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Finding the Right Preschool: Step-by-Step

Experts Weigh In

What makes a good preschool? What is "Montessori" school? Should your child be learning her letters at age three, or is that pushing it?

Choosing a preschool is often the first education decision a parent makes, beyond the teaching and learning that occurs at home. To help you make the best choice for your child, FamilyEducation.com asked three preschool authorities for a checklist of things you should when visiting preschools in your area.

Our Experts
Amy Bolotin, parent of a preschooler (Lily, age 4) and preschool teacher at the Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center in Boston, Massachusetts

Alan Simpson, spokesperson for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a national organization that sets standards and offers accreditation for early childhood programs

Bobbi Rosenquest, associate professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College in Boston

Types of Preschool Learning

There are a number of different education models used in preschools, and a good deal of overlap, with many schools incorporating different elements in the design of their program. Here's a thumbnail sketch of four common models, with an illustration of how each would utilize the classroom's "block corner" to build children's cognitive, emotional and social skills:

Montessori. There are many different types of Montessori schools, so parents are well advised to ask a preschool director to be specific about how the Montessori philosophy and teaching materials are used. This approach is based on the work of Marie Montessori, who taught among poor children in Italy in the 19th century. Children are seen as independent learners, with teachers acting as facilitators. The materials and the learning environment are to be used in a certain way (in a classical Montessori program, a broomstick would only be used for sweeping a floor; it would not "become" an airplane during imaginary play.) Much attention is paid to order in the classroom, and returning materials to the exact location they came from after use. Children learn to take care of their own needs in the classroom; they often serve themselves snacks.

In a classical Montessori classroom, the block corner might feature particular materials you wouldn't see in other types of preschools, such as specially designed rods and separate pieces of wood used to make stairs. The materials dictate the exploration by the child.

High Scope. This is a cognitive approach to children's learning, where the emphasis is on classification and sorting, and the use of time and space. Skill building is the primary focus; social and emotional development is secondary. In the block corner, children might be encouraged to sort blocks by size or shape. Children are not required to play in any particular way, but teachers follow the exploration of the child.

Reggio Emilia. Teachers observe, listen and talk with children about their interests, and then help small groups of children plan their own projects to help them learn. Aesthetics, sensory exploration and artistic development are all emphasized. Unlike the Montessori method, the Reggio Emilia approach emphasizes creative use of materials and lots of open-ended exploration. In the block corner, children might decide to build a fire truck. Teachers, responding to their interest, might build a thematic unit around fire trucks, including an art project about fighting fires and a visit to a fire station. In this case, children's own interests dictate their exploration in the block corner and elsewhere in the classroom.

"Developmentally Appropriate" model. With this approach comes a focus on the individual needs of particular children, based on different ages, skill levels, abilities, and cultural or socio-economic backgrounds. Parents may see elements of other preschool models used in a developmentally appropriate classroom. In the block corner, a child with a physical disability, a child who has difficulty playing with other children, and a child who usually prefers painting to blocks may all meet and attempt to build a structure. The teacher's role is to make sure all three children are able to learn from the experience. Each child's developmental needs dictate the experience.

The Preschool Director
Alan: You want to ask the director about his or her background and vision for the program. The question, "How did you get involved in early childhood education?" will tell you a lot about what motivates her and in turn, what the school will provide for your child. Also ask about the turnover of staff. This is an enormous issue in the field. Most programs lose about 30% of their teachers and staff each year and that's very challenging, because high turnover makes it very hard to maintain a high quality program. If the director says most teachers have been here a while, then chances are you're seeing a program that recognizes the importance of consistency and the value of experience. People stay if they're well compensated, treated with respect and given continuing education opportunities.

