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How to Choose the Best Preschool

Child'sPlayIf you are looking for a preschool for your child, I believe you should look at this quest in the context of what your other childcare needs are and what your current situation is. It is easy to say that once your kid reaches the age of 4, he or she should start preschool, but what does that mean? Preschools come in all shapes and sizes, and preschool-like curriculums can be found within daycare and home-care settings. Although it is important to do your research, I believe as a parent myself, where you send your child (or choose not to send) comes down to what feels right to you and what environment you believe will be the best for nurturing and stimulating your child–giving him or her the capacity to grow and foster a love of learning.

My boys did not learn to read and write in preschool (to the shock of some parents), but their combined experiences at a fabulous home daycare led by an energetic dynamo and a cooperative preschool based on learning through play was the right fit for my boys, my work schedule, and our family budget. They were exposed to a variety of kids in a stimulating, friendly space, and each day was full of wonderful discoveries. They entered kindergarten this past fall with curious spirits (and a nervousness for a new place), and each boy is now reading, writing, and well-adjusted to their new school.

I hope you find the following guidelines helpful in finding the right place for you and your child. (Many of these tips apply equally well when searching for childcare.)

1. Answer several questions to help narrow your search.

– Are you looking for a preschool, or do you need a preschool that also offers a daycare or extended-day option?
The hours of operation may be important.

– What location(s) make the most sense? Would the best preschool be located near your home or office?
If you work far from home, would you rather have your kids near your workplace? Does this mean two long car trips each day for your child? Would you rather have the kids go to school close to home where they can meet kids from their neighborhood? Who will be driving your child to school? Can you carpool? In this day and age, how and whom we drive is dictated by car seats. This law is great for child safety but makes it hard (unless you have a minivan or a Partridge family bus) for parents to trade off driving one another’s kids back and forth to school.

– What is your budget?
Remember to factor in extended day programs, nanny or babysitter, and any other after-school care if you are combining the preschool with additional paid childcare options.

2. Compile a list of schools you want to research.

Search Kidoinfo for a list of area preschools and read their websites if they have one. Talk to other parents, friends, and neighbors. Preschool conversations can be overheard amongst parents at local coffee shops, library story times, and neighborhood parks all the time. These are great opportunities to politely solicit other parents for their opinions or experiences with different schools. If your child is currently in a daycare setting, the service provider may also have one or several recommendations for you to consider.

3. Find out basic facts about the schools you like before you visit.
You may find out some of these facts from the schools’ websites or have your list ready when you call the school and speak to the director.

– Is it licensed?
Childcare centers and early childhood schools can be licensed by the state or locality. Licensing assures that a program meets certain basic safety and quality standards.

– Is it accredited?
The National Association for Early Childhood Education (NAEYC) is a nonprofit organization leader in high-quality early childhood education. The NAEYC list consists of accredited preschool programs that meet national performance standards of quality that go beyond most state health and safety licensing requirements. Teachers and staff in these programs receive ongoing training, and the programs are observed by independent, professional experts, and reviewed by a national accreditation panel. All accredited programs are licensed but not all licensed programs are accredited.

– What is the school philosophy?
Is it based on the Italian educator Maria Montessori? Is it a Waldorf school? Does it follow the Reggio Emilia approach? Is it play based? Experimental? Traditional? Mixed? The Dr. Spock website advises not to trust the label a school is given; instead, ask the school you are interested in to spell out its individual philosophy and teaching methods.

– Who are the teachers? How are they trained? How long have they been at the school? Is there teacher turnover?

– Class size? Age range? Teacher-to-student ratio?
Recommended ideal ratios are: 1:5 for 2- to 3-year-olds, 1:7 for 3- to 4-year-olds, 1:15 for 5-year-olds.

– How long is the school day? Is drop-off or pickup time flexible?
Many preschool programs run for a half-day only. Although preschool can be fun, it is also exhausting for youngsters. All preschoolers need their nourishment and down time. Your child’s day should allow some nap or quiet time whether at school, home or daycare.

– What is the daily schedule? School vacation schedule? Sick child policy?

– What is the center’s payment policy? How can you pay? When is the down payment due?

– Is there after-school care? If so, what are the hours? How much does it cost? Who are the teachers? (Are they different from the morning program?) What is the afternoon schedule? Is it structured?

