choosing preschools

Things to Consider When Choosing a Preschool

Child.

If you are hoping to enroll in a preschool, there is a lot to consider. A great place to start is scheduling visits to all the preschools you are considering. This may be individual tours or open houses which could be offered while children are in classes or not. If children are in classes, it’s best to watch for happy, relaxed, busy children who are enjoying the program. Also make sure to pick up their brochure during your visit.

You can also compare preschools by visiting their websites. Print their mission statements or About Us pages then add these to the brochures from visits and compare. These write-ups should give you a good sense of their overall philosophy and lay out of what they feel is most important in the preschool setting.

Here is a list of things you might consider. While you likely can’t observe or ask about each, it can be helpful to pick the ones most important to you and compare.

  • Location, drive and cost – This is a practical place to start and can easily rule out certain preschools.
  • Schedule of program – If you are not a morning person, it can be a struggle to make a 7:50 a.m. start time. Consider the start and stop times and number of days available. Consider your abilities between morning and afternoon classes, and also full-day classes.
  • Discipline philosophy – This might be the most important thing to consider. Many preschools take a positive discipline approach. Others use time-outs and reward systems. A few religious schools hold on to the threat of corporal punishment.
  • Class size and ratios – Smaller class sizes and lower ratios are often a goal. However, there are some systems, such as Montessori and Catholic schools, that tend to have higher class sizes and run smoothly.
  • Teacher requirements and ongoing training – Different preschools have different teacher requirements. Some require a high school degree, others a college degree, and others a college degree in an education related field. NAEYC accreditation (see below) requires the school to have a percentage of teachers with education related degrees.
  • How they build in academics – Think of academics on a continuum, from an academically oriented preschool that focuses on letters and numbers through worksheets and seat work; to a play based system that incorporates academic ideas; to a play based system that doesn’t focus on providing an academic foundation. I prefer that middle play based system that provides a strong academic foundation.
  • Wide variety of appropriate materials  – There should be more than enough toys, art supplies, books and other supplies for the number of children in the room. Many schools have a large storage of toys, art and other supplies so teachers can easily rotate what is available in their classrooms.
  • Mix of time – This is looking at how much time children spend in small groups, large groups and independent play.
  • Daily activities and enrichments – This is looking at what’s built in to a typical day including center, snacktime, playground and enrichments. Some schools have no special enrichments. Others offer music, science, nature, second languages, art, P.E. and other enrichments.
  • Parent-teacher communication – Some preschools offer one or two parent-teacher conferences. Some send monthly, weekly or even daily notes home. Others have classroom or school message boards.
  • Parent participation – Cooperative preschools require participation in a regular way. Some preschools have parent organizations that do fundraising and other classroom activities. Others invite parents in to the classrooms to read stories or run art projects. Some preschools prefer parents stay out of the classrooms and don’t offer much in the way of participation.
  • Previous and current families’ feedback – You might ask to speak with other families. You might also go online; in the DC area you can log onto dcurbanmom.com and scroll down to the Preschools forum to anonymously ask for feedback. You might ask parents in the neighborhood.
  • Sense of organization – If it’s during the school day, there’s going to be some amount of chaos. In general rooms should be organized, materials stored in a neat way and furniture placed so there’s plenty of room to move and work and play.
  • Cleanliness – Except for momentary circumstances or incidents, the place should generally be clean. The toys and supplies should be clean.
  • Indoor and outdoor space – Some preschools have large classrooms. Others have small classrooms, but they make very good use of their space. Some have acres of outdoor space; others have none.
  • Quality of playground area – There is a wide range of what is available on preschool playgrounds. If they are going to be outside daily, it’s good to take a look.
  • Amount and use of outdoor time – This is something to consider at both preschools and elementary schools. Nature immersion schools can spend whole days outside. Other schools may not go out daily.
  • Potty training requirements – Some preschools are relaxed about age guidelines. Some encourage potty training by a certain age, and others require it. If you aren’t there, it’s helpful to know the expectation.
  • If full-day: nutrition, eating style and naptime – Full day kids are are eating at least one meal, sometimes two at school. It’s helpful to know what is provided and the logistics around meals. Families are often encouraged to help children build healthy eating habits. Full day kids are also napping at school. It is important to know your states nap requirements and how your preschool follows them.
  • Types of preschools – There are several types of preschools available and each with their own approach. I hope to write another post soon about the differences in types of preschools, but for now, know that if you are applying to one you should know how they differ from others. This includes play based preschools, religious schools, Montessori, High Scope, Reggio Emilia, nature immersion, Multiple Intelligences programs, Waldorf and Museum preschools.

