Because so much is riding on your choice — after all, you want your child to spend her days in an enjoyable and nurturing environment — you’ll need to do your research. That means checking out local parenting magazines, the Internet, and word-of-mouth recommendations. Ask for referrals from other families; most people won’t recommend a place unless they’re truly pleased with it. If your child attends daycare, the caregivers may have suggestions for you.
Once you zero in on a few choices based on cost, distance from your home or work, and other basic factors, call each school and see whether you can whittle down your list to a select few by asking questions. Find out whether the school’s accredited (it should be) and whether it has clear regulations; a good one should have consistent rules that it makes clear to parents so they know what to expect. You should also ask about the teacher-to-student ratio (the fewer children a teacher has to be responsible for, the better for your child since she’ll receive more attention). A teacher, no matter how good she is, can’t really effectively run a classroom and give the children the attention they deserve if she has to care for more than 10. You also might want to ask about staff turnover, since this is a good indicator both of how happy the staff is and how happy your child will be over the long term.
But that’s not all. One thing I think is very important is finding out the school’s philosophy on educating toddlers. The fundamental principle they subscribe to may be traditional or a hybrid; it may follow the teachings and ideas of Jean Piagét, Rudolf Steiner, or Maria Montessori. Whatever its leanings, it’s important that the preschool have a plan in mind for how to teach and care for its students, and that you agree with the general drift of its philosophy. A school with some ideological foundation is better than one whose philosophy is so indistinct it’s mediocre.
When you have your short list, schedule visits to the schools that made the cut. You’ll need to meet the preschool directors in person and observe the teachers with the children. They are the ones your child will interact with most, so it’s important that you find warm people with lots of experience caring for preschoolers. You also might ask the school for the names of some parents you could speak to — a staff that’s proud of their school’s success will be happy to connect you with fellow parents.
Next, bring your child along for a visit. See how she responds to the school and the teachers. Do they seem interested in getting to know her? Are the activities ones she’ll enjoy? By watching how she reacts you’ll have a better idea whether a preschool is a good fit.
Most important, trust your instincts. A preschool may boast new books and toys, have a gleaming new building, and be affordable to boot, but if it doesn’t feel right then it isn’t. It’s essential that you feel comfortable with the school’s director, who runs the establishment and sets guidelines for your child and with whom you’ll be interacting should issues or questions come up in the future. You should also feel secure and pleased with the teachers, who will be spending many hours with your child day in and day out. At its best, this will be a long and productive partnership.
For more questions to ask a preschool director, use our interactive checklist.
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