NOTE If you need more hours of childcare than your favorite preschool offers, here are some alternative options:
– Some home daycares have half-day options. Check the list compiled by Options for Working Parents. (Make sure to ask for parent references.)
– If you do not already have a nanny or babysitter in place, contact Options for Working Parents, local university job boards (e.g. Brown University), Sitter City, or Craigslist. Consider sharing a nanny with another family to help keep costs down or alternate days with a nanny from another family.
– Swap childcare with friends — alternate afternoons watching one another’s children. Use the honor system or set up a formal arrangement. Read Parenting Resources for details.

– What are the school’s food guidelines?
Do you bring in snack or lunch for your child and/or the whole class? How are birthdays celebrated? Does the school promote healthy eating habits? If your child has allergies, these are obvious questions, but if your child does not have allergies, as a parent it is important for you to know how the food policy will affect your child’s eating and nutrition.

– How can parents get involved in the school? Are there ways to get to know other parents? Can you volunteer in the classroom? Are there field trips?

4. Plan a school visit.

Ask if the school will be having an open house (usually held on the weekend when school is not in session). In addition, ask if you can schedule a visit during the school day to observe the class in session and/or tour the school. For your first visit you may want to go without your child because visiting a number of new schools may be confusing to your son or daughter. Once you have narrowed your search to a few schools, plan to bring your child to see how he or she feels at the various schools and watch how the teachers interact with your child.

When you are visiting the school, keep these questions in mind:

– Is there play time every day — both imaginative and physical?
– Are there sit-down and active activities? Indoor and outdoor play?
– Is time allotted for and areas devoted to books, art, music, building, discovery, and science?
– Can children choose their own activities?
– Do teachers interact positively with children (reinforcing positive rather than negative behaviors of children)?
– Are children exposed to the ABCs and 123s?
– Are there group and solo activities?
– How are holidays handled? Is there diversity within the school? Does the school respect and encourage a child’s individuality?
– Is there an emergency plan if a child is injured, sick, or lost?
– How does the teacher respond to the children’s needs? How does the teacher handle challenging behavior?
– Is it a happy place? Do teachers and students seem content and excited to be there?

5. Fill out applications and send in deposits for favorite schools.

Finally, remember that looking at any kind of care for your child, whether it is finding the right preschool, daycare, or babysitter, is a personal experience and sometimes stressful (especially with your first one). Although the opinions of other parents can be extremely helpful, they can also stress you out if you get swept up by what everyone else is doing because their values, needs, and budget may be different from your own.

Other Resources:

– How to tell if your child is ready for preschool from the Parent Center website.

– Kidoinfo.com Preschool and Daycare List

– Learn about Rhode Island Coop Preschools

Bright Stars, Based in Rhode Island. BrightStars provides reliable information to Rhode Island parents so that they can make informed choices about their children’s care and early education.

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  • One thing to consider is the overall environment, beyond the preschool, your child will be experiencing. My girls are at the Gordon School, and while they are now in 4th and 5th grade, they started in early childhood and also remain in touch with the early childhood department through a wonderful buddy system which pares lower school kids with early childhood students. Both older and younger children really benefit from this. My fourth grade daughter just adores her kindergarten buddy and always looks forward to doing special projects with her. The mentoring relationship was equally special for her when she was in kindergarten.

  • I believe choosing the best preschool is in part determined by what is best for your child and your family and what “research” suggests is the best program – including the school philosophy and cost. I do not think the best preschool always costs the most and if a “great” preschool does costs alot but breaks your family budget that may not be the “best preschool” for your quality of family life. I believe what you do with your children at home is also important to your child’s healthy development in addition the preschool program.

  • I have a question about how much impact on choosing the “best” preschool to just the “average” preschool to my kid? I have the strong motivation to send mine to the best one in the area, while my hubby is questioning the impact of choosing the best compared with the average/moderate preschool to my kid. Anybody can help? Will it have so much impact on their future study and character development?

  • Some other things to consider is the average tenure of the teachers, which lets you know how happy they are working there. Also, consider your child’s personality. Does he/she need to be with the same kids every day for consistency? Some preschools offer different options to parents so the kids attending may change from day to day. Also, think about the ages of the other students. Some preschools combine 3 & 4 year olds. If you have a “young” three, or a child who is somewhat shy, you might be better off with a class with children close in age. Another big concern when I went through this process was whether or not they had a daycare program. I know this is mentioned above, but from the negative side, if your child hasn’t been in a daycare-type setting in the past, they may take longer adjusting socially. Therefore, if they are mixed in with kids who have experience with daycare, they may not fair as well since these children have already gone through some of this social adjustment. Again, know your child and look for the environment that works best for their personality.