NAEYC accreditation is an additional thing to consider. This certification, from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, is designed to ensure high quality learning experiences. They assess teacher qualifications, safety standards, curriculum structure and administrative efforts. I wouldn’t rule out a school that isn’t accredited, but if it is, you can check a lot of things listed above off your list.

Parents, Please Assume Positive Intent from Teachers

Child with teacher drawing in playroom

It’s the start of a new school year. This may be your first year of preschool, or your third year at an elementary school. Wherever your child is in their school career, there is always the possibility of your child having difficulty in the classroom or with the program. When this happens, it is often the teacher bringing the issue to the parents’ attention. Unfortunately many parents first response is to kill the messenger. This is an unproductive way to start. It’s better for parents to take a deep breath and realize the teacher is almost always also working with the child’s best interest at heart. The teacher may be wrong, there may be great disagreements about how to move forward, but they are likely coming from a good place. Believe me, I preach this to teachers as well. Parents almost always are working with good intent.

When I taught preschool full-time, we had a three-and-a-half year old that was exhausted and fell asleep the minute he laid down at naptime everyday. By state guidelines, he was not to be given any activity for the first 30 minutes to keep him awake, and was then allowed, if he fell asleep, to sleep the full two hour rest period. This made the parents unhappy because on days he slept the full two hours, he was wide awake at home until 11:00 p.m. despite the consistent 9:00 p.m. tuck-in time. On weekends, he didn’t nap, made it through the day and fell asleep easily at 9:00pm. The teachers weren’t trying to make life harder for this family, they were following the state guidelines. The parents weren’t trying to ruin the teacher’s or their child’s day, they wanted a bit of sanity in the evenings at home. Sure, it’s a difficult situation, and one that didn’t work itself out until the child was in an older classroom with shorter nap requirements, but teachers assuming parents want to exhaust the child and parents assuming teachers are just being rigid wouldn’t help the matter.

When there is a disagreement with teachers or the school, it is also good practice for parents to use their most positive language when speaking about this in front of their children. If they are at all aware of the situation (and they are), it is best for parents to say things like, “we are working this out with your teacher. She is being helpful,” or, “we’ll make a good plan with the school. These things take time,” rather than throwing the teacher or school under the bus. However it works out, your child will likely be with the teacher in some way moving forward, and you want them to keep a positive attitude with that teacher in particular and about school in general in the long run.

Play Builds Academic Foundation

Our Preschool Play Program is very play based. Open play is available the whole class time, with group play activities presented throughout. While we don’t focus on academics, we have a firm belief that play provides a strong foundation for later academics. Here are a few ways:

  • Challenges in Play Build a Sense of Industry– The more you can challenge kids to do something faster, build something taller, to problem solve together or think about something in a new way, the more they are having experiences at rising to meet challenges. As children meet challenges, they build an ‘I can do it’ or ‘I can try it’ attitude which is helpful later in the classroom.
  • Pretend Play Builds Representational Thinking– It is a cognitive jump when children start using representation in play. This happens when they use the block as a ‘telephone,’ or the sidewalk as their ‘pool.’ Representational thinking happens most often during pretend play. It lays foundation for later symbol use and academic representation. This means the letter ‘B’ can more easily represent the sound ‘buh,’ and the number 3 can more easily represent three objects.
  • Open Ended Toys Pull for More Flexible Use and Creative Problem Solving – Children playing with basic toys such as blocks, balls, art and craft supplies and dolls tend to use the toys in more flexible ways. Buy toys that do less, so the children will do more. This means, if you are buying a doll, buy the basic one rather than the one that talks or grows hair. When the doll has a given function, children play in a more narrow way; buy open ended. Flexible use of toys often includes more creative problem solving in play.
  • Reading Aloud Daily Helps Build Successful Readers– Reading aloud with children to encourage a love of stories and books is one of the single most important factors in their eventual reading success.
  • Social Problem Solving Practice Benefits Group Work – Much of elementary school work happens in groups. The more practice children have at solving social conflicts the better.

Types of Preschools: From Our Panel Discussion

I learned so much at our recent panel discussion on types of preschools, and am excited to share this with you. Each year we invite speakers from a variety of area preschools to speak about their philosophy and the importance of their approach. Each also talks a bit about what happens in the typical day of a child at their school. I’ve included a few highlights as well as contact information from the various programs.

Nature Immersion Preschool – Discovery Woods

Think: education through nature. If you have an appreciation for the outdoors, Discovery Woods provides a perfect environment for children to learn literacy, math, social studies and science through an outdoor curriculum. Their indoor program provides inquiry based learning with teacher-child negotiated projects while their outdoor program encourages a deep study of the local environment. An overall goal is to build early learning habits and dispositions to create a life-long learner.

