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The Preschool Checklist: A Breakdown of Everything Parents Need to Think About

A parent getting ready to send their child to preschool for the first time is making their way into a whole new world full of more choices than they ever thought possible. The choices range from the teaching method the school prescribes to all the way to the hours of the school. Beyond these choices is the cost of preschool and finding one that is considered “high-quality” that also fits within the family budget. What is a “high-quality” preschool is the next question. For most parents its followed by, what if I can’t afford a “high-quality” preschool; does this mean my child is not going to receive a quality education that makes them school ready? Does this mean my child will be behind when it comes time to start kindergarten? How is my child going to be behind their peers if I can’t afford the best preschool? For most parents, the more research done on preschools the more questions they begin to have. And the more questions one has means the more overwhelmed they become. All of this makes finding the “perfect” preschool for your family one of the most daunting and overwhelming tasks in a young family’s life cycle.


Have no fear. This article is here to help make sense of most parents’ questions and the follow up questions to their original questions. It is designed to walk parents through the preschool process in as seamless a manner as possible. I have designed a checklist that can function as a guide post for parents beginning the fact-finding process.


The checklist and article are broken down into five sections. The first part of the checklist is for the logistics of school, like cost and location. The second part looks at the climate of the school. Section three examines the classroom environment. The fourth section looks at the multiculturalism of the school. Lastly, the checklist offers a list of ideas for parents on how they can take a proactive approach to the process.


Section 1: Logistics

The first things a family needs to think about when it comes to finding a preschool is how it fits into their life. A family’s schedule is typically very busy and managed very closely. Because of this a preschool should fit into the family’s life and not the other way around. A family should not have to make major adjustments to their life and throw their world into chaos just for their child to go to a specific preschool. There are other options, ones that will not make your family life harder to manage. Preschool should make your life a bit easier, not harder.


When it comes to picking a preschool, the first thing a family should do is sit down and create a budget. By looking over all the finances of the family parents can determine a monetary range they can afford before they begin their search. Imagine finding what you think is the perfect preschool, go through the interview process, get your child excited about going there only to realize the school is completely out of your family budget!


Once a family has determined the comfortable cost range it is also important to note what is covered in the cost of the school. Some preschools may seem more expensive, but their tuition might include lunches and snacks where as other schools might expect the families to provide all food for their child. Additionally, if the school takes the children on outings it is important to note if that will be an extra cost to the family or if they are covered by tuition. By making note of all these different factors parents can plan accordingly based off the schools they are choosing from.


The next aspect of logistics is the location of the preschool. Parents want to find a school that fits their commute and does not make it harder for them to get where they need to go each day. As I stated above, preschool should not make life harder for parents. If anything, sending your child to preschool should make life a bit less complex – you now have a set schedule and place for your child multiple days a week and only major things like holidays will interrupt that. Don’t pick a preschool that adds an hour to your already hectic routine. Its already hard enough getting a toddler out of the house in the mornings, you don’t want to make it even harder by waking them up and rushing them before they are ready to face the day. This can only lead to challenging mornings. You have a set routine for your child, pick a school that is within a range that lets you keep that morning routine. Children thrive with consistency, and their morning routine is a big part of that.


The last aspect of logistics is the hours of the center. If you are someone who needs to be at work by 7am and the preschool you are looking at doesn’t start accepting children until 7:30am it will not be a good fit unless you have someone who can help your family in the mornings. This same principal applies to afternoon times. Some preschools have multiple half-days a week or want every child picked up by 6pm. The school schedule needs to work for your family. If you choose a school that charges you for being late to pick up in the evenings that can be a lofty extra expense you did not budget for. If you have friends who send their children to the same preschool hours and location can be a bit easier to figure out because you can car pool. If this is a possibility it can create some flexibility within your routine with pick up and drop off.


When it comes to the logistical aspects of picking a preschool the biggest thing to think about is how the school fits into your life. You do not want to pick a preschool for your child that will make your life harder. Financially, the school needs to fit into your budget, you should not feel you need a second job to send your child to school. The hours of the school also need to work for your family. Adding preschool into your schedule will create a change, but it should not create a change that throws off your entire routine.


