In 2013, President Barack Obama highlighted the need for America’s preschool-aged children to have access to high-quality early education. His administration’s goal was to see six million children enrolled in preschool by the year 2020.
The president’s initiative shed light on something educators have known for years: Early access to education is a vital part of a child’s development. The best way to prepare your child for their years in school is by choosing a preschool that will provide a solid educational and social foundation for your child.
What to Look for in a Preschool
Choosing a preschool that will be a good fit for your child, can be overwhelming, especially if this is your first time. A lot of people incorrectly believe that a preschool is just a place for kids to play and eat snacks the year before they go to “real school.” However, choosing the right preschool can lay a foundation for your child for years to come.
Some basic signs of a good preschool include an established curriculum, qualified staff and a clean facility, but there’s more to it than that. Your final decision on where to send your child to school may ultimately be somewhat subjective. After all, your child has needs that are unique to them, and those needs may not be able to be addressed at just any preschool — and that’s okay.
To choose a preschool, you’ll want to schedule a visit, tour the facility and sit down with the director if you can. You’ll also want to go in with a list of questions to ask preschools about their facilities, their staff and their educational philosophy.
Keep reading for our list of tips and questions to ask when you’re looking to pick the best preschool.
Is My Child Ready?
The first step in knowing what to consider when choosing a preschool is to determine if your child is ready. Many preschool programs are geared toward three and four-year-olds, but some do offer programs as early as age two and a half. Age shouldn’t be the only consideration, though. A child’s readiness for preschool depends more on their personality and development than their physical age.
In addition to age requirements, you’ll also want to ask the following questions when you’re choosing a preschool:
1. Does my child need to be potty trained?
The answer to this question will vary, even among the best preschools, so it’s important to find out, especially if your child isn’t yet toilet trained. Some schools will welcome children who are still wearing diapers or Pull-Ups. Others require students to be trained before they begin.
2. Will my child be able to nap?
Preschool-aged kids can vary in their need for mid-day rest. Regardless of your child’s personal needs, it’s important to know exactly how the school incorporates rest into their daily schedule. A full-day preschool should incorporate a naptime into your child’s daily routine at the same time every day, and it’s best if they get one or two hours during the day to ensure naptime at school won’t interfere with their bedtime at home. Naptime, in addition to offering your child a chance to take a break during the day, can increase retention of what they learn.
3. Is my child’s behavior appropriate?
If your child interacts well with other children and generally does not mind being separated from their parents, then they will most likely thrive in a quality preschool environment. If your child struggles with separation anxiety when you leave them somewhere or they are easily overwhelmed, then the transition to preschool may be very stressful for them. This doesn’t mean they won’t be able to handle preschool, but you’ll need to address this ahead of time and anticipate some challenges during the transition.
4. How are kids disciplined/guided if needed?
Discipline in preschool should look more like guidance than punishment. A preschool teacher’s job is to redirect poor behavior and guide their students to an understanding of acceptable behavior. This will be reflected in the school and classroom rules, as well as the ways the teacher rewards or recognizes good behavior.
What Supplies Are Needed?
Knowing what school supplies are needed is important as you budget for your child’s tuition and additional school expenses. Program requirements will vary between schools, so it’s always important to ask up front. You’ll also need to know the answers to these questions:
1. Do we need to pack lunch, or will lunch be provided?
The answer to this question will vary from school to school. If the school does provide meals, ask about where the food is prepared, who prepares it and how the meal is served. If students are required to bring their lunches from home, make sure you know whether your child’s classroom is Nut-Free or otherwise restricts certain foods to address student allergies.
2. Does my child need a blanket and pillow for nap time?
Some schools provide mats for naptime, and others require students to bring in all of their napping supplies. You’ll want to find out what each school’s particular policy is, as well as whether they will take care of weekly washing of any pillows and blankets.
What Food Is Provided by the School?
Mealtime is always a big question when it comes to your child and preschool. If you are looking at a preschool that serves meals to its students each day, there are several things you’ll want to know about their menu:
1. Is it healthy and balanced?
Does the school provide a variety of healthy and age-appropriate foods for the children? Asking to see a menu is always a great way to have this question answered.