Laura Champe Mitchell, Parent and Office Coordinator

Vienna, near Wolf trap

www.discoverywoods.org

Play Based Preschool – Country Day School

This school provides a play-based program that nurtures the the whole child and looks at individual progress. Over the preschool years they introduce academics in engaging, play-based ways. There is a strong focus on daily life and social skills. I am partial to Country Day, I enjoyed being a teacher and then a a parent there.

Wendy Jones, Parent Educator

6418 Georgetown Pike in McLean 22101, 703-356-4282

www.countryday.org

Cooperative Preschool – Sleepy Hollow Cooperative Preschool

Sleepy Hollow is a cooperative preschool that has a parent run board and parents working in the classrooms to support the classroom teachers. The focus for two year olds is is to help them find a sense of security in their first experience away from home. The threes and fours enjoy a child-interest driven curriculum. Added benefits of cooperative preschools often include a community of like minded parents and a chance to make lasting friendships as parents spend so much time working together.

Mary DePippo, Parent

7610 Newcastle Drive in Annandale 22003, 703-941-9791

www.sleepyhollowpreschool.com

Montessori Preschool – Brooksfield Montessori

Montessori is known for providing rich work materials that support math, language, practical life and sensorial development during independent time. Children work and meet challenges at their own pace. Brooksfield provides this classic montessori experience and adds imaginative play, creative dance and spanish.

Mary Anne Duffus, Founder

1830 Kirby Road in McLean 22101, 703-356-5437

www.brooksfieldschool.org

Reggio Emilia Preschool – Beverly Hills Church Preschool

In a Reggio Emilia inspired preschool, teachers are trained to watch, listen and learn from children to build the cirriculum around the class interests and strengths. Teachers help children to fully explore and expand on their ideas through a project centered approach. Children are also encouraged to work together to enrich the group and individual learning process. There is also a strong focus on open ended art.

Kelley Organek, Director

3512 Old Dominion Blvd. in Alexandria 22305, 703-549-7441

www.bhcpnet.org

Waldorf Preschool – Potomac Crescent Waldorf School

Waldorf is known for their open-ended all natural materials. They are focused on building a child’s imagination and creativity while laying strong foundation for later academic challenges in the preschool years. The experiential approach builds an intrinsically motivated learner.

Alice Trembour, Teacher and Director

923 South 23rd Street in Arlington 22202

703-486-1309

www.potomaccrescentschool.org

High Scope Preschool – Columbia Baptist Preschool

Columbia Baptist is newly becoming a High Scope program. High Scope strives for hands-on teacher and child initiated activities across five areas including literacy, social and emotional development, physical development, arts and sciences. Teachers observe children across experiences and note their progress through Child Observation Records. The program provides an exciting learning environment to challenge the individual child.

www.columbiabaptist.org in Falls Church

Hosted by – Parenting Playgroups

Our own Preschool Play is a small, play based program open to children two to four years old. Children participate in open play in the preschool classroom, two art projects, a sing-along, movement game, snack and story time each day.

Rene Hackney, PhD.

Falls Church and Alexandria, 703-237-0733 or 703-922-0044

www.parentingplaygroups.com

Choosing Preschools

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you consider your options for preschool.

  • Attend every open house that you are remotely interested in – This is the best way to get a feel for the school and the staff. At open houses, there may be a presentation about the philosophy of the school, a chance to meet current families and a tour to view classrooms. I think it would be very difficult to make decisions without this piece. Take advantage of any options that are provided. Some schools give private tours or offer families that are happy to speak about the programs by phone. You want as much information as possible.
  • Compare the schools you are interested in by brochures and websites – The reason is that this is often the school’s best foot forward. This should provide a summary of their philosophy and highlights of their programs. Brochures have been well edited, and the language has been poured over. Brochures and websites should feel like a good fit with your family.
  • Speak with current families – You can often ask for a list from the school, but you might also just ask around on the local playgrounds or ask for families on list-serves like D.C. Urban Moms (dcurbanmoms.com). When you do connect with families, ask them for the high and low points, ask about parent-teacher communication and any difficulties they experienced. You are looking for well-rounded feedback.
  • Apply to a few more than you think necessary – It is still the case each year that there are children who end up not getting into preschool. Have a back-up plan or two.
  • Learn about and consider various approaches – There are big differences between Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Montessori, Play-based, Hi-Scope, Cooperative and Religious based programs. Find out about these and weigh your options.
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