For a parent, choosing just the right preschool program can be daunting and overwhelming. There are a lot of things to consider, first and foremost being the needs of the particular child. When embarking on this quest, it is critical to put some priorities in order. Sure it’s important for a program to provide opportunities for learning fundamental literacy, science, and math concepts in preparation for school, but equally, if not more important, are opportunities for learning social skills, enjoying childhood, and playing. Never sacrifice some of these for the others.
The first order of business is to take a tour… once without your child and again with him. During both visits, be alert and pay attention to these:
1. A good initial vibe. From the time you walk in the door of a good program, things will feel right. You’re greeted warmly when arriving, by someone who seems genuinely happy to see you and show you around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve entered a center and there was no one to be seen – just an empty reception desk and director’s office. “Hellowww? Anybody here?” I’ve actually had to call their phone number to get somebody to come up to the front. I realize that situations arise, requiring all staff on deck, but if there is not a security door requiring an access code (best option!), there really needs to be someone at that front desk- all the time. This is important, not just to greet visitors like you and me, but to monitor who else might be coming in the door. Sadly, there are all-too-frequent instances of persons entering un-secured centers with less than positive intentions. They can walk right in and down any hallway to do whatever. This is a good vibe buster, for sure.
2. Evidence of happy, engaged children. Take a look into the classrooms and definitely ask to visit a couple. Look for smiling, laughing, happy noise, and playing. Anything less is a red flag. Specifically, you should not be seeing preschool-aged children at tables with worksheets or assembling crafts, waiting in line or waiting in general. You also shouldn’t see children sitting in time out or playing in unsupervised areas of the room. There should not be any chaos, either.
3. Well-trained, engaged teachers. Ask the director about their levels of education, certifications, and experience. How long have they been there? Frequent staff turnover has serious repercussions on children’s development. If they have degrees, are those in Early Childhood or something else? An early childhood teacher with a different degree may not be committed to the profession and just doing this until the job she really wants comes along.
Watch the teachers in action. Are they involved in the children’s play and activities or are they just hovering or not even present? Are there meaningful conversations happening with the children? How about expression of affection? Here are some things you definitely don’t want to see:
Preoccupation with paperwork or planning.
Excessive or inappropriate conversations with co-workers.
Raised voices or rough touches.
Addressing behavior from across the room.
Eating or drinking in front of the children.
Parts of the classroom that are poorly supervised.
No one sitting at the table with the children at snack or lunch.
4. Reasonable class size. Smaller class size translates to better outcomes all around for children. Your state child care licensing regulations may allow for a larger class size than is best for young children. Or, if you are considering a child care ministry, there may be no regulation at all. A best bet is to follow the class size and ratio recommendations listed by NAEYC.
5. A safe and healthy environment. Is the room cluttered or organized? It should look played-in, but not a total disaster. Toys and materials should have specific places to be stored that are easily evident to the children. And, there should not be damaged or broken. There should be a good traffic pattern in the room, so travel from one area to another does not disrupt play or cause injuries. Noisy activities should be situated away from quieter ones.
You should see a fire extinguisher nearby, the children’s information folders available for ready access, cleaning solutions out of children’s reach, emergency procedures posted, and a visible first aid kit.
Is the place clean? Check the floors, carpets, walls, corners, and restrooms. Your child will surely have contact with them all. Things should smell clean, but not reek of disinfectant. I remember a center I visited that apparently washed everything down with full-strength Pine-Sol. I couldn’t breathe.
Adults should be washing their hands and reminding the children to do the same. Tables and other surfaces should be washed and sanitized. Ask about how often this is done with toys and other materials. Reducing the microbe load is a good thing.
6. Good communication between the program and families. Ask about how this is done. Good collaboration between home and school is a hallmark of a good program. Everyone on the same page in regards to a child’s learning and development not only makes sense, but also enables the best progress. Are there regular newsletters sent out? Conferences? How about opportunities for parents to get involved- even if they work full-time?
Ask to see the Parent Handbook and look for things like the program’s mission statement, sick child policies, and how discipline is handled. This information can help determine if your philosophies mesh with those of the center.
7. Your child has a fun visit. The teachers should make a concerted effort to make him feel welcome, help him interact and explore. If he tells you he had a good time and wants to come back (or not), don’t disregard what he has to say. Let’s face it, young children are brutally honest and are going to say one way or the other what they think. A happy first impression and experience can be a good indication he’ll adjust smoothly to the program… which means less stress for you, too.
Is this list of Top 7 Indicators just for parents? Not at all. Quality child care is everybody’s concern. Now that parents have read this list, child care programs need to make sure they can measure up to their expectations!