Play-based. Pre-K prep. Cooperative. Montessori. Reggio Emilia. When it comes to picking a preschool, parents are faced with a wide spectrum of philosophies and educational environments to consider. With so many factors to take into account, what’s really important when choosing a program for your individual child?
Despite a recent trend toward earlier academic learning – memorizing letters, numbers and even starting to read younger and younger – leading education experts agree that preschool should instead prepare children to get ready to learn, teaching social skills such as following directions, communicating needs and adapting to the group dynamics of a classroom.
“People kind of get hung up on being ‘kindergarten ready’, but if you ask kindergarten teachers what they need, what’s crucial to them is that the students are emotionally ready to be in kindergarten,” says Susan Hedges, Director of Program Quality Research for the National Association of the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, which accredits early childhood programs across the country. “They need the student to know how to get along with others, how to deal with conflict and to feel safe in group environments.”
So how can you ensure you’re choosing a great preschool that covers these bases – and more? From licensing and curriculum to communication and staffing red flags, local and national experts share tips on what to look for in a quality program.
Licensing and ratings
First, start with the basics. Indiana licenses child care centers, including preschools, in three categories: licensed child care center, licensed child care home and unlicensed registered child care ministry. Center-based and home-based care providers are inspected by the state, while churches and programs that meet infrequently, such as summer day camps, are exempt.
Parents can search licensed preschools by name or location via the state’s CareFinder website (secure.in.gov/apps/fssa/carefinder/index.html). Here you can find recent inspection results, complaints and enforcement measures, along with contact information, hours, maximum capacity and any accreditations.
Indiana also has a voluntary statewide child care rating system called Paths to Quality which helps families make educated decisions about child care and encourages providers to improve the quality of their programs. A Level 1 designation means a program is meeting the basic health and safety needs of children in its care. Level 2 signifies the center also provides an environment that supports children’s development and learning. Programs at Level 3 also have a planned curriculum that supports school readiness and Level 4 centers have achieved a nationally recognized accreditation as well. The database is searchable by location and by rating (visit childcareindiana.org).
Another option for parents in central Indiana is Child Care Answers (childcareanswers.com), a free child care search that’s part of the Indiana Child Care Resource and Referral network and operated by Early Learning Indiana. Besides the search feature, the program offers referrals and technical assistance for parents, along with training and mentoring for providers. “We help families by providing them with information on what to look for and knowing what questions to ask,” says Crystal Givens, Director of Programs for Child Care Answers.
Next, you’ll want to read up on the philosophies of potential preschools. Some programs are rooted in creative play and child-led learning, while others involve more group projects or classroom-style learning. Keep in mind your child’s personality and learning style, and consider how they would feel in each environment.
Primrose Schools, which has nine locations in central Indiana and 300 total nationwide, touts its Balanced Learning approach, which combines the thinking of major early learning philosophers with the latest child development studies to create a skill-building concept aimed at engaging children. “Our balance is between a teacher-directed approach and a child-initiated approach,” says Julie Bowman, Owner of three Primrose School locations in Carmel and Westfield. “It’s not about learning words. It’s more the foundational piece. Our children are really prepared for the educational setting because they have had a mix of instruction and learning through play.”
Whatever approach parents gravitate toward, it’s important to follow up with questions and an on-site visit to see how the philosophy is put into practice. “Talk to the provider and ask specific questions about their philosophy,” Givens suggests. “They can tell you a lot, but when it comes down to it, what you see and what’s happening might be different.”
Make it a point to visit potential preschool programs and observe the relationships you see between children and those between children and teachers.
Teachers should be talking to and interacting warmly with the children, instead of simply directing them from across the room, and children should be encouraged to play and work together, experts say. When conflicts arise, the teacher should be seen helping the children identify feelings and trying alternative solutions.
“Do you see children who are engaged and actively involved in free play? You want to see caregivers – teachers or parents – down on the floor and involved in the child-led play that is happening,” says Christine Wise, President of the Indiana Council of Preschool Cooperatives, the umbrella organization for eleven parent cooperative preschools across the Indianapolis area.
It should also be evident that teachers and staff have realistic expectations for children based on their development level, such as how long a child can sit still or the amount of time needed to transition between activities.
Teacher training and retention
It’s an unfortunate and well-known fact that preschool teachers aren’t well paid, which can lead to staff turnover and training issues.
The NAEYC encourages parents to look for programs in which teachers have specialized knowledge about early childhood development along with educational qualifications, including Child Development Associate (CDA) or other credentials, associate’s degrees or higher degrees. Programs should also encourage ongoing staff development and have an organized office staff.
“It’s about what happens in the classroom and how the program is run. You can’t do good work in the classroom if you’re not supported by the office,” Hedges stresses. “Parents should ask how long each teacher has been there. If it sounds like everyone’s new in the past year, that could be a problem.”
Parents should also ask to see the preschool’s parent handbook, which should include information on everything from the discipline policy to parent involvement, field trip guidelines and health and safety procedures.
When touring prospective preschools, be sure take note of your reaction to the physical environment. What are your first impressions? Quality programs will have appropriate and well-maintained indoor and outdoor areas that are safe, clean and interactive.
“Ask yourself, do you see toys? Do you see child artwork on the walls – child-created things rather than teacher-created things?” Wise says. “The area should look inviting, clean and uncluttered.”
Check also for child-sized furniture, such as chairs, tables, sinks, toilets and napping areas, which are welcoming and encourage independence.
Even for the youngest of learners, a well-planned, written curriculum provides a guide for teachers and administrators to follow in regards to developing a child’s social, emotional, physical, language and cognitive skills.
“Quality programs should have a cohesive curriculum, even all the way down to infants,” Hedges says. “They should be able to tell you the goals for what children are learning and how they’re reflected in planned activities and the daily schedule.”
Bowman notes that one of the advantages of the consistent curriculum across all Primrose Schools is that families who move within central Indiana or across the country don’t need to worry about their child coming in either ahead or behind of others at the school.
Communication and assessment
During your visit, ask how regularly teachers and staff communicate with families and what methods they use to keep parents informed. Are parents allowed to drop by the facility at any time? An open-door policy is a good sign that the program is committed to engaging families in the education of their children.
In regards to understanding your child’s growth in school, NAEYC standards stipulate that programs use ongoing systematic assessment to track children’s progress across all development areas. Families should receive information about their child’s development and learning on a regular basis, not only through written communication but with in-person meetings or conferences as well.
Even with a well-prepared game plan of evaluating potential preschools on these various criteria, choosing a preschool often comes down to the first reaction you have when you walk in the door. “Parents should always go with their gut. I can’t stress that enough,” says Jennifer Bohannon, a Multiage STEM teacher at IUPUI’s Center for Young Children. “If you walk into the center or a classroom and you just don’t feel right, trust that feeling.”
Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of choosing a preschool? Don’t. Take some time to think about the type of environment your child is likely to thrive in. Trust your intuition when visiting potential centers in person. Do some advance research to feel prepared to get the answers to questions that are most important to you. Then choose a program with confidence. When you feel good about the preschool you ultimately choose, your child will too.