Starting your child in preschool for the first time is not only a big event in his or her life; it is also a very important decision for you and a milestone in your parenting journey. After all, this may be the first time you are sending your child into the ‘real’ world, spending a regular number of hours away from you in a setting that may have a different atmosphere from your home.
It feels as if you are handing your precious little one over to a stranger who you don’t know. This is especially true for parents whose children have been predominantly home with them for the first 2 or 3 years. This can cause parents anxiety and also raise questions about how they can determine which preschool they would feel most comfortable with and which would best fit their child’s needs and personality.
While it may be tempting to be swayed by a program based on rates, location or even décor, there are several other factors to consider. Take some time to ask the right questions of the program director and you can easily determine if you’ve found the right place.
Step 1 – Licensing
- Is the program licensed by the Department of Public Welfare or The Department of Education?
- Does the program participate in any accreditation programs, such as DVAEYC – the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children? (not essential, but an indication of the school’s interest in maintaining professional standards)
Step 2 – Considering how the school schedule matches your needs.
- Ask the director about the operating hours of the facility itself. Find out when they open and close and for what holidays the program is closed.
- Ask about the type of scheduling that is available: full-time, part-time, flexible scheduling. Make sure the times and days coordinate with your work schedule.
- Find out if arrangements can be made in the event of a personal emergency. Can you bring your child on a day that he or she is not scheduled? Are there extra fees to do this?
Remember that while flexibility may suit your needs or the needs of other parents, it is important to keep in mind that some children may find the unpredictability of who or how many children will be in the class on any given day to be upsetting.
Step 3 – Getting a Feel for the School
- How warm and welcoming does the school feel?
- How nurturing does the school staff seem to be?
- Does it seem that staff/adults and children get along and feel comfortable with one another?
- Do the children look happy?
- What is the general feel in the school/classroom? Is it positive, supportive, nurturing and respectful, even if there is a discipline issue?
- Does the school encourage parents to visit and spend time in the classroom? If not, why not?
- How well does the feel of the school match your child’s temperament and accommodate his maturity level?
Step 4 – Learning about Safety and Health Policies
- Make sure the school or center has clearly defined policies on when to call the paramedics or Poison Control.
- Review with the Director the fire safety and fire escape plans. Are there posted evacuations plans, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers? Is the staff trained in fire safety? Check with the director to see how often they practice fire drills with the children.
- Are staff members trained in CPR and first aid? In the event that it is necessary, are first-aid kits readily available?
- Learn the program’s illness and medication policy. Are the children required to have immunizations and regular health evaluations? Is there a hand washing policy in effect?
- Does the facility have a monitored entrance, accessible emergency information and a child release policy? Investigate the programs policy on open-door parent visitation. Is there a check-in and check-out procedure? Find out how the center monitors newcomers, strangers or unauthorized people to pick up children.
- What is the program environment like? Notice if the facility looks clean and well maintained, if the cleaning supplies are properly stored and electrical outlet covers are in place.
Step 5 – Checking out the Teachers
- What is the staff/teacher-to-child ratio?
- What kind of staff training is offered? How much of the staff attends?
- What is the turnover rate among the staff?
- Try to get a sense of staff dedication and whether they really like working with children.
Talk with the teachers of the class your child will be attending and find out about their teaching style.
- Observe the teachers to see if they interact positively with the children.
- Do they create a warm and secure environment?
- Also look to see if the teachers are respectful of the children and if they are respected by the children.
Step 6 – Finding out about the Program itself
- Is there a written developmental curriculum that includes a variety of activities?
- Is there a balance of play and learning time, as well as group and individual activities?
- Do the children have outdoor play? Look for a secured, fenced outdoor play area with age-appropriate supplies and equipment that encourage motor skills.
- Is there an opportunity for napping? What happens if your child does not need to nap?
Discover how the children are grouped in classes.
- Is it strictly by age or do groups shift throughout the day according to ability and activity?
- Do the children stay with their class all day long or are there opportunities for multi-age interaction?
Remember some children have more difficulty with change while others may thrive with the variety. Some children need a more structured environment and others need more freedom to ‘do their own thing.’
Step 7 – Keeping in Touch
- How and how often will the school personnel communicate with you; what procedures are in place for you to initiate communication with the staff?
- Ask to see a copy of the parent handbook. All center policies and procedures will be contained in the parent handbook.
- What are the incident policies and discipline procedures?
- What does the school do when there is a behavior problem?
- Do you feel comfortable with their approach?
Step 8 – Remembering You are Not Alone in Making this Decision!
Be sure to speak to friends or other parents in your neighborhood or area – often times you can get the best information from the opinions of other parents whose judgment you trust – they may have had older children who attended various preschools and so have had first-hand experience.
These 8 steps will help you with your decision in choosing an early childhood education program, but don’t forget that it’s important to “feel comfortable” with the program and the people who will be caring for your child. A welcoming environment, with happy children engaged in a positive social and educational experience, will provide your child with the foundation for building self confidence and an excitement for learning.
By Kim Moore, Marketing Coordinator Play and Learn Montgomery County, PA www.playandlearn.com
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