Seeking an early education program? Invest some time in your search and know what questions to ask to ensure a positive preschool experience for your child.
“The first five years of life are the absolute most essential for a child’s development,” says Bev Adams, an expert in early childhood development and college professor. “Trying to choose [a program] by reading a handbook and then going and visiting for an hour…is not a good idea.”
1. Long-term benefits.
Studies indicate that children who experience quality early education are less likely to repeat grades or require special education. Early education can also nurture self-esteem and self-confidence, which are necessary—even more so than knowing letters and numbers—for successfully transitioning from preschool to kindergarten. “Other areas early childhood education supports [are] socialization skills, emotional maturity, and…sensory motor skills,” says Becky Bergman, a preschool program director.
2. Beginning the search.
While referrals from other parents are a good starting point, personal observations are vital. Make appointments to observe and interview licensed programs that interest you. Consider the following factors...
Attractive decor is nice, but notice what activities the children are engaged in and if the environment feels safe, secure, and healthy. “Look for any common safety hazards and observe sanitary measures, diaper changing procedures, foul smells, and cleanliness,” Bergman says.
Throughout the center, you should hear children talking and see them playing in different areas of the classroom. “A quality preschool program understands that play is essential to a child’s life, to their experiences, to their positive growth and development. They not only accommodate play, they encourage it, they plan for it,” Adams says. “Young children don’t learn best through the teacher talking to them while they sit quietly in a large group. Young children learn through their senses, through exploring, through discovering, through their activities.”
4. Good instructors.
Seek experienced, warm-natured teachers trained in early childhood development. Credentialed early education teachers understand how to nurture a child’s social-emotional skills. “Watch for positive, encouraging interaction between teachers and students,” Bergman says. “Additionally, I would observe classroom size and number of students per room.”
5. Group size.
Licensed childcare centers must meet the state’s staff-to-child ratio requirements. State requirements aside, you know your child best. Beware of programs where you have trouble finding the adult in a roomful of children. Even a highly trained teacher will struggle with providing the daily one-on-one attention and interaction that a young child needs in a crowded classroom.
Consider how the school provides information to you about your child’s day-to-day activities and progress. While some schools will provide a handout of the day’s activities, others take a more high-tech approach. Bergman’s school, for example, uses a secure platform called LuvNotes™ to communicate with parents. Parents can log in through the Web or their smart phones to find out what activities are planned for the day and what will be served for lunch. They also can get personalized daily reports, and photos and videos of their child.
7. Trust your gut.
From high-tech to no-frills, quality early education programs come in a variety of shapes and sizes—and with various amenities. While compiling your wish list, decide which items are nonnegotiable. Don’t feel rushed into a decision with which you aren’t completely comfortable.
Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two boys. Hines’s latest book is Happy, Healthy, and Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.