Amy: I want to see the director really have a lot to say about the school and be able to answer questions at an open house. Those (open houses) are important because then parents don't have to rely on themselves to ask all the right questions. I also want the director to be seen in the classrooms, not just staying in her office. I want her to know her staff, to have information about teachers at her fingertips. Good preschool directors tend to have very strong personalities. They've got to be able to both set clear boundaries and provide a strong structure for the school, and also be able to bend a bit.

Bobbi: Good directors also know all the children. They find ways to pay their teachers and staff, and to provide benefits that are worthy of their backgrounds.

The Teachers
Bobbi: A good teacher talks with children a lot, asking questions that allow them to explore more deeply through play. They show respect for children by telling them what they're going to do, i.e. "I'm going over to the book corner now," rather than just flitting around the room. With the best teachers, you can't see how hard they're working because you can't tell that with one child they are focused on his small motor development, and at the same time, they are thinking about how to help these two other children engage in more cooperative play.

Amy: A really good teacher has eyes in the back of her head. She knows what's happening on the other side of the room. She isn't necessarily telling children what to do all the time. In the case of a conflict between two kids, I'd want to see the teacher articulate the problem in a way that helps children see what's happening, but allows them to resolve it. For instance, the teacher might say, "You both want that shovel right now. Is there a way you can both play with that?" The answer might be more shovels or taking turns with the one they have.

Alan: Preschool teachers need specific training, ideally an early childhood education degree, not just a background in education. Also look for teacher-student ratios. Don't go by state standards alone. They are a good place to start, but NAEYC accreditation standards say there should be one adult for every six 2 to 3 year-olds in a classroom, and one adult for every ten 3- to 4-year-olds.

The Physical Environment
Amy: You want the classroom to be well organized, with a variety of activities taking place in clearly defined areas. You want most of the activities and materials to be accessible to the children. Blocks and paper and markers should be on shelves that children can reach. This builds their independence. There should be a quiet corner, a dramatic play area, a block area, and it should be easy for children to move from one area to the next.

Bobbi: Whether the newest blocks or brand new computers are in the classroom doesn't matter. You can have old blocks and a stove made out of a cardboard box, and it won't make a difference if you have good teachers. Beware of electronic toys or too much computer time in the classroom. It's the interaction of the child with other children and teachers that matter in preschool. Kids this age can often learn more from a bucket of leaves than from a computer.

Alan: The size of the environment matters. Our NAEYC standards call for 35 square feet of useable playroom floor space indoors, 75 square feet outdoors, per child.

The Curriculum
Amy: You almost want the curriculum to be invisible. If you walk in and you see really obvious things like letter and number charts, I think that's a bad sign. What you want to see are things like a shelf label that says "BLOCKS" or the words "LIGHT SWITCH" by a light switch. The expectation is not that they're going to learn to read but that children start to absorb language and letters as part of their environment, always in the context of classroom activities.

Bobbi: Ask to see a child assessment form used to gather data on a child. Seeing the form will tell you what the child will be learning at the preschool, and how. Then you can ask: how is my child going to learn about reading or math? A good preschool will show you how children learn through play, and how it collects information on your child's progress through observation, a checklist, and perhaps a portfolio of your child's work. If the school has no such form, that tells you something right there. How are they going to chart your child's growth and progress without it?

Parent Involvement
Alan: This is a good question to ask other parents. Are there volunteer opportunities? What about day-to-day communication between home and school? Also ask yourself: how much do I want to be involved?

Amy: When you visit, do you see other parents? That's a possible sign of how active parents are. At drop-off, how long do parents stay? Any preschool worth its weight will give you names of other parents to talk to.

Bobbi: Parent involvement needs to be more than symbolic. Parents need to be involved in school decision-making. Look for a place that treats all parent communication as valid and important. It's a sign that parents are really listened to.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offers a rigorous accreditation process for early childhood programs in all 50 states. NAEYC accreditation, a voluntary undertaking that involves a year or more of evaluation, is considered the "gold seal of approval" within the early childhood profession. To find NAEYC-accredited programs within your area, please visit NAEYC.org.

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