2. Do parents have a say in their child’s meals?
In other words, will the school address cultural preferences and restrictions? Do parents have a say in what menu items their child is served from day-to-day?
3. What is the school’s policy for handling food allergies?
Some preschools ban certain high-risk foods, such as peanuts, from the entire building to erase the need to monitor allergens and students. Other schools will limit these products by classroom, restricting them only when a child in the classroom has an allergy. Make sure you ask what the school’s policy is regarding food allergies and sensitivities, both for serving and preparing the food.
How Are Child-Specific Concerns Addressed?
Another way to spot a quality preschool is in the way they address child-specific concerns. What do we mean by that? Well, child-specific concerns address any health issues or issues — both mental and physical — that your child might have or develop while in their care. This is one place where the subjective nature of your decision may come into play and can play a significant role in directing how to choose the best preschool for your child:
1. Can the school handle my child’s needs?
As much as you feel comfortable sharing, outline your child’s needs and ask the director how they are equipped to handle them. For example, if your child has an allergy and has to keep an EpiPen nearby, ask where it can be kept and if the staff is trained in how to use it in an emergency. Don’t be afraid to ask what plans and procedures the school has in place to address emergency situations.
2. Does the school have a nurse?
Having someone at the school who can address acute illnesses and injuries is a huge bonus and can provide great peace of mind to parents. If a preschool doesn’t have a designated nurse on staff, find out how they handle children who become sick or hurt themselves during the school day.
What Curriculum Is in Use?
Early childhood education curriculum varies between different preschools, but a quality preschool will follow an established curriculum based on the Essential Domains of School Readiness. These include motor development and physical well-being, language and literacy development, emotional and social development, and cognition and general knowledge (basic science and math concepts).
Some schools may follow a formal curriculum, such as a Montessori program or the award-winning Frog Street Curriculum. Others may have developed their own “in-house” curriculum. Whatever the case, they should be able to articulate the basics of their curriculum and provide examples of how it meets the five domains listed above. You’ll also want to know:
1. Is it accredited?
Ask about the curriculum’s accreditations and what they mean for the school and your child.
2. What kinds of activities are involved?
A school can say they have a curriculum, but what does it involve? Make sure to ask for details about what kinds of instruction and activities your child will be involved in on a daily basis. Also, ask how the school balances their curriculum to incorporate all five of the domains of school readiness. If a school tends to emphasize one over the others, your child could miss out on some valuable experiences.
What Is the Staff’s Experience?
While degrees and certifications can vary, a good preschool teacher will have extensive knowledge about early childhood education, especially related to how children develop and grow. At the very least, they should hold a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, but many schools look for teachers with additional degrees and experience. Other questions to ask in this category when choosing the right preschool include:
1. Do the teachers have clear background checks?
Find out what screening process these teachers went through to be hired.
2. What experience do the school’s staff members have?
Are they experienced in early childhood development and education? Are they receiving ongoing training to keep their certifications and knowledge base current? Don’t be afraid to ask about their educational background, as well as their current pursuits. Trust us — a school with good teachers isn’t afraid to brag about them!
3. Do they have first aid training?
Classroom teachers should be trained and hold up-to-date certifications in first aid and CPR.
4. Are they kind?
Kindness and compassion can’t be taught, but they’re so important. All the degrees in the world can’t replace a teacher who is going to treat their students well. Take time to notice how the teachers treat you, their students and each other. You can also ask for parent references. Calling a current parent for information isn’t gossip — parent-to-parent conversations are the best way to find out what the staff is really like.
What Is the Facility Like?
The way a preschool staff cares for their facility speaks volumes about how they will care for your child:
1. Is the facility clean?
It should be clear that the preschool regularly cleans its facility, keeps itself organized and provides a visually appealing place for children to play and learn.
2. How does the school keep children safe?
A quality preschool will have security measures in place to protect their students. Make sure you ask about their security guidelines, including parental access to the building and how they screen visitors.
