Whether they are choosing a pediatrician or analyzing reviews of baby gear, new parents aren’t afraid to do their research to make the best decisions for their child. But when it comes time to look for a preschool, the task can seem overwhelming.
Public, private, day care, prekindergarten, half-day, full-day — parents have more choices than ever for their 3- and 4-year-olds’ education. So how do you determine the best fit for your family? Start by talking with the people who know the programs the best, the teachers who teach them.
To really get to know a school, you’ll need to go beyond the basic questions about hours, tuition and policies. Here are seven questions teachers wish parents would ask them when they come for a visit.
What’s your educational philosophy? Approaches at preschools are as varied as the children who attend them. Schools may follow certain methods, such as Montessori or Waldorf, or emphasize global mindedness in the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme. A school may value learning through play and movement or set up a curriculum to meet academic benchmarks. Faith-based schools integrate age-appropriate lessons on religion. Many schools draw from a combination of philosophies, but it’s good to have a sense of what drives instruction.
What are you known for? Asking this question helps you glimpse what makes a school standout, says Corbett Prep PreK3 teacher Lori Seise. Different from a school philosophy, it gives teachers a chance to talk about their marquee programs, revealing information about what and how students learn. Seise loves to share about Corbett Prep’s PreK3 unit on artistic expressions, where students take an active tour of art history, producing their own masterworks, which are displayed in a gallery for parents to tour.
How do you communicate with families? You should always feel welcome to talk with teachers about your child’s progress, but it’s good to know how they communicate on a daily basis, too. Do they send home daily reports? E-mail photo albums once a week? School-based programs may hold parent-teacher conferences a few times a year as well. You can also ask how to get involved with the school, whether you want to help the teacher, work behind the scenes or volunteer in a parent association.
What is the role of movement and play? Play is important. So is movement. And they serve different functions. Active free play can improve children’s thinking skills, studies have shown, as well as help them socially, emotionally and physically. Movement, on the other hand, also benefits children by making learning more active, appealing to different learning styles and helping students process and retain new information. A good program will make time for both.
How do you teach independence? You’ll be surprised at how much your child can do on his or her own, and it’s important to find a school that allows students to grow and learn self-sufficiency and responsibility. Preschoolers enjoy helping, and teachers often let students take turns leading a line, holding doors or feeding the class pet. A school may use visual cues to help pre-readers remember classroom rules, such as when it is OK to speak in class. Teachers may expect students to sign in by themselves and put lunchboxes in their cubbies. They may even have rules for parents to ensure children have a chance to try something on their own without mom or dad’s help.
What opportunities are available outside of the classroom? Extracurricular activities, preschool arts programs, language lessons or physical education are about more than priming your child for an Ivy League education, Broadway debut or college sports scholarship. While exposure to the arts, languages and athletics can spark lifelong interests, different activities help child development. Students hone their fine motor skills in art classes, for example, and practice teamwork and hone coordination when playing sports. Ask what enrichment programs are part of the school day or whether after-school activities are available.
How do you prevent challenging behavior? Of course parents should ask how the school handles discipline. But wouldn’t it be great to prevent meltdowns and misbehavior when possible? Aimee Popalis, a teacher in the Corbett Prep PreK3 program, suggests posing this question to find out what strategies teachers use. You may learn how the school day is structured to meet children’s needs, creative tactics teachers use to hold attention or how teachers address social and emotional learning.
Most importantly, spend some time before you visit a school thinking about your child’s personality and what is important to your family. There’s no wrong way for schools to answer these questions, but you might be looking for a different program or philosophy than the one your friends and neighbors chose for their children.
“It’s knowing the questions to ask and knowing what to do with the answer,” Popalis says.
Some preschool and prekindergarten programs offer the chance for parent-teacher conferences. This is a great time to learn about your child’s progress and pinpoint developmental, behavioral or academic areas that need more attention. These tips will help you have an effective and productive conversation:
- Arrive on time (or early): Conferences are often scheduled back-to-back, and you’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes. Be ready to go as soon as the teacher is so you can hear what he or she has to say and ask your questions without cutting into the next parent’s time.
- Find a babysitter: Unless your teacher invites your child to take part in the conference, plan to leave him with a relative or friend. If you need to bring him, you’ll want to have some toys or other distractions on hand. You’ll want to be sure you can focus on what the teacher is saying, and you also may need to touch upon some sensitive topics that could be upsetting or confusing for your child.
- Listen: Teachers may have prepared a portfolio of your child’s work or have certain points they want to mention. Listen with an open mind, and feel free to ask for more details or examples if something is confusing.
- Prepare a few questions: You may feel like you have a good grasp on what your child is learning but have no idea how she gets along with her classmates. Feel free to ask about how she participates in class, what she seems to enjoy, how she naps or how she plays with others.
- Be ready to share: Does mom have a new job? Are you selling your house? Is there a baby on the way? Major changes at home can affect school behavior. A conference is a good time to give your teacher helpful information.
- Ask what you can do at home — and then do it: Maybe your child is a little clumsy with scissors or has trouble holding the crayons. Your teacher may have great suggestions about easy activities at home to firm up those fine motor skills.