Today I welcome guest contributor Gayle J. Justynski, with over 20 years of experience working on behalf of young children as a teacher, director, and regulator. She shares her helpful advice on what to look for when choosing the right preschool for your child and family. – Anisa
February is considered the month of groundhogs and valentines, but if you are a parent of a young child, it is also the time to choose a preschool for fall enrollment. Many early childhood programs will be full by early spring so parents need to do their due diligence now to make the best choice for their child. With the wide range of preschools available, the process can seem daunting. Refine your list of potential schools based on factors such as location, hours, and cost. Then make appointments to visit the schools which interest you. During those visits it is wise to consistently evaluate each school against criteria such as licensing credentials, teacher qualifications, the environment and children’s experiences, and family involvement.
In Rhode Island, early childhood programs are required to be licensed by the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). Programs can also seek approval from the RI Department of Education (RIDE). If a program is approved by RIDE, they will be using the RI Early Learning Standards (RIELS) as a framework for their curriculum. RIELS are divided into eight domains (general areas of learning), and provide guidance about what young children should know and be able to do as they enter kindergarten ready to succeed. Teachers who incorporate these standards into their curriculum are continually assessing the learning goals and expectations of children. Visit www.ride.ri.gov/els for more information about these standards as well as some valuable family resources. There are voluntary stamps of approval that a school may also have such as accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (www.naeyc.org) or a Bright Stars rating (www.brightstars.org), which is administered by the state chapter of the NAEYC. Participating schools go through a rigorous evaluation across various quality criteria. For more information about these credentials and to see if a school you are considering participates, visit their respective websites.
Observing a classroom is one of the best ways to judge if a school will be a good fit for you and your child. Research supports that one of the highest indicators of program quality and successful child outcomes are the interactions between teachers and children. Do the teachers talk to the children in a respectful and genuine manner? Are they asking children open ended questions that lead to problem solving skills? Do they appear to enjoy being with the children? How do the teachers handle conflicts between children? Ask about teacher qualifications and rate of turnover.
THE ENVIRONMENT AND CHILDREN’S EXPERIENCES
The classroom environment should be organized into clearly defined learning/play areas with interesting materials and many choices. Children receive clear messages from their environment which will have an impact on the quality of their experience. The environment should encourage independence and inspire creativity. It is also important to notice the children in the classroom. Do they seem relaxed and happy? Are children engaged in hands-on, age-appropriate activities? In a developmentally appropriate program, you will observe children making choices about where to play with minimal time spent in large-group teacher-directed activities. The bulk of the child’s day should be spent in small group and individual learning times with a balance between quiet and active play. An opportunity for outdoor play on a daily basis is another component to evaluate.
Ask about family involvement. The highest quality schools are those that have active parent participation. Various meaningful opportunities should be offered to families throughout the school year to participate in their child’s learning experience.
Probably the best advice anyone can give to a parent seeking a preschool program is to follow their instincts. Remember, you know your child best and where he or she will thrive. When you find the right match for you and your child, you will know it.
Gayle J. Justynski has a Masters Degree in early childhood education and has been working on behalf of young children for over 20 years as a teacher, director, and regulator. She served on the committee to write the RI Early Learning Standards and worked for the RI Department of Education as a Preschool Approval Specialist. She is currently the Director at Barrington Early Childhood Center (BECC).