If you’re looking for a school for your young child, you might feel a little bit like you did before he or she arrived in your life: excited, nervous, overwhelmed. When I went through this process for the first time, my background in early childhood and developmental psychology did little to calm my nerves. So once my child was happily settled in a wonderful school, I set out to make the process a little easier for other families and to equip them with the knowledge they need to make informed choices about early childhood education.
While I was researching and writing my book, The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children, I had the good fortune to visit many early education classrooms. What I saw was consistent with research that finds there are some outstanding programs, a small group of dangerously low-quality ones, and a large group of middle-of-the road options. In some communities, parents have many choices, while in others, they are lucky to find a spot at all.
In the early education-rich communities, parents frequently ask me how to find the “best” school (or to tell them if one they are considering deserves that distinction). What you need to know, first and foremost, is that there is no such thing as the “best” school. There is no one feature or program that is going to make or break a child’s early education or long-term experience of schooling. Instead, a constellation of factors affects what and how a child learns.
The signs of a great preschool aren’t as easy to quantify as a ranked score, a list of distinguished alums, or the amount of funding spent per child. But they aren’t hard to see if you know what to look for. Here are some fundamental things to know that will help you spot a good early childhood classroom.
Play is learning. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to choose between play and learning, because children learn through play. During games, pretend play, and manipulating materials like slime and playdoh, children learn all kinds of important things: vocabulary, fine motor skills, how to count, social skills. If you visit a classroom and see children busily and joyfully playing and singing, that’s a good sign!
Learning is messy. Children learn by touching, talking, experimenting, and getting dirty. Good schools set up the classroom environment to enable these kinds of age-appropriate exploration in ways that are safe and build children’s independence. They change activities on a regular basis and give children choices. Look for children’s art on the walls – the more individualized and less cookie-cutter, the better, because that means kids were engaged and creative. If you see three and four-year olds being expected to sit still for 45 minutes or taking computerized tests, take your search elsewhere.
Social and emotional skills are paramount. All young children are developing social and emotional skills and self-regulation, and they need constant reinforcement of skills like how to share toys and express frustration in words. This is time well spent, and time that should be spent. Good teachers provide not just opportunities to develop social and emotional skills, but specific ways to use them, like how to tell a peer “I don’t like that, please stop,” how to recognize the emotions conveyed by a friend’s face, or how to find a more acceptable outlet for wanting a tactile sensation than pushing a classmate. Look for teachers who tell children what to do rather than what not to do, and who give children alternatives for inappropriate behavior. If you see a social conflict, pay attention to whether the teacher helps the children work through it together with positive strategies. Be wary of programs that focus on punishment, “three strikes” policies, or isolating children who behave inappropriately.
Teachers matter more than anything. Some parents look for fancy facilities or enrichment programs. But what kids really need is warm, nurturing, supportive teachers. Good teachers get down on children’s eye-level, address them by name, listen carefully, explain expectations calmly, and seek to understand rather than punish. They ask open-ended questions about what a child is doing and thinking to help her expand her perspective. They meet children where they are in development and give them enough support to gently nudge them to do or understand a little bit more.
Great early childhood settings make children and families feel welcome. It’s worth taking the time to tour the classrooms while teachers and children are there. Ask your questions, explore the classrooms, and look below the surface. A great classroom might not look like what you expect – and it might make a bigger difference in your child’s life than you can imagine.
About the Author
Suzanne Bouffard is an acclaimed author and child development specialist. Her latest book, “The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children”, shares her insights and expertise with parents on what to look for in the critical decision of choosing their child’s first school. Her writing has appeared in many national publications, including the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Daily Beast, U.S. News and World Report, cnn.com, parents.com, workingmother.com, and The Harvard Education Letter. Currently, she serves as editor of The Learning Profession magazine. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and two children.