We asked a child development expert and former preschool owner what makes the best preschool. Here’s what she told us.
Finding the best preschool for your family can take time and patience. What helps: both appreciating the real developmental purpose of preschool for kids—and what makes for a good fit for parents, says Stephanie Agnew, parent education coordinator at Parents Place in San Mateo, California. She teaches classes on preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school choices, as well as on behavior management. A former preschool owner and teacher, Agnew also leads teacher training workshops, consults with families on parenting and child development, and conducts in-home and in-school observations.
Her insights on finding a good fit:
What to Consider Before You Begin Your Search
Start your search early. Parents often underestimate this. It’s never too late; schools sometimes have openings even at the last minute. But in general, it’s wise to look at least a year ahead of when you want your child to start.
There’s no one system for applying, like there is for most private schools or college. In big cities, like San Francisco, you have to fill out applications. But other places it’s more of a first-come, first-served system. It’s good to get on a waiting list or two. Some preschools just have a “sign-up day” (often in winter or early spring) for the coming fall registrations.
The #1 question parents ask me when they’re starting out is, “How old should my child be to start preschool?” The answer depends on the needs of the parents. If you both work, the answer could be at 6 weeks, or 1 year, whenever you need center-based care. If not, it varies. Most children are ready for some social interaction with other children at 18 months. That doesn’t necessarily mean preschool. It could be a Gymboree program once a week, a playgroup with other moms who have kids the same age, or something like our Parents Place drop-in, where you make regular visits. Family childcare can also be a great first experience, especially for kids under age 2.
Ideally a child—beginning at age 2 or 2½—should experience some preschool for at least a year, or better yet two or three years, before starting kindergarten. It doesn’t need to be all day, every day. But it should be at least three to five hours a day with kids the same age, at least two or three days a week.
The reason: Kids who enter kindergarten without early childhood education come in at a great disadvantage—in terms of social skills, group management skills, and even things like knowledge of vocabulary and exposure to new words and ideas. All this affects readiness to learn.
What to Consider During Your Search
Your Budget and Schedule
If you have a limited budget, parent participation preschools and co-ops tend to be less expensive and offer great family socialization. Family childcare is also somewhat less expensive if you need full-time care.
If you need a lot of childcare hours because you both work, you might think about a combination of part-time preschool and in-home care.
The schedule matters. Parents tend to like flexibility—contracting for a certain number of hours per week or month that they can use whenever they want. The problem is that inconsistency, and having to interact with different kids all the time, can be overwhelming for kids.
A fixed schedule is best: MWF or Tu-Th, for example, when the same group of kids will be there for the whole time every day.
Your Child’s Development
Parents often ask me, “What’s the best teaching philosophy for my child?” The truth is, most kids do well in a variety of settings. But adults are a lot less adaptable, so you have to think about what feels right for your goals for your child.
Developmental play-based philosophies are the most developmentally appropriate for preschoolers. There’s a lot of overlap among the different philosophies— you might find a school that uses Montessori materials but also looks play-based, for example.
The single most important thing that kids get out of a good preschool is learning how to be part of a group. That’s the key thing that will help them be successful in school: developing good confidence and social skills. Two- and 3-year-olds are self-centered, that’s the way they should be. A real task of preschool is to teach them to want to be part of a group and enjoy the experience.
If they don’t get this in preschool, they may not, because elementary schools are not geared to teach those things any more. They’re more academic and fast-paced, all the time, from kindergarten on.
Where parents go wrong: Unfortunately, some people feel that in order to prepare for the increasing emphasis on academics in kindergarten and beyond, preschoolers should be trained early to sit still, recite facts, and follow instructions. This just isn’t true. The brain develops better at that age when the child is playing. They’re not developmentally ready to sit still yet. In order to sit still at 5, 6, and 7, the child has to have the opportunity as a preschooler to work on social skills, explore, and interact with others. That’s why I warn against preschools that are too focused on academic acceleration.
Each child develops at his or her own pace. The younger the child, the wider the range of normalcy. A good preschool is open to meet children where they are, at a wide range of developmental levels.
