How do you know what preschool is right for your child?
Deciding on a preschool for your child is a very individual decision. What is right for one child may not be the correct place for another child. What works for one parent, might also not work for another parent.
As January hits, many preschools start registering for the following year, so it is important to do some research, visit and observe, and be prepared for registration and to make a decision.
For some families, preschool out of the home isn't a fit or you might choose to homeschool your child for preschool. That is totally fine and a perfect choice for your family. You may want to skip this post or share it with someone who might appreciate this info.
What do you mean by preschool?
Typically, I consider preschool to be a school program either inside or outside the home, for a child that is between the ages of 3-5. There are some preschools that also include 2-year-olds in their programs. For the purposes of this post, I'm talking about certified in home preschools and preschool facilities with dedicated teachers/staff. I am not talking about co-op type preschools run by a group of moms in your own home. You can read more about starting a co-op preschool with friends here.
How should you get started with choosing a preschool?
1. Decide on your goals.
One question to ask yourself is, "Why am I sending my son/daughter to preschool?" You could also ask yourself, "What are my goals for my child at preschool?"
My answer is usually related to wanting my child to work on social skills and problem solving skills and get some "real time" experience with other kids and adults. I also want her to practice some independent skills and learn to follow directions from someone besides me and my husband!
When you are trying to decide on a preschool, it is important to know your goals so that you can find a preschool that can help meet your child's needs and yours!
You also need to decide on your goals for the size and type of preschool environment you are looking for. Do you want a large class or facility or a smaller intimate program with less children? Do you want a lot of structured learning activities or do you want the program to have more free choice/exploration time for learning? Do you want to be part of a social community? Or are you looking for a more of a drop and run experience? Each school has a different vibe and offers unique things. Knowing what you are looking for ahead of time can help you ask the right questions.
2. Do some research.
The first thing I have always done is ask around. Ask people at the park or church or during any classes you take where their child goes to preschool. Have them tell you about it and ask questions. You can also post in Neighborhood groups on Facebook or Nextdoor and ask for referrals. Yelp and other online reviews can also be a great resource. If your community has a local Preschool Fair, make sure you visit that as well and meet representatives from the school.
You also want to research tuition costs. This can often be done online, but sometimes it requires calling or emailing the school to ask about tuition and other payments, deposits, additional expenses/field trips, etc.
Lastly, and often more importantly, check out the LOCATION. Location is key. If you don't want to be driving far to school, then you'll probably only look in the radius a few miles from your home. If driving far isn't a big deal for you, then that opens up more opportunities. Take into consideration the time of day you'll be dropping off/picking up and any other kid's schedules. Also look at how drop off/pick up works. Is there a carpool line for an easy drop off, or do you have to park down the street and walk to the school (and drag everyone else along in rainy weather)? These things are all important to think about ahead of time.
3. Set up a tour.
Don't just take other people's recommendations. Go check out several preschools yourself. I recommend at least visiting three before you narrow your search down. If they allow your child to come on the tour, bring them. It is great to watch the interactions between the directors and teachers and your child. Sometimes you can tell immediately that a school will not be the right fit just from seeing the location or meeting the faculty or watching how your child reacts. Sometimes you might also discover that your child is not ready for preschool yet based on what you observe.
For example, when I was looking for preschools with my older daughter, we had a terrible preschool visit. Her little brother had been born a few months before and she and I both really needed a break from each other, so I was hoping preschool would be the right fit for her. We went on the tour and right away I could tell the school wouldn't work for her. The director was very nice, but got in my daughter's personal space too quickly and then didn't seem to know how to respond to her emotional response. Typically most preschool directors are well aware that tours can make kids anxious and bend over backwards to make it a positive experience. This director did not, so I left mid-tour (embarrassed) with my tantruming daughter in my arms with my newborn strapped to me. Instead, we chose to do a small in home mom run co-op preschool with friends that year that was perfect for my daughter and prepped her for a larger preschool the following year.
4. Go into an observation/tour with a list of things to look for and ask.
Here are a few things I like to ask about and look for:
- Is the school tidy and organized?
- Are the toys well made and open ended to allow for creative play?
- Are there enough toys/play materials for all of the kids?
- What are the ages of kids at the school? How are the kids grouped or do they stay all together all day?
- Is there a structured system for checking kids in and out each day?
- What certification/permit does the school have?
- Is the program/facility big or small? How many kids are in each class?
- What is the daily schedule like?