Section 2: Organizational Climate

Once the logistics of preschool have been determined, the next step is examining the academics of the schools. Each preschool will have its own academic philosophy that parents will want to consider. The academic philosophy of a school will directly influence how each classroom is run, so it is important to understand the method to the madness as they say. It’s important that the ideals of the school match with the ideals of the family.


The six most common types of preschools include, Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, HighScope, Bank Street, and Parent Co-Ops. Each has a specific ideology and way of teaching children that is unique to that type. Some schools will also combine approaches, depending on what the director believes in. The Montessori method is a child-centered, mixed-age classroom approach. Your child will be in a classroom with children of different ages and will guide what they learn about based off what interests them in the classroom. The Reggio Emilia approach also lets the child direct their learning through experiential learning in a relationship-driven environment. The Waldorf approach starts in preschool and goes through high school. In this approach they use a holistic and integrated style to develop students artistic, intellectual, and practical skills. Imagination and creativity are important in Waldorf schools.


The next three preschool styles are not as well-known as the ones previously mentioned. HighScope is an approach that uses child development theory and research to create its curriculum. The concept of scaffolding, where adults support children at their current developmental level and help build them up is done in a social setting inside the classroom. The parent co-op style of preschool has parents actively involved in the preschool environment. This method expects parent participation and some even hold early childhood education classes for parents. The final approach is the Bank Street method based on the philosophy of John Dewy. In this preschool style the mental, emotional, social and physical growth of the child is paramount. The child is considered an active learner in the environment and learns through experiences.


Once you learn the different methodologies offered in your area it’s important to research them and determine which fits best with your family’s beliefs. Next comes the affiliation of the preschool. There are many preschools that are connected to religious organizations, or even your company. It is important to know the affiliation because it will influence many aspects of the school. The first being what is taught in the school. If you are not a religious person sending your child to a preschool connected to a church might not work with the philosophy of your family. On the other side, if you are religious sending your child to one not affiliated with your religion might lead to your child learning things you are not fully comfortable with. The affiliation also will determine days the school takes off, which is important when setting your schedule. If you have only a certain amount of time you can get off of work and nobody to take of your children while working you do not want to send your child to a school that is closed more than what is comfortable for your job.


The next aspects of academics have to do with the classroom directly. Preschools need to get accredited, and that accreditation directly affects what happens in the classroom. The ratio of teachers to students should not exceed 1 adult for 6-10 preschool age children. This ratio changes based on the age of the children. A standard school will stick with this ratio, and then some schools will aim for a better ratio. The less children each is responsible for, the more attention and guidance your child will receive.


Along with classroom ratios, it is also important to know the lowest degree required to teach at the school. Depending on where you live the state law requires at a minimum preschool teachers take 4 early childhood education classes, some require an associate’s degree, and others require a bachelor’s degree. While the state will have minimum standards for all preschools, some will have their own specific policy on the education level of their staff. This is something you should inquire about. It will give you a better understanding of who is running your child’s classroom. Also, it is good to know if student interns from local colleges work at the school. If a college or university is using the preschool as a place to train their students this can be considered a sign of a quality preschool.


The academics of a preschool are extremely important. The academic focus of the school you pick for you child will determine the start of their education experience. You want to try and pick a school whose philosophy your child will thrive under. If you have a child that has unique interests, find a school that will embrace those interests instead of forcing your child to conform to what matters to that school. If it is important for your child to start learning the basics of your religion while in preschool, it might be important to focus on preschools with religious affiliations first and then academic philosophy second. Determine the most important characteristics for your family and go from there.


Section 3: Classroom

Along with the academics is section 3, the classroom. What the classroom looks like and what activities they have available will be partially determined by the academic philosophy and possible affiliation of the school. If a school is affiliated with a church, you might see more biblical toys and books than at other schools. This can also determine how new the items at the school are. Ones connected to religious organizations and schools probably will not have a budget to constantly go and buy new toys. Instead you will find teachers being creative with what is available. Also, the affiliation will determine what types of activities the school will have for the children. This includes what holidays they will celebrate and how.


Each school and classroom will have its own set of activities for the children. In some instances, the schools will require participation from the parents on a semi regular basis. While it sounds like a great idea to have to be actively involved in your child’s classroom, for some parents that is just not possible. That is okay. You don’t have to be actively involved in your child’s school to be an engaged parent. If that does not work for you schedule don’t beat yourself up over it and choose a school that will make you feel guilty for not participating.


