What to look for in a preschool

Selecting the right preschool used to be a much easier job. One simply picked up the phone book and called the school that was convenient and close to home.

The primary expectations were that the classroom environment would be warm, safe, and secure. With the current knowledge of how much young children are capable of learning and the increased emphasis on academics, this has all changed. Now parents rush to find a spot in what is perceived as a prestigious institution and an important gateway to further opportunities for their children.

What should parents look for in a school and how should they organize themselves before that first visit? First, take a deep breath, relax and be prepared to resist the anxiety that often accompanies the first real separation between parent and child. Finding the right school takes planning, seeing what is available in your community, and taking a crash course in the variety of early childhood programs out there.

A good place to start is sorting out the three major types of preschools. Families in which both parents work may seek either a private or state-sponsored full-day program; those wanting a non-secular environment might choose a religious school; and others might prefer the traditional half-day nursery school. Once the type of school has been decided, call to request a brochure and to be added to the mailing list.

Whether you chose to apply or not, many preschool programs have few available spaces and it is important to make your interest known. Once telephone contact has been established, it is time to go to the library or check the internet for information on specific kinds of early childhood programs, such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Friends. Each of these programs has specific ideas about the way a child should be taught. In some schools the curriculum is sequential and highly-structured while others emphasize learning through play. A program that works for one child may not be the best for another.

Friends and co-workers who have children of the same or similar ages are another valuable source of information. Find out about their experiences and particularly what they, as parents, might have done differently. Observe the children in your neighborhood and see how they interact with one another. Are they able to share or do they simply grab when they want something? Social interactions are learned in the family and at school. When I lived in New York City, my advice to parents was to go to a park where teachers bring children and see how well the children are supervised and how teachers handle conflicts. In this area, driving by at recess or during a playtime could have tremendous value in ascertaining the level of supervision given children.

After you have done the initial research, it is time to make the actual visit to the school. First impressions are important! Pay attention to what your eyes and ears tell you. You'll get an immediate sense of a general atmosphere. Try not to bring your child with you on the first visit. You'll want to be free to talk without distraction. Allow enough time to observe in the classroom, tour the facility, and talk in depth with the director. Plan on spending about an hour and try to schedule your visit for the middle of the morning.

Bank Street College of Education, a place noted for its research on early childhood programs, has prepared a set of criteria for prospective parents, including the following information:

1) On first impression, do you think this setting will be a happy experience for your child? 2) Will you be able to develop a relaxed, sharing relationships with the caregiver? 3) All schools need to be licensed by the state. Are current operating license conspicuously posted? 4) Are there enough adults for the number and ages of children?

Other issues to consider:

Do the children receive the individual attention, warmth, and understanding that you would like for your child? Are the children happy and playing with each other? Talking to each other? Talking to adults? Do caregivers recognize when a child is sad or upset or excited and refrain from embarrassing any child? Is an effort made to listen to and answer children's questions in ways they can understand? Is discipline handled in a positive manner? Do adults supervise the children at all times during nighttime? If a child does not fall asleep, is the child engaged in a quiet activity?

The physical environment in which a child learns is of particular importance. Is the area for program activities well lit and ventilated? Are the indoor and outdoor spaces for children safe and free of hazards? For example: radiators covered, stairways protected, windows protected, electrical outlets covered with safety caps, walkways free of ice and snow, outdoor space fenced and free from debris, broken glass, and so on. Are heavy pieces of furniture, such as storage shelves and bookcases, secure and stable so that they cannot tip over? Are detergents, household cleaners, and medicines kept in locked storage cabinets? Are emergency fire drills and evacuation procedures posted in a conspicuous place in each room andare emergency telephone numbers on each phone?

Are toys and equipment clean and in good repair (for example, free from sharp edges, splinters, paint chips, and loose parts)? It is important to find out about the health standards required for children and their caretakers. Are there written health records kept for each child? Are there written procedures for securing background checks on new caregivers? Are first aid supplies readily available and does at least one person have a current Red Cross first-aid certificate? Does a registered nurse visit at least weekly in programs for children under three years of age? Is there an adult responsible for receiving children when they arrive each day? At the end of the day, will your child be released to another person only if you have given written permission? Are there written procedures to follow when a child becomes sick?

Is there a clearly written financial policy regarding a child's absence due to sickness or other causes? Are the meals and snacks prepared by the caregiver? There are specific things to look for in the classroom and how activities are structured. Do the caregivers respect the children's rights to engage in activities by themselves and with other children? Is the space arranged so the children can freely select materials according to there own interests and abilities and return them when they have finished? Do you hear adults in the program giving praise and encouragement to children to enhance their self-confidence?

As you see children participating in the program, do they seem to be enjoying the activities? Do the caregivers help the children learn from a variety of activities? Is the program well stocked with equipment and supplies such as blocks, books, games, toys, and creative art materials? Is the space neat, clean, and attractively decorated? Is there space for active play and for quiet play? Is there a special place away form the busy activities for a sick (or tired) child to rest yet still near the caregiver? Can children reach the toilet and sink easily and safely? Ultimately, a parent must feel comfortable and that they will be a valued member of their schools community. Did the caregiver adequately explain the program to you?

Did the caregiver ask you about your family's cultural and language background so that activities can be planned which recognize each child's culture? Will the caregiver provide you with information on a regular basis about your child's activities and progress? Will opportunities be provided for you to be involved in making decisions about the program and your child's education? Were you encouraged to visit and observe the program at any time while your child is participating?

Does the program give community resource information to parents and invite them to participate in educational activities? Is there a copy of the plans for the children's daily activities available for parents? Will trips to local stores, parks, library, and so on be adequately supervised? Will your written permission be obtained for each trip?

When the visit is complete give yourself time to reflect on the experience and go over the notes you have taken. Preschool is not the end of the world but part of a process. No school will ever provide for all of a child's needs nor will any school be perfect. However, it is important that the first home away from home is one they will remember with a smile and sweet dreams.