachers engaged with the kids? Do they kneel down to their level versus talk down to them? Do you hear the sound of happy, busy children or do you hear yelling and chaos? Look for context behind any noise and activity. Also, look into what the school’s discipline policy and how they adhere to it, says Johnson. “Are you OK with time outs? If they do time outs, what does it look like? Some schools do time outs too much and the timeouts can feel alienating and on display. I’d look for a school that does redirection.” It’s a personal choice; just make sure that the school’s discipline policy is something that you feel comfortable with.
More than anything, parents should go with their gut. Check how you feel when you’ve stepped into the building.” Unsure exactly how you’re supposed to feel? Visit one or two additional programs, even if you think it’s unlikely your child will go there, to get a feel for what type of environment you lean towards.
On your tour, scope out where your child will be learning. “I had one teacher whose classroom was totally jam packed with stuff, and for some kids that was so overstimulating the kids just couldn’t handle it.” says Johnson. Look for a well-organized classroom with kids’ art on display. Also, a preschool with a TV or allows screentime is a big no-no and signals a lack of engagement and activities for children – minus a few exceptions (for example: students learning about insects and the kids are interested in a praying mantis but there isn’t one around to look at. The teacher finds a 30-second video online to show them what one looks like in real life, and how it moves, and how it eats).
“If they promise you that your child will be speaking Mandarin and Spanish and reading and writing by age 2, smile politely and back away slowly,” says Erdman. There is no fast track or academic advantage for little children. “You want a play-based experience. It can be whatever flavor you prefer (regular, Montessori, Waldorf, etc.) but you want play to be first.”
If parents are satisfied with their program they’ll be glad to sing its praises to you (and the program should be happy to provide references.) Johnson recommends asking other parents what communication from the school is like and how they have found the program to be. Johnson also recommends inquiring what the school community is like. For example, some schools are drop off and go which is great for some parents. Other child care programs use the drop off and pickup times as a a way to bring more connection within the the core community— do you like to be able to socialize a bit with other parents? Some parents forge lifelong friendships with other preschool parents, whereas others can’t or aren’t interested in participating in extensive school-related socializing.
If you and/or your spouse work far from home, it can be hard to decide between a school closer to home or work. There are pros and cons of each—do you want to be close to your kids if something happens during the day, or do you want them in a program that’s part of your home community? Each family will have different desires and needs around location, but the important thing is to walk through what the routine would be, how difficult it would be to commute with your children, and other logistical questions in order to focus your search appropriately.
Print out and use these tips as you are searching for a great program in your area. Don’t forget to check out preschools in the Wonderschool network. Wonderschool encourages providers to keep classroom ratios low, help teachers with licensing and accreditation, provide directors and staff with professional development opportunities, monitor parent feedback from programs, and make it simple for parents to visit and get answers to their most important questions. This helps teachers focus on what they know how to do best—creating an excellent quality environment for your kids.
Want that extra level of assurance as you look for quality programs? All child care programs using Wonderschool tools are encouraged to follow the Wonderschool Quality & Safety vision that goes above and beyond licensing requirements to ensure a high-quality experience for families.
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David Calabrese, the director of Little Earthlings Forest School in San Francisco, is a testament to how childhood experiences can have lasting impacts.