An Overview of Preschool

Preschool is an important stepping stone for children. Choosing a preschool is an exciting experience, but can also be a daunting task because there are so many choices.

Preschools are for children ages two, three, and four years old and offer a variety of programs that parents can choose from. Children are not only taught academics, such as shapes, colors, numbers, and letters, but are also taught social and emotional skills, like how to share and follow directions—among other developmentally appropriate behaviors.

Explore your options and find the best preschool for your child.

Considerations

Enrolling your child in preschool is a big decision. Some children start as early as age two while others begin closer to age four. Your child will likely adjust better and have a better experience if he or she is ready to begin school. Factors to consider include:

As a parent, you are the best judge of what environment will be best for your child. Think about your child's personality. Are they outgoing and make friends quickly? Or are they shy and need a smaller setting?

Think about what type of experiences you want your child to gain in preschool. Are you looking for a play-based school or something more academic? Do you want a school located near your workplace or your home? What kinds of needs do you have regarding your schedule? If the preschool is private, are the fees within your budget? Think about specific needs your child has—toilet training, napping, socializing—and if the school's setting fits them.

 

Starting the Search

You may feel silly looking at preschools when your child is so young, but you should start looking the September before you want your child to start. If you are looking to start school when your child is two, you must start looking when they are one-year-old.

Depending on the admission process, preschools may take application as early as September or may begin the process closer to January. You should check with each individual program to find our their admission process, important dates, and necessary paperwork. And check with the school to find out the details on age qualifications.

Making a List

When it comes to preschools, there are many wonderful options. Start by doing a search of the schools in your neighborhood on the internet. Also, ask your co-workers, neighbors, and friends with older children. You could also ask your child's pediatrician.

Make a list of schools and include cost, location, length of school day, and any other important factors. Making a list will lessen your anxiety and keep your thoughts organized.

The School's Philosophy

Spend some time on each school's website learning about their teaching philosophy. There are many philosophies, including Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Bank Street, and High/Scope Approach.

Each school has its own tone and own way of implementing their philosophy. Outside of the formal educational philosophies, there are many other ways preschools identify their programs, such as child-centered, teacher-led, and child-led. 

There are other options, such as programs where religion is part of the everyday curriculum, a cooperative run by parents, programs affiliated with community groups such as the YMCA, and state-run programs that are often free for all residents or low-income families. You can also explore programs run by daycare companies or the many "stand alone" preschool programs. 

Distance & Transportation

How far away the school is from your home and how your child will get to school is an important factor in your decision. Will your child ride a bus or will you drop them off and pick them up?

If the school is far away, will it take time away from your work day? A preschool close to where you live may make it easier for your child to foster the friendships they make in school through play dates and birthday parties.

Days & Times

Preschool programs differ in days per week and length of the school day. Some preschools offer two, three, and five day a week options. Some preschools are half days or even shorter and others are full day.

For many kids, especially those who have never been in a formal program outside the home, preschool is very tiring. Ask about all the available options and decide which one will work best for your child. Some preschools do offer extended hours, so decide what works best for your family and inquire about your options.

Scheduling a Tour

Once you have compiled your list, contact the school to schedule a tour. On a tour, you should meet with the school's director, principal, or other staff member.  During a tour, you can ask questions and, if school is in session, you can observe a class going on.

If class is not going on, you may want to return a different time to see how the teacher's interact with the kids and get a feel for what a day would be like for you child. Try to stay for at least a half hour so you can get a real feel for how the class runs. After your tour, the school may also choose to interview you and your child. Some other things to consider on your tour include:

  • Class size: How large are the classes and what is the teacher to child ratio? Class size ratios in childcare settings vary by state. Most childcare centers range from 1:3 or 1:4 adults to children or infants—and then vary by age as the child gets older. 
  • Activities. What types of activities are children doing in the classroom? Are children working in groups, individually, or both? Are there opportunities for dramatic and fantasy play? Do children have lots of free time to run around? Are the projects teacher-led or open-play—enabling children to do many different things with the same materials?
  • Safety. Does the classroom have toys and other play items that are clean, safe, and easy for children to reach? Is the setting old or new? Does it look clean? Is there an outside play space, and if so, is it fenced in?
  • Other children. Do the children seem happy, adjusted, and engaged? Do they look busy or bored? Are the children having positive interactions with each other, the staff, and the teachers? Are children working all together or individually? Is everyone doing the same project or activity at the same time? Will your child’s learning style be suited well to this school’s approach? How do children decide what to do, when they want to do it, and with whom?
  • Teachers. Do the teachers seem like they enjoy their work? Are the teachers engaging the kids? Or do they seem bored? Ask about staff turnover rates, how long teachers have been with the school, and teacher training requirements.