The preschool classroom itself is something you will want to observe as well. What does it look it? Does the environment strike you as warm and inviting or cold and off-putting? Does it look like a place where your child will enjoy spending their time? What activity centers are setup for the children? Does the classroom have areas designated for things like circle time, reading, and dramatic (pretend) play? A classroom that is laid out with clearly designated areas for the children to play, that has items representing the children up whether its family pictures, artwork or both will feel inviting to you and your children. The games a classroom has should be age appropriate as well as skill building. For instance, a classroom that has blocks, Legos, and threading activities will help a child struggling with their motor abilities.


Lastly, while thinking about the preschool classroom you want to look at the books. If the teacher has a designated reading area for the children, what books are available? Does the teacher have a wide variety of books in her classroom, or just the basics? Do you see Dr. Seuss or Sandra Boynton books, do they look age appropriate? Does the school have a library outside of what is in the classrooms? What is the selection like in the school library? Does the school overall have a wide variety of books for the children that attend the school? Are the children allowed to borrow books from the school library or the classroom?


The preschool classroom is where your child will be spending the majority of their day. You as a parent want to be sure you feel comfortable with the environment they will be in. You also want to be sure that your child feels safe and happy in the classroom. The creation of a warm and loving classroom take a lot of work on the part of the teacher. It is in all the little details coming together that a parent or visitor can feel the love for the children and the excitement the children have entering the classroom. It also comes from the energy the teacher has. Even if the classroom looks like the most fun place for children, if the teacher does not give off a welcoming, loving energy the children can feel that.


Section 4: Multiculturalism

The next section of the checklist is the last thing parents want to look for while determining the right preschool for their family. Multiculturalism is the presence of, or support for the presence of multiple cultural or ethnic groups. Depending on the setting, multiculturalism can come in many different forms. In the preschool setting you can look at four major aspects, visuals, holidays, books, and logistically. Each aspect has its own forms of multiculturalism and schools can be completely proficient in some and lacking in others.


The visuals of a preschool can say a lot. The visuals of a school include not just the posters and paint, but also the staff. If there is diversity amongst the staff parents of all ethnicities will feel more comfortable for many reasons. Knowing a person at the school speaks the same language as you or has been through similar life experiences can ease the mind of parents, especially if this is their first experience with sending their child to school. Also, if the school has posters in its entry way representing different races parents can assume there is racial diversity in its staff and students or that the school has a more accepting outlook. There are some schools who now have the transgender or pride flags and stickers in their window. These are signs of a welcoming and inclusive environment. These schools are making it a point to let their inclusivity be known to families coming to their school. If a family is part of the LGBT community, looking for signs like this is important to make one feel invited and welcomed wholly.


Along with visuals, the way schools celebrate holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day will play a big part in how LGBT families feel in the school. Is there a specially way they handle the holiday for children with two moms or two days, and what about the children who might have lost one of their parents or never met them? What does the school do for children in these situations? For parents in these circumstances it is important to find out so that their child does not feel excluded during these celebrations.


In addition to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, some families have celebrations unique to their culture or religion. Some schools will celebrate these occasions, while others will not acknowledge them. If it is important to your family for the school to include your families holidays, you will want to make sure to learn how the school celebrates events and if that method is going to work for your family.

Schools also want to take special consideration with the books they have. I mentioned the books in the classroom earlier in the article, but it is important to bring them up again when discussing multiculturalism. There are some schools and teachers who do not allow books of certain topics or multiple languages inside their classroom. As a parent, you will want to know what your school’s policy is when it comes to book on sensitive topics. There are many books about mixed-race families, same gendered parent families, and families with only one parent that help children feel like they aren’t different. In some instances, teachers and schools do not want these books in their classrooms because it can make some families feel uncomfortable. While it is understandable that some schools do not want to create problems, but by banning these books they are creating an environment that marginalizes some of their families and turn others away completely. Knowing where the school you choose stands on these issues is important for parents before they come face to face with a situation like this.


