Searching for Quality
You nurtured your infant, tackled potty training with your toddler, and now you're facing the next big challenge - finding a quality early childhood program for your preschooler. "Quality" being the operative word, simply because we don't always know what that should look like. As you visit preschools and child care centers you'll discover there's much to consider, so many questions to ask, so many concerns to worry about... finding the right match for your child and budget can become quite a daunting task. Over the years I've come to learn that parents often choose a child care center or preschool based upon its affordability and convenient location. Although their hearts may be in the right place, most parents are not educated consumers when it comes to shopping for a preschool. Many are not even aware of the differences between a preschool and a child care center. Although location and affordability are important factors to consider, the level of "quality" in early education is directly linked to (1) the size of the children's group, (2) the level of the teachers' education and experience, and (3) the ratio of teachers to children in the group. If affordability and location are not clear indicators of the quality of care and education your child will receive when you're not there, let's explore the three that are....
As you visit early childhood programs, try to find one that is committed to providing small group sizes and high teacher to child ratios. Preschools typically employ two teachers to care for a group sixteen (sometimes eighteen) children. Since early education is not a lucrative field, budgetary constraints play a big part in who and how many people are hired. Ask the director if student interns, parents, volunteers from the community, and para-professionals assist with managing the classroom. And if so, how are the vetted? Are mandatory background records checks done on everyone in the center - even on the volunteer who comes in once a month? It may be advantageous to have more adults in the room, but the continuity of care (i.e., limiting the number of staff coming and going), in addition to performing reference checks on personnel, are essential to maintaining the quality of the program. Don't be shy to ask staff members about their levels of education, certifications, and experience they may have. Some early childhood programs have Bios of their teachers posted on the school's website, for you to check out. As you observe and chat with educators, try to determine if they are interested in teaching as well as learning. Unfortunately educators in any grade (even at the college level) equate "teaching" with "telling." Too often I hear teachers asking children the "can you guess the answer in my head" kinds of questions. Listening to and learning with children is the better way to go. If you look around the room and see children's written words posted by their art work or children's words written on a big easel they use for class discussions at circle-time, there's a good chance the educators are listening to the children there. So the center is clean, organized, and staffed well, but what about the curriculum the teachers are providing to the children? It's important to note that even the most educated and experienced educator may not do this very well. Often times the educators plan the classroom themes and activities ahead of time, and the activities frequently revolve around the seasons, the weather, and the holidays. Now more than ever, you'll see educators focussing on a "drill and skill " type of curriculum, telling parents it's all about Kindergarten readiness. This, of course, has merit but shouldn't be the sole focus for planning curriculum. "Quality" is a loaded word and is, no doubt, a challenge to find. Ideally you're looking for a place that provides some structure, some (not all) academic support, and lots of opportunities for constructive play. A place in which the children's questions and things they're wondering about drive the curriculum. The teacher's goal here is not to cover curriculum but to uncover it, inviting the children to become their partner in the learning process. As you visit centers and preschools in search for quality, you're thoughtful questions to staff and discerning observations may help all of us get there. Happy Travels!
Please visit the additional Preschool 4 Parents blog posts to become a better informed preschool shopper. The posts provide thoughtful insights to help parents navigate through the challenges of finding the right school for their child.