3. Does the facility have plenty of fun things for kids to do?
When you visit a potential preschool, look inside and outside. Do they offer a safe and fun outdoor playground? Are there lots of age-appropriate toys and books indoors? Do they hang student artwork at eye level for the students to see and explore?
What Kind of Environment Is It?
Each preschool will have a slightly different environment. As a parent, it’s your job to determine which will allow your child to thrive while they are a student there. Find out the answers to the following:
1. Are the class sizes small?
Always ask what the student-teacher ratio is at the preschool you’re visiting. Regulations vary between states — and depend on the age of the children in question — so you’ll want to make sure you know what’s legal in your state. Also, remember that the legal requirements are just a baseline for preschools to abide by. As a parent, you need to be comfortable with the ratio of students per adult in the classroom. Classes with a smaller student-teacher ratio — 1:3 or 1:4 — will provide more one-on-one guidance and instruction for each of the students enrolled.
2. Is it loud?
Yes, kids can be loud at times, and some days are better than others, but the overall volume of a school can tell you a lot about the kind of control teachers have — or don’t have — in the classroom.
What Are the Red Flags You Should Avoid?
Finding an environment where your child will thrive can depend on your child’s personality and age, as well as certain development factors. However, there are some signs of a bad preschool that shouldn’t be ignored.
1. Bad reviews
One bad review doesn’t mean a place is terrible, but it should drive you to dig deeper. As you read reviews, look at the overall trend. Are the majority of them positive? What are the complaints being discussed in the negative reviews? Also, consider the age of a review — if it was written several years ago, it’s appropriate to inquire about a change in school leadership and whether or not that has addressed the concerns you read about.
2. Dirty facilities and unsafe hazards
Beware of a facility that is visibly dirty or unsafe in any way. Don’t write off unsanitary conditions or a dangerous playspace as “no big deal.” If you wouldn’t allow those conditions in your home, never tolerate them in a school.
3. Expired license
Licensure indicates whether a preschool program is following government standards for cleanliness, safety and teacher qualifications. In the state of Virginia, licensed preschool programs are regulated under several different categories, including licensed, unlicensed but regulated, approved and unlicensed. Which category they fall under depends on who is running the program, but full-day preschool programs are typically considered “daycare programs” for licensing purposes.
In the state of Virginia, licensed preschools are required to be inspected twice a year to maintain their licensure. If a school does not hold a current state license, this may be a red flag that says something isn’t right. Besides talking with the school about its license, you can search the Virginia Department of Social Services database or call to inquire about a particular preschool’s credentials.
4. No security measures in place
A quality preschool should have a strict safety plan in place for the well-being of its students and their families. Stay away from a school that doesn’t keep exterior doors locked or doesn’t employ strict procedures for visitors and adults picking up students at any time of day.
5. Lack of official curriculum
Whether a school uses an off-the-shelf curriculum, such as Frog Street, or they have developed one in-house, it should be rooted in evidence-based practices and age-appropriate educational research. If a school cannot articulate their educational philosophy and the elements of their curriculum — or if they don’t have a formal curriculum — this may be a sign that they are not going to provide the quality preschool education you’re looking for.
Quick Checklist of Questions to Ask Preschools
In general, to inform your conversations and inspire your search for a quality preschool for your child, always remember to ask:
1. Is my child ready?
2. What supplies will my child need?
3. What will mealtime and naptime look like?
4. Is the school equipped to handle my child’s specific needs?
5. What curriculum is being used?
6. What are the qualifications of the staff?
7. What vibe do I get from the facility and the overall environment of this preschool?
Consider Haymarket Children’s Academy
Located in Gainesville, VA, Haymarket Children’s Academy is committed to providing personalized and purposeful instruction for three and four-year-olds. Our award-winning curriculum is designed to prepare your child for a lifetime of discovery and learning, in the classroom setting and beyond. Going above and beyond traditional expectations, we offer our students and their families a safe, nurturing environment, as well as meals prepared by an in-house chef, an extensive outdoor play area and access to an on-site nurse.
Contact us today to schedule a tour of HCA.