The last aspect of multiculturalism for parents to think about has to do with the paperwork at the school. The in-take forms of a school can immediately let a family know where a school stands on certain issues. Paperwork that uses the term “guardian” instead of “mother” or “father” is the first step towards inclusion of alternative family forms. Is the paperwork designed to be inclusive to multiple family forms? How are the questions on the form asked? Is there a section of paperwork designed to get to know your child better? In that section, do they ask about the gender of your child or if you and your family prefer to avoid gender pronouns? While there is no specific formatting for preschool paperwork to use, they should be moving in the direction of inclusivity. The paperwork should not make you feel other or not included. If you get any negative feelings from the paperwork that is a feeling you should explore with your family and the school itself.


Multiculturalism is important in our world. Society is moving in a direction where everyone is welcomed. White is no longer the dominant race and Christianity is no longer the dominant religion. Our systems need to grow with these changes. With an increasingly diverse population in the United States our education system needs to reflect these changes. The best ways to reflect our diverse population is to create an environment where everyone feels welcomed and like they belong. This can happen in a multitude of ways, it is up to the schools themselves to determine what and how works best for them, but making sure their environment reflects our society is the biggest step in that direction.


Section 5: Parents Work

The last section of the checklist is what to do as a parent. This checklist has given you as a parent a lot to think about, and now it’s time to put thoughts into action, but how? Step number one is asking yourself what you want for your child. What is it you hope your child will get out of the school experience? From there, you can start making your way through the checklist depending on what you highlight as an important need for you and your family.


As a parent entering the preschool world you may feel like you are lost and have little to no help, but you have more resources at your disposal than you realize. Your first resource is friends and colleagues. Ask the people you know what their experience was like and what they think of the schools they have chosen for their children. Hearing what other people have been through is a good way to learn and prepare for yourself. Also, your friends preschool might be perfect for you and your family.


It is important to give yourself plenty of time to find the right school for your family. This is not a decision you want to rush because it can mean so much for you family, and some schools can have a waiting list to enroll children. The sooner you pick the right school, the quicker you get on the waiting list and get your child into the school. I would suggest thinking about preschools at least a year before you want to enroll your child. This will give you a decent amount of time to research and interview different schools.


Once you have created a list of schools you think would work for your family, learning more about the school environment becomes important. Schools typically want to interview families and see if they are the right fit for them. I think parents need to start doing the same thing. Sit down and come up with a list of questions for the school. You want to ask them about the topics most important to you and your family. Learning how the school handles holidays, diversity, weather related challenges is important. The security checks the school has in place to make sure the proper person is picking up your child is something you might want to know about.


If you are an LGBT parent, or from an immigrant family are you welcomed into the environment? How does it feel as a minority in the school? Does it feel like a place you would want to spend your time? Are members of the school community treating you differently or like you do not belong? How the school feels for you as a parent is important, because even if your child does not feel that way they can pick up on your uncomfortableness with the environment. There are schools that may seem very warm and welcoming, but little things like being stared at for too long or having your ID double-checked even though they saw you yesterday can show the true belief system of the school. These types of incidents may seem small, but they are microaggressions that build up over time and create a resentment for the environment. You do not want to subject yourself or your child to that.


The last thing to think about as a parent is the social-emotional growth of your child. While most think preschool is about getting children school-ready in the academic sense, it is really about getting them ready for the environment as a whole. Children learn how to share, have conversations, and in general be good citizens in school. How to be a friend is learned in preschool for many children. The social-emotional focus of preschools is extremely important for these and many other reasons. The preschool classroom is one of the first places a child learns about self-esteem and how to feel proud of their work. If a school does not take the time to focus on these things it is important for parents to know this, especially if it is an important focus for them in the home.


Overall, finding a preschool that fits your family is hard. There will never be the perfect preschool, and even if you do think you found the perfect one there will be things you do not like. That is how it should be. School is a learning and growing experience for the children and for the parents. Allow yourself mistakes in the process. Trust your instincts when it comes to picking the right school. If something does not feel right to you even though it looks perfect on paper, trust that thought. There is a reason your gut is telling you to walk away. Do not try and force a school on your life and your family if it is not right for you. Remember, preschool is not supposed to make your life harder, it is supposed to help and benefit everyone involved. If one school does not fit, don’t force the issue, just find one that does. The right school is out there, it just might not be in the place you would think to look first.

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