Deciding on a preschool for your child is no easy task, especially when considering higher education. But, do you realise that your child’s preschool will have more of an effect on their success than their later schooling years?
Follow this guide that will show you exactly how to choose a preschool and what to look out for.
As a former early childhood teacher, it has always amused me to hear friends and family discuss how important the choice of high school is for their child, over their primary/elementary school.
The reality is if your child attends a strong preschool and elementary school they are more likely to perform well in any high school than sending a child with a poor grounding to a good high school.
But It’s Only Preschool, Right?
The preschool years are the most important developmental years in your child’s entire life. A child will learn continuously, even throughout their adult life, but never at the volume and rate that they learn in the first six years of life.
Early childhood development is crucial for a child’s future.
Why then, are the early years often brushed off as merely time for “play”, with the serious learning beginning in the early grades?
Watch this video about how children learn in the early years. Their brains are processing at double the rate of adults’ brains!
Well, ironically, the first few years are just for play, but that play is serious business and children learn just about everything through play.
All the foundational skills learned in the early years will have an impact on a child’s entire schooling career and life.
Children who have a good grounding cope better in their future schools.
Here are just a few examples of how foundational skills impact a child’s entire schooling career:
- If a child does not develop their fine motor skills they will struggle with pencil grip, control and handwriting throughout school.
- When auditory perception is underdeveloped, a child will struggle with reading and comprehension throughout school.
- A child with poor listening skills will seldom develop these at a later stage.
- Children with poor gross motor skills will struggle with posture, tiredness, playing sports, sitting upright at a desk, concentration difficulties, etc.
Basically, any skill that is not well developed in preschool will have an impact for years.
The preschool years are the golden years when children learn effortlessly and this is the time to make sure they are properly educated and stimulated.
How to Choose a Preschool: Factors to Consider
From personal experience, I can say that I sometimes wondered why parents were sending children to a couple of the schools I worked at. I could see the problems so obviously and yet many parents did not question the procedures and practices at the schools, but merely accepted them as normal.
Not all schools are made equal. These are some issues I have personally experienced:
- unqualified teachers
- a school run simply as a profit-making business with no regard for education
- school owners who had no background in education
- inadequate resources and equipment (in order to cut costs)
- inappropriate teacher-pupil ratios
- oversized classes
- teachers with little patience who shrieked at the children all day
- lack of lesson planning
- poor child supervision
- serving children b-grade, cheaper food at lunchtime
- inadequate cleaning of mattresses and bedding for naptime
These are just some of the things I have personally witnessed. Now, I also worked in 2 schools that did not have a single one of the negative attributes listed above and were actually all about educating and caring for children.
In order to be able to immediately spot if you have found a good or a bad apple, make sure the school ticks off at least the following 10 requirements.
1. Teacher Qualifications
Around the world, there are countries that value early childhood education, and there are those that undervalue them. This is evident by the fact that not all preschool teachers are required to have a qualification.
Preschools often have less strict regulations than primary schools and can be opened by anyone. A school that does not pay qualified teacher salaries and packs as many kids into a class as possible is usually just open for making a profit.
This is minimum requirement number 1. If the school does not hire qualified teachers, look no further, especially if your child is already 3 or 4 years old.
They need a teacher who has a thorough knowledge of child development, not just an ability to keep children occupied and entertained.
Don’t compromise on this point. Make sure the teachers are either qualified, currently studying or, if they don’t have a degree, have taken child development diplomas or courses or are in continuous staff development.
Teachers should also have consistently updated first-aid training. If a school has not sent teachers for training, this is a major oversight and an obvious red flag.
2. Class Sizes
Class sizes should be manageable and you should not get the feeling they are packing in as many heads as possible.
Ideally, a preschool class should have 15 or fewer children, but could possibly go up to around 20 with an assistant.
I had 33 mixed-age children (2-5 years) in my first year of teaching. You can imagine how much attention each child got from me.
