Choosing your child’s childcare center or first school is both an exciting and daunting prospect. Regardless of the qualities you’re looking for, it’s wise to start researching early and apply to multiple programs, because space is often limited. Here are questions to ask, and things to look for to ensure that this school will be right for your child and you. Be sure to call in advance to arrange a tour. You may want to arrange an initial visit without your child and a follow-up visit with her to observe how she functions in the program.
Before You Go:
Ask yourself “What kind of childcare or school environment am I looking for?” Do you picture your child in a busy, active place with lots of other children, or are you looking for a small, nurturing environment with just a few kids? Are you looking for a particular educational philosophy? What kinds of specific needs does your young child have: toilet training, napping, socializing? Do you want a school located near your workplace or your home? If the preschool is private, are the fees within your budget? What kinds of needs do you have regarding your schedule?
When You Get There:
Consider if this school is a good fit for your child — and you. Can you picture your child thriving here? Will this school engage his interests? How will he do socially in this environment? “Nobody knows your child the way you do,” says Judi Gilles, Program Director of Fruit & Flower, a preschool in Portland, Oregon. “So you have to be able to picture your child in this setting and make sure your child will be comfortable and you will be too.”
Spend time observing. Schools will often conduct thorough tours. Watch silently in the classroom and observe the interactions. Ask yourself, “Is this the kind of environment I can see my young child thriving in?”
What is the educational philosophy? How does this school approach learning? Some philosophies are play-based, some introduce reading and math earlier than others, and many schools incorporate multiple philosophies. Some preschools follow specific educational models such as the Montessori Method, the Waldorf approach, the Reggio Emilia system and more. Learn more about Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia and other preschool philosophies.
How large are the classes and what is the teacher-child ratio? Class size ratios in childcare settings vary by state. Ask your school what the mandate is. 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. The important thing to consider is how your child’s needs and your own will be met by this equation.
What is the look and feel of the school? Does it feel warm and inviting? Or is it cold and institutional? Is it clean and organized, or messy and chaotic? What kind of work is up on the walls? Do you see original art, or posters and worksheets? Is the work placed at eye level so young children can see it? Are the facilities old or new? Do they have a gym or play yard? How often do they use it?
Is the atmosphere exciting? Do students seem happy? Do they look busy or bored? Are they having positive interactions with each other, the staff, and the teachers? Do the teachers seem like they enjoy teaching here? Would your child be happy here? Would you?
What kinds of activities are children doing? What is happening in the art corner and the block area? Are children working cooperatively, individually, or both? Are the projects controlled or open-ended, enabling children to do many different things with the same materials? Are there opportunities for dramatic and fantasy play? Do children have lots of free time to run around?
What is the focus on reading? If this is a preschool, ask if it focuses on teaching early literacy skills and at what age. Does this approach seem right for you and your child? “The range of readiness for reading activities among young children is enormous,” says Jane Katch, M.S.T., kindergarten teacher at the Touchstone Community School in Grafton, Massachusetts. “Some want to learn to read and are looking at print, trying to figure it out. Others are not ready, and if pushed too soon may think they are bad at reading. A good preschool program should make all of these children feel successful. Remember that if children are pushed too soon, they can get turned off to reading — and this attitude could stay with them for years.”
More Questions to Ask When Choosing a Preschool or Childcare Center
Are children working all together or individually? Is everyone doing the same project or activity at the same time? Are individual interests being accommodated? 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?
Assess the staff and teachers. Do they seem happy and excited — or bored? Ask, “What is staff turnover rate?” and “How long have teachers been with the program?” Also, inquire about how they were trained and training requirements.
How much do the children play? Both boys and girls need room to run around and time to do it. And both need plenty of opportunity for active and imaginative play. “When you visit a preschool, look carefully at what kinds of play are allowed and encouraged,” says Jane Katch. “Children need to be able to explore their interests through play — in a dramatic play area, in a block area, and using materials like sand and water. They also need time to complete an activity before they are directed into another experience.”
How do parents get involved in the school? Is there an active parent’s organization? Can parents volunteer in the classroom? If you do volunteer, what kinds of activities can parents help with? And will you get to work with your child?
How is information communicated to parents? How do teachers and the administration keep parents informed? Is there a good newsletter? Do you get e-mail updates? Can you e-mail the teachers with questions? How often do you meet with your child’s teacher?
How does the school address social-emotional issues? How does the staff help children resolve conflicts? How are issues like hitting, throwing, and biting addressed? Does it have class meetings? Does it have a specific approach for teaching social-emotional skills?
What are the discipline policies? Many schools have specific disciplinary rules involving everything from time outs, to meeting with the teacher or principal, to expulsion. What happens during a time out? Does a child sit alone or with a teacher? Are children punished for inappropriate behaviors — and how are they discussed? Do parents and teachers work together to deal with issues as they come up? Ask for specifics and consider if they will be right for your child and for you.
Is this school accredited? 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. Be aware that accreditation standards vary from state to state, and that some centers may meet standards without being accredited by outside organizations. Ask the school how it addresses this issue.
Request a copy of the class schedule. How is the day structured? Is this the right fit for your child’s intellectual, emotional and physical needs? Is the day broken up into many different classes or does one activity flow into the next?
What are the illness policies? How does the school handle illnesses? Can kids come to school with a cold but not a fever? How long do they need to be fever-free before coming back to school?
Is the space safe? Is it up to code? What evacuation plans are in place?
Can you get names of other parents whose children go to the school? If you haven’t been personally recommended (and even if you have), ask for some numbers of other parents who might answer more specific questions. Talking to other parents is a great way to find out more.