The Best Fit for Your Family
Let go of the idea that there’s one “perfect” place best for everyone. What’s best for me may not be best for you.
Just because a school has a good reputation doesn’t mean its community will be right for you. People tend to be drawn to certain aspects of a school’s culture: Is the school’s philosophy closely aligned to who you are as a person? Are the parents the kind you want to make a connection to? Do they live near you so you can socialize easily? To get these insights, ask the director for the names of parents you can call. Ask them these things, and ask them how easy it was to meet other parents.
One thing parents don’t ask enough about: what they will get out of a particular preschool. They’re focused only on the child’s experience—will he or she be happy, will it be stimulating, and so on. But the ideal preschool experience is also a supportive community for parents.
Parenting is such an isolating experience today; it can even be upsetting and depressing, for some. It can be hard to know how you’re doing as a parent; kids don’t give us a lot of feedback. A preschool is a natural place to get that kind of support—from the teachers, and especially the director, and from the other parents you meet there.
Ask the director: What kind of parent support programs do you offer? Do you give out a roster of parent contacts with email addresses or phone numbers? Do social events (potlucks, picnics, festivals) involve parents? Are there parent-education programs? These things tend to be more prevalent in co-op type preschools but can, and should, exist at any center.
Making the Decision
Three top things to consider in choosing a preschool:
- Location and schedule, because the logistics are primary.
- The philosophy of the program.
- The community there.
Don’t rely on a school’s reputation. You really have to do the work for yourself. You have to read about places, ask about them in your community, and visit for yourself.
You should feel a connection to the director. There’s a lot of staff turnover, especially when you’re looking at a place a year or more before you’ll need it. But the director will likely still be there. He or she should be welcoming, warm, articulate, and knowledgeable.
Something parents worry about but shouldn’t: The fanciness of the facility. Don’t be impressed by computers and technology. You want a place that’s clean and well-maintained, but an older building that’s messy can be an even better learning environment. It’s mostly about the people who are in it and the activities they plan.
Something parents don’t worry about but should: Group size. Parents pay attention to staff-child ratios. But especially in large programs, you can have a 1:8 ratio but end up with a large class of 25, 30, or 40 kids. They may have five teachers, but too many people overall for a child to be able to work with and feel comfortable.
The optimal group size is fewer than 12 kids for those under 2, and 18-22 kids (at the most) for ages 2 ½ to 5.
When you visit: Be sure the environment feels safe and fun. Watch to see if the teacher engages with the children and if you feel like the children are engaged with the teacher and comfortable.
The best thing you can ask the director: What are your top three goals or priorities for the kids in the classroom? Look for answers like: We want all children to feel comfortable. We want everyone to be excited and offer a variety of things to make that happen. We want to help kids understand the value of being in a group. (Two- and 3-year-olds are naturally self centered and need to learn this.)
Don’t forget to ask: How is discipline handled? How are children supported when they misbehave—because they all do. Every school has some kids who are more aggressive, some who pay attention better, some who are easier going and others who are more intense. Get them to articulate the process: Do they use positive discipline? When are parents involved? What’s the system of communication?
What to Consider After You’ve Made Your Decision
You know you’ve chosen the wrong preschool if either you or your child is just not happy there. You have to give your child time to adjust; it’s not unusual to act unhappy for the first days or weeks. But if he or she is miserable after a month, then something may not be right.
Don’t automatically yank your child out of the school—unless there’s been an egregious breach of safety that causes you to lose all faith and confidence. Go there and see what the story is. It can help to bring in an objective person to observe. They may be able to see things happening in the classroom that can be fixed, like a child having self-regulation issues or how two peers are interacting. Ask the teacher for guidance on how to work with you and your child.
You know you’ve chosen the right preschool if your child is happy, and you’re happy—and you feel like the teacher loves your child.
Photo: Mindy Gerecke/Flickr
- Stephanie Agnew is the parent education coordinator for Parents Place San Mateo.
- “My kid just got kicked out of preschool?!!” (Yes, it really happens. A lot.)
- Find the right preschool for your family.