How To Choose the Right Preschool for Your Child
Preschool allows children to explore their curiosities within a community that understands and celebrates the young mind. It can feel like there are endless variations and approaches to preschool education, each with its own focus on things like child-led learning, social involvement and creativity.
But how do you launch your preschool search without knowing for sure where your child will thrive? You might begin by splitting your research into three main stages:
- Logistics (cost, location and schedule)
- Educational approach
- Visit and admissions experience
Shannon Blackwell, Director of Community Relations at Wonderland Montessori, recommends you start by considering the goal of your individual child’s learning experience, whether that be a greater focus of socialization, academics, or a balance of each.
In the guide below, we’ll explore ways to structure your personal preferences and research for finding the right preschool for your inquisitive child.
The Logistics: Location, Cost and Schedule
Choosing the right preschool is a decision that affects the whole family. The practical details can have a large impact on your experience.
Begin by focusing on local preschools that offer a practical commute from both your home and office. Choosing a school that tailors to both, or to more than one family member’s workplace, will simplify drop-off and pickup.
Cost is one of the most common barriers to preschool choice, as the median annual tuition for a preschool program in the U.S. is over $8,000, and can range much higher. Determine the best budget for your family and ways each program affects your family financially.
Preschools offer either full or half-day programs, between 2-5 days a week. When choosing which program works best for you, consider:
- Your work schedules
- Your child’s personal comfort with being away from home
- Cost differences
- Individual goals for their development
Finding the Right Approach for Your Child
First-hand reviews and word-of-mouth can be your most reliable sources. Explore reviews from families, local parent organizations and even employment websites for insight into the preschool. Reviews of the school on job search sites like Glassdoor and Indeed may provide a glimpse into the school’s management approach. Employee support and faculty satisfaction can trickle down the student experience.
School Structure and Style
Most of today’s popular preschool styles developed over the past century. The most common types of preschool approaches include:
- Reggio Emilia
- High Scope
- Bank Street
- Parent Co-ops
As you dive more deeply into each school’s philosophy, compare your child’s individual goals with those featured in the program. These may include:
- Opportunities for hands-on learning
- Family involvement
- Focus on social justice and helping your community
- Expression through creativity
- Personalized attention
- Outdoor and extracurricular activities
In addition to the school’s philosophy, consider your family’s long-term education goals and relationship to the school community. Kate Dworkoski, the Director of Admission at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s in Manhattan, points out the difference between standalone preschools and those linked to a larger school. “Several programs, including St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, go through eighth grade and allow your child and family to plant roots and have a cohesive school experience. Others are standalone preschools that are exclusively focused on the early childhood experience; families choosing one of these options will undertake the admission process again for kindergarten.”
What to Look for During Your Visit
Your visit and interview with potential schools is the most important stage of the preschool vetting process. If you know what to look for before your visit, it may be easier to recall information during your final decision-making process.
Admissions and early education experts in the field recommend breaking up your list in the following categories:
The physical design of a preschool sets the scene for your child’s first impression. As you enter school and classroom, keep the following questions in mind:
- How do I feel when I enter the school? How does my child respond?
- Is the space proportionate to the class size?
- How much natural light fills the learning space?
- Does the room encourage free play or structured learning?
- Do the preschool students encounter and spend time with the older grades in the hallway or in assemblies?
Debbie Cordero, the Director of Pre-K and Program Director at Aspen Academy, also recommends focusing on the school’s outdoor area. How does the space encourage students to explore and learn during their recess period? She suggests asking: “What value does the school place on recess? What activities are available outside (bikes, sand toys, sensory play, swings, etc.)?” The layout of the outdoor area provides a glimpse into how the school regards outdoor learning.
Breakdown of the Day
A common day at preschool may include:
- Welcome and check-in time
- Student-driven exploration or teacher-led instruction
- Snack time
- Recess or outdoor exploration
- Electives like music, art or dance
- Story or pre-reading time
- End-of-day check-in
Cordero recommends looking at the balance of instructional style. “How much of the students’ day is spent on whole group instruction, one-on-one instruction, center time and free play? Each is important for early childhood development.” Observe the transitions from one activity to the next as well as flexibility for students that request more time on activities than others.
How does the specific style of preschool education focus on the whole child? Pre-literacy skills, basic math, and problem-solving can be just as much a part of the day as finding a connection with the community. On a basic level, do you observe a balance in the curriculum? If you’re searching for a faith-based program, how and when are your core ideals woven into each lesson?
You can also speak with your admissions representative or the instructor about their individual learning goals during the preschool years. Kate Shaw, the Admissions Manager at Aspen Academy, encourages parents to ask about individual encouragement, such as asking how your student will receive individual attention if they excel in certain areas.
How does the instructional style encourage the voice of each child? Observe the how child’s feelings are guided or supported in group discussion, during playtime, and as they face new challenges. If you’re confused or curious about the teacher’s methods, speak with them during your interview – it may be a specific approach that promotes expression or independence.
How do students work directly and indirectly with their instructors and aids? While some styles focus on student-driven learning, others spend more time working with facilitated small groups.
Observe whether parents become involved with classroom activities as well. On the far side of this spectrum, parent co-op preschools are nearly completely managed by the community while other schools maintain clearer boundaries during the year.
If a conflict between two students arises during your visit, how is it handled by the instructor and how does the rest of the group respond? Observe if the teachers take similar steps to resolving conflict as you do at home, and if not, how did the students respond? Did each child feel heard in the process?
If no conflict arises for you to observe, ask the leadership of the school about their philosophy for discipline and conflict resolution to make sure it’s in line with yours at home.
Choosing the School for Your Child
“You are the best gauge of how your child will respond to a setting, regardless of the school’s philosophy,” Kate Dworkoski adds. “Chances are if you felt excited, engaged, and energized by being in the school, so will your child!”
In the end, it’s important to trust your intuition. The questions listed above act as a basic guide for finding the school that makes your little one feel at home, but you do not need to check all the boxes or meet every goal on your list to find the right program. You and your child’s comfort are top priority.
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