Questions to Ask

  • Parent involvement. Does the school encourage parental involvement? Is there an active parent’s organization or PTA? Can parents volunteer in the classroom? If so, what types of activities can parents help with? 
  • Parent-teacher communication. How is information communicated to parents? How do teachers and the administration keep parents informed? Is there a newsletter or class blog? Does the school send e-mail updates? Can you e-mail the teachers with questions? How often do you meet with your child’s teacher for parent-teacher conferences?
  • Social, emotional, and behavioral issues. How does the school address social and emotional issues? How do the teachers help children resolve conflicts? How are issues like hitting, throwing, and biting addressed with the children? Does the school have a specific approach for teaching age appropriate social/emotional skills?
  • Discipline. What are the discipline policies? Does the school do time-outs? If so, what happens during a time out? How are inappropriate behaviors discussed with the children? Does the school get parents involved with disciplinary problems? (Think of specific questions to ask that may apply to your child to gauge whether the setting is right for your child.) 
  • Accreditation. Is the school accredited? (Accreditation standards vary from state to state. Public schools need to meet state and district requirements. Private schools and daycare centers get additional accreditation from organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Independent Schools.) 
  • Sick policy. What are the sick policies? Can kids come to school with a cold but not a fever? How long do children need to be fever-free before returning to school?

Preparation

Once you choose a preschool, the next step is to prepare your child to make the transition as smooth as possible. Do not build it up too much or start months in advance because this could backfire. Take simple steps to get your child excited for this new phase, like:

  • Read books. A simple way to introduce the concept of going to preschool to children is with books. For a few weeks before school begins, spend time with your child reading books about going to school and what goes on during a day of preschool. Here are 7 books to help prepare your child for preschool. 
  • Play preschool. Children who enjoy creative play and using their imagination may enjoy "playing preschool." Take turns being the parent, child, and teacher. Act out the daily routines of school such as getting ready in the morning, saying goodbye, reading books, singing songs, taking naps, and eating lunch with classmates. Playing preschool will help ease your child's worries. Be open to answering any questions and let your child see for themselves that preschool is fun! 
  • Discuss the routine. Many children have difficulties with new routines and transitions. Explain to your child the new morning routine, what will go on throughout the day, and who will pick them up. Some children like to see pictures of their day where as other children like to talk about it. Children will be more comfortable if they know what to expect.
  • Purchase items together. If your child needs to bring a backpack, lunchbox, or other speciality item to preschool, get them involved in the purchase. Allow your child to pick out what he/she wants so they feel more involved and excited about starting school.
  • Listen to your child's concerns. Many children feel nervous before starting preschool. If it is the first year, they do not know what to expect and may feel anxious about meeting new teachers and classmates. Make an effort to listen to your child's concerns and not dismiss them. Let your child know it is normal to feel worried, scared, sad, excited, or happy. Explain to your child that starting something new can feel scary. When you allow your child to share his/her worries, you can help work through them together.
  • Expect separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is very common and normal when a child begins preschool. Most parents should go into the transition expecting some tears at the beginning. Here are some tips for parents to manage separation anxiety.

Tips for Parents

  • Befriend other parents. Before you choose a school, talk to other parents to get opinions and a sense of the teachers and the administration. Once you decide on a preschool, make an effort to build friendships and get involved in the preschool community. This will help you feel more comfortable and give you people to ask questions and bounce concerns off of. Also, knowing more parents allows you to set up more playdates for your child and help them adjust to school.
  • Trust your gut. Choosing a preschool is a very important decision and your needs and wants are unique to your family. If something doesn't feel right, don't brush it off. Don't be scared to talk to the teacher or the principal about any concerns.

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