That’s a hard question. Part of the reason it’s hard is that it’s actually three questions rolled into one: What makes a preschool good? How can we tell if a preschool is good? and What preschool will be the right fit for our family? Let’s talk about each of those separately.
What makes a preschool good? That’s actually an easy one: relationships. Specifically, teacher-child relationships. Strong, caring, dependable, affectionate teacher-child relationships have a lot of effects that you want on your child—they promote self-regulation and emotional control; they make children better at exploring, asking questions, and learning; they make supervision more effective; and they make you feel better about leaving your child there every day. And those relationships depend on a lot of things that you also care about—good observation skills; responsiveness; reasonable teacher-child ratios; and positive emotional climate. A school that dependably builds strong teacher-child relationships will have great outcomes for children even if they’re using out-of-date curriculum in under-funded classrooms; the best curriculum in the world in a state-of-the-art classroom environment is almost worthless without good teacher-child relationships.
How can we tell if a preschool is good? This one’s a lot harder—how can you tell if the children and the teachers have strong relationships? If at all possible, you want to find an opportunity to go sit in the classroom yourself (without your child) and simply watch what goes on. Do the children seem to trust and like the teacher? Does the teacher respond to the children with warmth and attention? Is there a sense of community in the classroom? If you can’t observe the teacher in action (many wonderful schools have policies against prospective parent observations, simply because of the number of people who would want to observe), you have to be a bit of a detective. Talk to families who attend the school, and ask about the teachers’ relationships with the child. Ask the director what the school does to promote relationships. Read the school’s website and promotional materials and see if they emphasize relationships. Read online reviews of the school, and see what people say about teacher-child interactions. Many schools emphasize math, literacy, and other early academic skills—but if they don’t also demonstrate their commitment to your child’s social and emotional development, you should probably look elsewhere.
What preschool will be the right fit for our family? This one’s hard too, because it’s entirely individual. There are the practical concerns—does the tuition fit in your budget? are they open when you need them to be? are they close enough to your home? But equally important is the question of values. What qualities do want to instill in your child? Creativity? Responsibility? Community-mindedness? Respect? Inquisitiveness? Different schools will place different emphasis on these. What qualities do you value in caregiving? Warmth? Leadership? Rigorous learning? Different teachers will embody these differently. Try to find a school where their values seem close to yours.
Ultimately, all of these questions come down in large part to gut feeling. A school is “right” if you see the teachers and children together and you think, “Yes, I want that for my child. I can see my family here.” Just because a school is “good” doesn’t mean it’s right for you—it’s only right if it feels right to leave your child there every day. And you’re the only one who can decide that.
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Need help figuring out which school is for you? I’ve helped many families work through that decision—contact me!