- How many hours do kids attend each day/week? When are vacations?
- Are there any special programs or additional things offered? (lunch bunch, etc.)
- Can parents volunteer? Are they required to volunteer? What does that look like/require?
- Are there any additional expectations required of parents?
- How many teachers/assistants are at the school? What is the ratio of kids to adults?
- What sort of training or background experience do the teachers/assistants have? How long have they been working at the school?
- What sort of food is served at the school? Or do you send food/snacks? How are allergies handled?
- How is discipline handled?
- How do teachers/assistants communicate with you (especially about challenging behavior)?
- Do the kids seem to be happy and enjoying themselves?
- Are the teachers communicating with the kids and other adults in positive ways?
- What sort of activities do the teachers have set up?
- Is the environment safe? (alarm on door, clean supplies child-locked, etc)
- Are the bathrooms easy to get to? Are the toilets appropriate for the kids?
- What are the rules on potty training and how are potty accidents handled? If kids don't need to be potty trained, who changes diapers?
- How does tuition work? How can you pay (online/check/direct deposit)? What happens if you pay late?
- Are all the educators/staff CPR/First aid certified?
- What is the sick policy?
- If the teacher or other staff are sick, who is the substitute?
- What curriculum is used or how are the lessons planned? What skills are taught?
- How are kids assessed? How is progress communicated? Are there parent/teacher conferences?
- Do you see books? Are books available in a variety of locations for the kids to use?
- What does the outdoor space look like? How often are kids able to go outside and play? What happens when it rains?
- Who is allowed to visit/volunteer at the school? What sort of interaction do they have with the kids?
- What does the school community look like? Are there social activities outside of the school day for families?
You may not want to ask all of these questions, but hopefully many of them will be answered as you tour the school and hear about it. You also want to do a "gut check" and analyze how you felt about the school and the people you met after you visit.
If possible, ask any parents that are at the school their perspective on the school as well. What do they like about the school?
Sometimes many questions can also be addressed on a preschool's website. After reading about the preschool on their website and social media channels, you may also want to analyze how they line up with what you actually observed on the tour.
5. Make a decision.
Once you've narrowed down your choices, get your registration materials and get organized. Fill out any forms and turn in any paperwork on time. Some preschools have registration days and even waiting lists if the roster fills up quickly. Be aware of all of the due dates and deadlines so that you don't miss signing up for the school you want your child to attend.
6. Be flexible.
Sometimes a particular school that you want to attend doesn't have space. Sometimes you won't find that "perfect" school that you were looking for. Sometimes the school that works for your best friend and her kids, isn't the one for you. Start by picking your top 3-4 criteria in a preschool and make a list of a few things that you won't negotiate on (ie. doesn't need kids to be potty trained if your child isn't potty trained yet... or must have a big outdoor play yard). Then, if there are a few minor things that the school doesn't have, you will at least have made sure that your top criteria were met.
For me some of those top criteria items are...
- Developmentally appropriate curriculum (no worksheets)
- Within my budget
- Large outdoor play area with a lot of movement activities
- Located within our town (no more than 15 min away)
- Allows parents to volunteer/co-op
- Tidy well maintained school with a variety of hands-on learning activities
Other things that I think are awesome include...
- Social parent community/outside of school playdates and activities for parents
- Parent education component (parenting workshops and other trainings offered or advertised)
- Social skills and problem solving support from the teachers
- Focus on great children's literature and related activities
- Variety of learning opportunities- especially focusing on science, music, cooking, motor skills and art process skills.
Alright, if you've hung on all the way through this post, then I'd love to hear from you! What is your criteria for choosing the right preschool for your child? Are there any other important things I am forgetting?
If you've already gone through the process of choosing a preschool for your child, how did you decide? Are you happy with your choice? Did your child have a successful experience? Is there anything you would've done differently?
Now you may be saying, "It's just preschool! What's the big deal?"
To that I will say... preschool is your child's introduction to school and life outside of your home. I want my kids to have a positive experience in school, so I want to give them a great place as they get started. Some kids will flourish anywhere. Most kids will flourish more if they are in the right supportive environment. I think our kids deserve a great place for preschool, so I think this choice is important.
Good luck as you are navigating this decision-making process! Please let me know if you have any questions that I can help you with.
How do you prepare your toddler for preschool? We teamed up with a preschool director to answer frequently asked questions on this topic! Read more about preparing your toddler for preschool here.