Choosing the best preschool

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Choosing the best preschool: how does one do it? This is the biggest question when the time comes to let your child out of your own care.

Over the last several years, I have personally met thousands of parents on this journey. I have had the privilege of understanding their needs and concerns and discussing suitable preschool choices. November is when most schools begin their admissions process for the next academic session. Announcements are made on the school’s website, on various digital platforms, newspapers advertisements, pamphlets, hoardings, or to parents directly by sending out mailers and word of mouth. Additionally, some schools process admissions year-round and enroll students when seats become available.

What should you consider when choosing a preschool? First, you must ask yourself: what do I want for my child? How do I picture my child in a few years? Away from home, in a new environment and with unfamiliar adults, the little one starts a journey of learning and independence. This time of life should be filled with love, laughter and joy. Here is a list of considerations to keep in mind as you venture in search of the best preschool.

Tap into your network. Ask around to form your opinion. What do other parents in your neighborhood, extended family, and workplace know about the preschools their children went to or are currently attending? Record these impressions against the shortlist of preschools you are considering.

Develop an understanding of early childhood care. What makes these years so important in your child’s life? How does ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education) impact the cognitive development and the social/behavioral development of young children? To read about how various faculties of children are shaped by the environment in which they develop, you may refer to:

  1. Early Childhood Matters

Evidence from the Effective Pre-school and Primary Education project

Edited by Kathy Sylva, Edward Melhuish, Pam Sammons, Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Brenda Taggart.

https://books.google.co.in/books?hl=en&lr=&id=AWeLAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=importance+of+early+childhood+education&ots=kD7CfCW8kG&sig=PD1CaULXAqqV3wmYlMiwwPso40Y#v=onepage&q=importance%20of%20early%20childhood%20education&f=false

  1. Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, Postmodern Perspective

By Gunilla Dahlberg, Peter Moss and Alan Pence

https://books.google.co.in/books?hl=en&lr=&id=OJObniJ5BL8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR6&dq=importance+of+early+childhood+education&ots=UrnwD5NW8c&sig=g36r-URwiQc-QGPIvO4Cuc_5WUo#v=onepage&q=importance%20of%20early%20childhood%20education&f=false

  1. Early Childhood Education

By Tina Bruce

https://books.google.co.in/books?hl=en&lr=&id=E5KOx9EcyBgC&oi=fnd&pg=PT4&dq=importance+of+early+childhood+education&ots=Psyjj6ymEz&sig=JtqRyImB9xpZ8L9u-Ye7_s8zNho#v=onepage&q=importance%20of%20early%20childhood%20education&f=false

Educators like Froebel, Montessori and Steiner agreed that young children learn best when they are given responsibility. They do not need adults to inspire. They are self-motivated. They also do not need extrinsic rewards. They enjoy experimenting, and learn in the process of making errors and making choices while at play. When children initiate their own task, they take agency of their own learning. However when a child is required to follow a task presented to him/her or is expected to do something by way of instruction, it becomes work. When does intervention in a child’s learning become interference? What is an appropriate level of support, cooperation, encouragement by an adult, so that the child does not get frustrated and flounder? These are some of the issues that you need to be conscious of when seeking a learning environment for your child.

Visit, visit, visit. Most parents I have come across are intuitive about their child’s needs. Visit the preschools, meet the adults present in the environment and see if you can picture your child there.

Here is an information-gathering checklist for your visits:

  • Location
    • The preschool needs to be near your house or workplace. If neither of these is close to the preschool you finally zero in on, you may need to move. This is important as young children fall sick often and/or get into small accidents. Most preschools do not have full-fledged sick bays or clinics. It will be your responsibility to pick up and attend to your child when the school notifies you.
    • Many children are motion sick, especially in the mornings. A short commute, ideally a walk, is the most comfortable option for going to school everyday.
    • Examine the route to school for congestion during school timings. Check whether the school has clear access for ambulances or fire engines.
  • Fee structure
    • Preschool is a 3 to 4 year commitment. Ensure you are comfortable with the fee structure accordingly.
    • Check whether the fees include things like admission, refundables, donations, tuition, transport, field trips, meals, uniform, stationery, library, co-curricular activities, extended day-care etc.
    • Consider fee escalations and whether that would happen on an annual basis. How have the escalations been the past? Is there a proposed structure for escalation?
    • Some schools accept fee in installments and that could be monthly/bimonthly/quarterly etc., while some need the entire annual fee upfront. Check for provision for refund in case you have to withdraw your child mid-session.
    • After preschool, a reasonable amount of money is needed for grade school admissions, so plan the education budget accordingly.
  • Environment
    • Opportunities for play – outdoors and indoors
      • The preschool must have spaces for active play as regular physical activity supports development of your child’s gross motor skills.
      • Look at the timetable and discuss with the school staff the amount of time your child will get everyday for engaging in physical activity.
      • See if the school has a clean sand pit area, large enough for individual and collaborative play and look specifically for children engaging in both types of play during your visit.
      • How is the play area? Are there additional spaces for running around, cycling, throwing ball, rings and Frisbees? All of these are important for motor skills, eye-hand coordination and fun!
      • There should be a few other outdoor play opportunities, e.g., a garden, water play, story corner, floor space and sidewalks to scribble on, construction areas with wooden and/foam and/or plastic blocks etc. for the children to spend time outside of the classroom engaging with various materials and interacting with each other.
    • Classroom set up
      • When you visit the school, take a look at classrooms for different age groups and other indoor learning areas.
        • Are they well ventilated and with natural light?
        • Do they look spacious with respect to class sizes?
        • How is the arrangement of furniture in the classroom? Do they face the teacher’s desk and sit side by side in cells and rows or do they face each other while they are working?
        • Look at the educational aids available in the classroom. Are they accessible easily to the children? Do they need to ask for them from the teacher? Would the teacher be taking them out periodically and sharing them with the children? Are they enough? Are they to be shared? Is there variety within a particular group of educational aids – as in is there a range of puzzle with varying difficulty within the same classroom?
        • Is the curriculum same for all children in the class? As in are the lesson plans and assessment criteria standardized or customized and what is the evidence of that in the classroom layout?
      • Snack/Lunch provision, nap area, toilets and potty training
        • Ask if the school provides snack and/or lunch, and if either or both is optional.
        • What are the portions? Are they balanced and nutritious? Is there a pre-meal routine for children, like going to toilet, hand washing, sitting around with friends? Do the children get to socialise during meal times? Are teachers there to guide them with table manners and use of cutlery and crockery?
        • What is the provision for meal areas and how is it set up?
        • Young children might need a nap during their stay in school if it is more than a few hours. What is the provision for that? Would the school be providing with bedding or would you need to send them? What is the provision for ensuring children gets their own bedding? Is laundry your responsibility or the schools?
        • If your child is not potty trained then ask if it is a requirement, as some schools need the child to be completely potty trained before starting school. Some schools will allow children in diapers and train them with you as part of the settling-in process. Find out what role you would play in this process and what supplies you need to provide, such as wet wipes, diapers, change of clothes, additional knickers etc.
        • What is the provision for diapering in the toilet – diapering mat/table/tissue/washing up/disposal etc.
        • Is the toilet is child friendly, supervised yet privacy is managed? Supervision during toilet visits, cleaning routine for toilets etc. are some of the matters to be kept in consideration when you inspect the preschool’s restroom area during your scheduled tour or open house.
  • Faculty
    • Ask and understand the educational background and experience of the teachers and other staff that interact with your child.
    • Do the classroom teachers have adequate ongoing training and professional development for working with young children and planning for a developmentally appropriate curriculum?
    • Consider the staff (teaching and non-teaching) to child ratio for the age groups. This might vary from the toddlers to kindergarten years.
    • If it is an inclusive school, there should be teachers who have qualifications for being special educators.
    • Find out if the staff is trained for safety of the children – to handle first aid, CPR and fire drill, evacuation process.
    • During your visit to the center, feel the dynamics between the teachers and the children. You will be able to figure out if they are committed, dedicated and caring to the program and the children if you spend some time in the school/class room/ playground spaces of the preschool. 
  • Educational philosophy
    • Does the school have an inquiry and discovery based program or is it based on drill and practice skills?
    • How much structure and flexibility does a typical school day offer to the child?
    • Does the school allow for regular interaction and partnership between school and family for the child?
    • How often are parent meetings and feedback sessions scheduled? Are there opportunities for parent-teacher conferences outside the schedule?
    • What is the school’s methodology for handling discipline? Are there any behavior rules and consequences, and how are they communicated to the children? Are there charts of rewards like stars, frogs on the log etc. for behavioral guidance or is it an empathy and discussion environment or a mix of both? How do the staff show empathy and acknowledge the children’s emotions that go through ups and downs in any typical day?
    • There are a number of popular educational philosophies for preschool, some of them are:
      • The Montessori method
      • The Reggio Emilia approach
      • The Waldorf Approach
      • The Bank Street approach
      • The High/Scope approach
      • The Play-way method (a mix of several approaches)

Know and understand each philosophy, and ask which the school uses.

  • Besides the educational philosophies, there are some common early childhood education terms that explain the kind of setting and approach with which the learning environments are set up. They are:
    • Child-centered (classroom is set up based on student’s interests and not pre-scheduled topics chosen by teachers)
    • Teacher-led (where teachers plan the lessons based on set objectives and schedule)
    • Child-led (environment that fosters individualized learning experiences)
    • Faith-based (programs that are run through church/madrasas/synagogues/Hindu mutths/missions)
    • Co-operative (these are run with parents and families assistance)
    • Developmentally appropriate (curriculum and activities are planned for the age group of children in a given program or group)
    • Pre-kindergarten (or reception or nursery – used for children between ages 3 and 4 where the program is more structured than toddlers but has less expectations of reading/writing than the Kindergarteners)
  • Grade school choice

While choosing a preschool, keep in mind the kind of grade school (especially primary school years, grades 1 to 5) you would like your child to attend. These early years will shape the personality of your child.

