Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Preschool Checklist

The first time I scouted for viable preschools, I was clueless. I had just moved to New Orleans, and my daughter was only two years old. The consensus seemed to be that school was in my daughter's imminent future. (Apparently everyone in New Orleans sends their children to school by the age of two.) 

I toured a few places. (I won't name them here out of respect for their viability and those who choose their programs.) I was unmoved. But I settled on one, not really knowing if it was right. I was so naive. I simply succumbed to the insistence of society that it was time.

Anyway, long story short: My daughter hated the preschool I had chosen for her, and a few months later, we pulled her out. 

Fast forward to today. I'm going through the same process with my son, who just turned 3 years old. (See? I'm learning already - this go round I waited a little longer to introduce school.) I've just begun to hunt down the right school for him, but in my search to find the right fit, I'm much better prepared to identify a place that truly meets his needs.

Here's my list of important questions:
  1. What is the teacher / student ratio? This question can make or break an experience for a child. For one who needs lots of individual attention and encouragement, it's important for this number to be low. A more reserved could easily get lost in the shuffle if a teacher has too many children on her hands.

  2. How many children per classroom? More than anything, this question gets at the noise level. If you have a child who's got a sensitivity to noise, a small classroom size is critical.

  3. Is the school licensed and / or accredited? This can help weed out a home-grown operation and ensure that an unbiased third-party is holding the school to a higher standard.

  4. Does my child need to be potty trained before starting? Some say being potty trained is a signed of school readiness. But either way, this is a question that can't be left unanswered!

  5. How do the teachers handle discipline? Personally, at preschool age, I'm a fan of redirecting. Time outs are isolating and aren't that effective with young children, and frankly other "forms of discipline" are a deal breaker.

  6. What's the philosophy driving the classroom? There are plenty of preschools that claim to be play based but introduce plenty of academics into the mix. For me this is a turnoff and a sign that the school isn't up on the latest information in childhood development. Play is how children learn. Early academics do not belong in a preschool setting.

  7. Is the curriculum child led or teacher led? The best fit here depends largely on the child's personality. Montessori is known for being child led. It's probably the ultimate in child-led curricula. And then there's Waldorf at the opposite end of the spectrum - teacher led all the way. That's not to say that Waldorf preschoolers have no say in what they play, but many find comfort in the the daily and weekly rhythm.

  8. What type of snack do they serve? Are sweets allowed? Can my child have seconds? This might sound like a small issue, but I maintain that it was a big part of why my daughter so deeply disliked her first preschool experience. The snack was a paltry serving of sugar-leaden animal crackers and juice. She was hungry and probably experienced wild swings in her blood-sugar levels.

  9. How much outside time do they get? This may be the ultimate question. Too many schools ignore this crucial component of education. Bottom line: Children need outside time, and plenty of it.
  10. How do they deal with a child's introduction to school? Many schools have a "rip-it-off-quick-like-a-band-aid"approach, allowing absolutely no parent contact inside the classroom. Personally, I don't think that will work for my little one, so we're going to need some flexibility here.
So that's my list. I don't expect any preschool to answer "correctly" to all of my questions. And, yes, some questions are more important to me than others. My hope is that one will stand out among the rest. But my biggest hope is that no matter which place I choose for my little boy, he'll be happy.