8 Things to Consider When Choosing a Preschool

The top factors experts say that parents overlook when choosing a school.

boy and two girls writing

You probably think you have this preschool application thing solved.

By comparing the cost, location, length of the school day and quality of the playground, it may seem obvious where to send your kid for a day of finger painting and circle time. Ok, mom and dad. Those factors are important but kind of obvious.

One thing you might want to consider: Are the other parents like me? Ann Furst of St. Louis, MO, recently changed her son's preschool and realized she and her husband were looking for a good community of parents. "We realized that we would have the potential to meet life-long friends through our son's nursery school, so we wanted to be sure we were surrounding ourselves with other families that had core values similar to our own."

So what else should you really be thinking about? "There are hundreds of factors parents can use when deciding on preschool, but they often miss the point and are blinded by perks," says Jenifer Wana, author of How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child. "In the scheme of things, an organic garden for the kids to farm in will not make or break their experience." Schools make a big deal over their extra programming to differentiate themselves from other schools.

Together with Linda Hassan Anderson of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C., she created this list of the 8 factors parents need to focus on while touring the preschool circuit.

1. The Teaching Staff

Reggio Emilia. Montessori. Waldorff. There are plenty of school philosophies but most likely it's not going to make or break your child's preschool career or experience. The more important, if not the most important factor, both experts say, are the teachers. And it's the most difficult thing to evaluate!

So what makes a great teacher? The best teacher will bond with your child and make him feel safe. Once they have that connection the teacher can more easily help your child learn. Pay a visit to the classroom at various times during the day so you can observe free and directed play. Does the teacher engage the kids, crouch to their level, ask them open-ended questions and encourage them to be inquisitive? "Even at recess they need to be teaching by helping kids interact with each other, focusing on sharing and taking turns," says Wana. A great teacher will also help kids socialize and encourage a student who is standing alone in the corner to join in and play with others.

2. The Director

"She might not be present in your child's day-to-day schooling but she's extremely important because she's in charge of running the school, setting the curriculum, motivating the teachers recruiting teachers and families and managing the budget," says Wana. Some are warm and fuzzy and know all the students' names while others are more focused on fundraising and management. Whatever her style, she needs to be effective in running a successful school, minimize staff turnover and keep teachers enthusiastic about their jobs.

Set up a meeting. What is his/her philosophy for the school? How does she feel about discipline, teaching values, kindergarten preparation? "Find out her vision for not just the families at the school, but the community as a whole," says Anderson.

3. Communication

Teachers need to be able to talk with you as easily as they do your child. But if you don't need help washing blue paint off your hands, how will you get their attention? Aside from being easily approachable, find out if the teachers are available for quick side chats at drop off and pick up. Do they offer their email addresses to parents? And if so, how quickly will they get back to you?

Many schools send home newsletters to update parents on classroom activities. But how personalized is the feedback? "Parents want to know about their child's experience to the fullest," says Anderson. Will you be informed about the menu and lesson plans for the week? How your child napped and ate and what projects he has completed? It's also important to be informed of school-wide news. Does the director email updates on a regular basis?

4. Separation Guidelines

Wana says it's important to ask about the school's phase-in policy. Some parents linger in and outside the classroom for over a month while others are asked to leave for good after the second day. There is no good or bad way to approach separation but you need to be comfortable with how you and your child will handle the school's policy.

5. Cancelation Policy

Money is a big factor in choosing a preschool, but aside from tuition you need to be aware if that hefty deposit is refundable. (Probably not, says Wana.) What is the withdrawal policy? You might sign up but then get off the waiting list at your first choice school. Or, if there's a possible mid-year move planned, will you be able to reclaim any of the tuition?

6. The School Calendar

This is particularly crucial for working parents. Many preschools follow the vacations of the local school district, but what other days will school be off? Are there professional development days, teacher conferences and special holidays? If you need to plan backup childcare, you need to know - and budget -- ahead of time.

7. Ongoing Development

Where do you see yourself in five years? While an annoying job interview question, it's also one you should ask the school director. "When you visit you observe a snapshot of happy faces," says Anderson. "But the director needs to be committed to the ongoing improvement of the school." Teachers and staff should have the opportunity and be encouraged to take professional workshops and classes. Find out what vision the director has for the school's future and how she plans to carry it out.

8. Real Mom Feedback

No director is going to send a disgruntled mom your way. Instead of just getting a glossy picture of the program, ask current school parents leading questions, says Anderson. Find out if this parent has ever had concerns and how they were handled by the teachers and director. Pose hypothetical questions such 'What if my child has trouble making friends' or 'What if my child has toilet training issues?' It's a great opportunity to get a parent's perspective on how the school is run.

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