If the preschool choice you have made has been that of an inquiry-based discovery curriculum, with choices and open-ended activities, then the grade school should support the same. If the choice has been a skill and practice-based curriculum and a structured environment, then the choice for the primary years could be along the same lines.

Middle and senior school choices can be different from the early and primary years as by then you will better understand your child’s needs. The child would have figured out his/her strengths and interests as well. The choice of school environment will therefore be a combination, in varying ratios, of a) structured/open; b) academic/co-curricular oriented; c) sports oriented d) creative arts oriented; e) competitive/collaborative; f) STEM/liberal arts oriented and so forth. How to choose the best grade school for your child? To answer this question requires a separate post, to follow soon.

The jury on parenting is always out. What defines best is debatable. Please share your thoughts and experiences with preschools as a reply to this post, and help other readers form their opinion and make the best choice for their child. I have left some of the questions raised in this post unanswered. Over time, I will share my professional opinion on these in my Ask Niv series.

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3 thoughts on “Choosing the best preschool

  1. Ms Niv you are unstoppable ! Such an educative post !! I agree totally that choosing a pre-school / grade school can be very challenging ! In many ways I feel my parents were lucky ! When I was growing up opportunities were limited not just by virtue of the geographic locations my father was stationed in but also because they were not spoilt for choice .
    And when my brood arrived I really wished with all my heart that I had Ms Niv in my life ! Choosing a pre school was both overwhelming and exciting .Looking back now I guess we passed muster .
    And then when my grand daughter was on the way .. the turmoil began all over again . Being an early childhood educator the pressure to be sensible was too intense . Everyone on this side of the Atlantic worth their Masala dosa and Bissi bele bhath knew that I needed help !
    The research began not so methodically as you have listed out but in my own modest way!
    The Montessori Method …aims on maintaining the individuality of each child in the learning process. This method believes each child learns at their own pace and educational progress should not be rendered based upon comparing students to one another . An old Aunt put in her 2$ bit ‘Aru was very organised as a child she did Montessori !
    The Reggio Emilia Approach focuses on providing opportunities for problem solving through creative thinking and exploration. The good doctor said ‘ This is my choice ‘. Remember that school we visited in Sunnyvale …every thing was so hands on .. experiential learning is the key !’ Thank you Sunny !
    The Waldorf Approach places emphasis on imagination in learning, providing students with opportunities to explore their world through the senses, participation and analytical thought. The son and daughter -in-law said ‘ Maa look no further .. this is it! ‘
    In the Bank Street Approach the mission is learning through multiple perspectives, both in the classroom setting and in the natural world/ outdoor environment. ‘Oh maybe this said the noisy voice in my head !’
    The High/Scope Approach
focuses mainly on letting children be in charge of their own learning. Children are taught to make a plan for what they would like to do each day and participate in a review session to discuss the success of their plan and brainstorm ideas for the next day.A young nephew says ‘ hola folks check this out ,its sounds cool ‘!!
    Cool ? That was far from what I was feeling!
    After literally agonising for weeks , checking out good school districts , visiting schools , meeting parents..we finally decided on a Pre school that had a decent mix of philosophies. A Molotov cocktail … highly incendiary ..we were warned ! But well it is working for Zahra and we are happy !
    I am a grateful Ms Niv like most parents who have read your post . Your attention to details is amazing ! I have had the honour of watching you interact with parents , douse their doubts, harvest their hopes , dance their dreams and help them make informed choices .
    I have lost count of the number of times I have read your article . The more I read it the more it impacts me. So now when the challenges come armed with this knowledge ,I know that anchored deep within me is the ability to reach out and help parents !In this process I hope to discover the very best version of myself !
    A book recommendation by my mentor Linda Alexander :
    Playing to Win: Raising children in a competitive culture by Hillary Levey Freidman
    The book according to William A Corsoro is relentlessly insightful,methodically innovative,richly descriptive and terrifyingly honest!
    It brought some calm in all the chaos and a lot of method in the madness of Operation Preschool ! Mission accomplished !! Signing off now ! Over and out !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the underlying message here is the extent of parent/family participation needed in a child’s education choices, at least till the child is able to decide on his/her own. This is underestimated more often than one would expect, either here in India or abroad. It is very easy to follow the trend of the times, but an ideal approach is very different. Thank you for such an exhaustive post, Nivedita! Though I am not an educator, have come across many instances of parents of very young children asking questions on this topic. Now, I am just going to forward a link to this post to them:)

    Liked by 1 person

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