3. The Ratio of Adults to Children
If class sizes are larger, there must be assistant staff either working in each class or floating amongst classes.
If a teacher needs to go to the restroom or take a child to the first-aid room, the class cannot be left unsupervised for a minute.
Make sure that there is an adequate number of responsible adults working in the school.
4. Stimulating Environment
It should be obvious just by walking around the school that there is a lot of learning going on.
You should see equipment and resources and children busy and engrossed in learning things. If it is playtime, have the teachers taken out equipment such as beanbags, balancing beams, hula hoops, tyres, etc., or is playtime always just a bare area with one climbing frame?
Children’s art should be displayed and their clay figures should be out. When you drop your child off in the morning, there should be a variety of activities to choose from e.g. puzzles, games, playdough, a cutting and pasting table, etc.
5. General Care
Does the school care for the children? Is the lunch healthy and fresh? Does each class have a first-aid box? Do the classes have heating in winter?
You will feel if the environment is warm and caring. It should be.
6. Image of Children
An adult’s image of a child – a term you will hear associated with the Reggio Emilia Approach to education – determines how that child will develop and flourish.
Does the head/teacher speak of children as competent individuals who learn through play or as little children to be “filled” with information?
The school and teachers should have high expectations for each child and know their worth and value.
Teachers who spend their days shrieking at the top of their lungs do not have a positive image of children.
Obviously, teachers must be disciplining children firmly and any regular person will become impatient from time to time.
But, disciplining firmly does not mean constantly shouting at a child, belittling them or raising a hand to them. In these cases, the teacher is more out of control than the child.
7. General Atmosphere
When you walk through the school, does it feel like a happy place, with calm, content children? Or does it feel tense and disorganised?
You would be amazed at how different the vibe can be in different schools.
Make sure the environment feels like a happy one. At a preschool level, it should feel more like a family and less like a boarding school.
You can tell a lot about a school by watching how the general staff interact with the children. Does the cleaning assistant know the children’s names? Does the owner of the school give the kids a cuddle as she passes them in the corridor? A preschool should have a very loving atmosphere.
I’ll never forget my first day at a preschool called Little Saints. Having worked at questionable places before, I watched in amazement as the teachers spoke nicely to the children, listened to them and disciplined firmly but fairly.
All the staff were like this, including the assistants and the headmistress. The children were also better behaved, calmer and took more responsibility for their actions. I realized that the environment as a whole was different and that any new teacher coming in would mould to fit into the positive environment.
8. Quality of Artwork
One look at the children’s art will tell you heaps about the type of education your child will get.
If every child’s artwork looks the same, or it looks like the teacher did it, then your child is not going to be well stimulated there. Any qualified teacher knows the importance of art and free expression.
Your child’s art should look like their art does at home. It probably shouldn’t look like much of anything until their drawings become more detailed.
They should be bringing home tons of free drawing and painting, collages with all sorts of glued papers and objects on them, and constructions made with toilet rolls and boxes that don’t resemble anything until you get a thorough explanation about them.
You may get a generic Mother’s Day Card or two, but this shouldn’t be the norm.
If you notice your child is coming home with colouring pages or pre-made printouts every day, this is a clear sign that your child will not be well educated there.
Although preschool is all about play, it is not about a teacher sitting for 5 hours supervising children at play.
The teacher is supposed to be planning play activities with a purpose.
During free play, equipment and materials should be set up, such as a water table or a station with paintbrushes and water to paint on the outside walls. The free play environment should be changing frequently.
During each school day, the teacher should plan a movement activity, discussion ring, music activity, story-based activity, art activities, etc. The weekly theme is not the full extent of planning. Individual lessons must be planned, along with the objectives for those lessons.
At a preschool level, there should be weekly planning as well as an overall term/semester plan. You have a right to ask the school about lesson planning.
10. Your Gut Feeling
Most importantly, trust your intuition about a preschool. Know that this is the most important decision you will make about your child’s education.
If you feel the school is not a caring, educational environment, do not hesitate to keep looking.
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