It’s time for preschool – what you need to know to make the best decision for your child

Preschool

By Susan Baldani

A good preschool has been shown to provide a strong foundation for learning and has also been proven to increase a child’s academic success for years to come. In addition, it’s usually a child’s first experience with structured education and leaving home for hours on end, so parents want to make sure the choice they make is the right one.

Here are some things to focus on when choosing a preschool for your child:

Teachers

The strength of any program is going to depend on the teacher. Requirements differ by state – while one may not require a bachelor’s degree, other states may. Find out what the qualifications are that the school itself requires of their teachers.

What kind of degree or experience do the teachers have? At minimum, they should have a certificate such as the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential. Even better is a bachelor’s or, of course, a master’s degree in early childhood education. Also find out if there are teacher’s assistants or aides in the classroom as well and if so, what their qualifications are.

Size of classes

Many studies have shown that the lower the ratio of student to teacher, the better the academic outcome. To ensure that children get the proper attention, states have strict guidelines in place for how many children a certified teacher can oversee and how many adults, such as aides and assistants, have to be in a classroom.Most early-childhood educators believe that younger children do best in classes with fewer than 15 students.

Educational philosophy

While some schools focus on structure, others allow for discovery-based learning. While structure is important in every grade, many studies encourage more free play during preschool, which allows children to make choices in their learning.

“You don’t want to be telling (the children) what to do all the time,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor and former dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. “You want to make sure there are experiences all kids get because they’re important, but it’s also important to let them bring themselves to the task.”

Parents should also look for schools that welcome parental visits, have open communication, and provide feedback on their children’s day-to-day activities. Even though they are young, this is the age when developmental delays and learning issues may present themselves.

As stated in the article “Tools for Parents: What to look for in a preschool program,” by Lillian Mongeau, “Several well-established assessments of social and emotional growth as well as academic preparedness are available to early childhood educators. These non-academic assessments help parents and teachers measure important developmental traits such as self-esteem; whether children understand what adults are telling them; a child’s ability to keep trying a new task – like rebuilding a tower that’s fallen down; and fine motor skills.”

Classroom set up and safety

Preschool classrooms should have open floor plans with low tables, small chairs and low shelves. Toys, books, blocks and other items should be neatly organized into play centers and within reach of the children.

Look around the classroom to make sure the room and materials are clean and the environment is safe. Stipek stated that “parents should look for general cleanliness as well as safety features such as covered electrical sockets, toys without sharp edges and safe storage of potentially dangerous materials, including paint and cleaning supplies.”

Everyone on staff should be trained in CPR and first aid, and the school should also have an emergency plan in place. Also ask about background checks. Does the school perform those?

Discipline

Find out how children are disciplined and what kinds of rules they are expected to follow. How are children encouraged to follow these rules? Positive reinforcement should be used, such as reward charts or stickers, and praise from staff. If the child does not follow the rules, does the teacher use time-out or redirection or some other kind of behavior modification techniques?

Other things to ask: Do children take naps during the day, and if so, for how long? Who provides the food and snacks? Does a child have to be fully potty trained in order to attend? Can the school provide references or the ability to speak with other parents?

Of course, cost is another factor that parents need to know up front. Some states provide free preschool, whereas many others still do not. However, there may be programs that help offset the cost for low-income families.

Lastly, parents should follow their instincts. Does the school feel like a positive place to learn, do the children look happy, and are the teachers warm and inviting? Would they feel comfortable leaving their child there? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” they can then be secure in the fact that they have found the best place for their child.

Written for Roanoke Valley Family Magazine in VA.

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