Shopping for a preschool for your child is serious business. The experience your children will have in their preschool years will define the word “school” for them. Every parent wants their young child to know that “school” is a positive experience. Early learners should spend their first school experience in a place that sets a foundation for self-confidence, positive social interaction and a love of learning.
It is essential that you spend time touring preschools before selecting the place that you feel will give your child the best experience in his/her first school. The plethora of choices, philosophies and methodology can be mind-boggling and intimidating. When going from one early childhood center to another, remember to include these questions in your comparison shopping list:
Does the artwork look like children made it themselves? Perfectly cut shapes glued perfectly onto pieces of paper is a symptom of a school that is more interested in parent perceptions than in helping children to become critical thinkers and confident decision makers. Art should never be about right and wrong. There is no wrong answer to a child’s interpretation of their world. The minute children are handed a pre-cut form and guided in where to glue it or how to paint it, two things happen – the children stop thinking because the adults are doing the thinking for them and they are in a situation where they can be wrong instead of being encouraged to make decisions. Children follow directions all day long. There is no reason for art to be anything but a reflection of their creativity, a way for us to see their developmental level and a window into how they view the world.
Are the teachers really educators? Education is a skill set. Not everyone with knowledge or a love of children can teach. When we go to college to become a teacher, we learn educational theory, child psychology and methodology that we use to engage children in positive learning experiences. We learn what is developmentally appropriate for different ages. We learn how to manage behavior in a positive and instructive way. Unfortunately, the word “teacher” has been used rather loosely in some preschools. We can call anyone “teacher” but without coursework in education, educational theory and behavior management, the word “teacher” is being misused.
Do the teachers and teacher assistants continue to learn? Ask the person giving the tour if the teachers and teacher assistants take continuing education courses and from whom. Most states require a certain number of continuing education hours so staff members can keep up with the latest theories , learn new methodology and exchange ideas. Unfortunately, there are often no regulations stating from whom they must learn. Ideally, staff members spend their continuing education hours in workshops exchanging thoughts with other educators and learning from qualified instructors.
Are the toys hidden from the children? Children learn through play and should have free access to all of the toys and learning tools in the classroom. Teachers should not be limiting access to toys. If you go to a classroom and toy cabinets are closed, it is indicative of an environment that is more restrictive. Classrooms should be a mess while children explore, build and create. Opportunities to learn and interact should not be limited by adult needs. The mess can be cleaned up. Lost opportunities, however, cannot be regained.
How long is circle time? If you are observing a classroom during circle time, watch the clock and the children. If you aren’t there during circle time, ask. Circle time should be no longer than 10 minutes or until the children are done. Any sort of group time after 10 minutes or after the children start squirming is indicative of an environment that is more teacher centered than child centered. Children have limited attention spans. Adults can talk and talk and talk but if no one is listening, what’s the point? Let the children go where they really learn – among the art materials, toys and in nature.
Is the preschool making academic promises? Children develop at different rates. Some children will be beginning to read and write well at 4 years old while others are not yet ready. Mastery of reading and writing skills is not an appropriate developmental goal in the preschool years. Children should be offered opportunities to write and explore literacy & pre-math skills just as they are offered opportunities to explore spatial relationships with building blocks and symbolism & role play in the dramatic play area. If your young child can read and/or write, that’s wonderful. Your child is ahead of the bell curve in that set of skills. Mastery of those skills by all enrolled children is another matter entirely. No one can promise you that your child will be reading or writing successfully by the age of 5. If they do make such promises, then far too much time will be spent with your child at a desk in front of a workbook or a computer trying to get a product. It will happen. Your child will learn literacy skills. It may or may not happen in the preschool years and that is normal. The preschool should be telling you the truth - your child will be given the opportunity in the Pre-K year to write and combine letter sounds but everyone masters those skills only when they are ready.
What is the discipline policy? Behavior is best managed when discipline is instructive and not punitive. Your child’s teachers are there to teach. That applies not only to cognitive skills but also to behavior. Listen for yelling and ask about time out. Neither of those are instructive – they are punitive and do not help to teach behavior. Children should not feel intimidated or isolated as a result of inappropriate behavior. They should be spoken to about their behavior and why it is not appropriate, given time to calm with help from an adult and re-directed. For more information about positive discipline, please click on this link: http://cindyterebush.blogspot.com/2012/08/teach-dont-punish-benefits-of-positive.html
Remember, when shopping for a preschool, you are shopping for the best environment for your child. That may or may not be the same for you and for your friends. Be sure that you feel comfortable and that you trust the adults who will influence your child’s view of learning and of school.
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