Mamatoga Preschool Series: Questions to Ask When Looking at Schools

The time sneaks up on all of us Mamatogians. One day your little one is still in their crib, tiny as a little bean, and the next you are thinking about preschool. Preschool?! Already?! Yes, it happens that fast, and you want to make the best choice for your little one. Luckily here in Saratoga we have a ton of different options for you to choose from and over the next few weeks we are going to feature a number of different area schools in an effort to make that decision easier to make for you and your family. Our first post in our Preschool Series is going to deal with the questions you should be asking when looking at different schools and the different things to consider. In addition to more practical questions like cost, the hours classes are offered, and location, there are many things to take into mind when looking at schools. One of the first things to consider and ask about when looking at potential schools is the average class size. The National Association for the Education of Young Children issues these guidelines for teacher/student ratios: 1:6 for 2-year-olds (with a maximum class size of 12 children), 1:10 for 3- to 5-year-olds (with a maximum of 20). Research shows that smaller classes can make a difference, especially if they are combined with other key elements of a quality preschool program, such as well-qualified teachers who are sensitive to students' needs and learning styles. "Studies do show that when groups are smaller, and teaacher to student ratios are lower, teachers provide more stimulating, responsive, warm and supportive interactions in the classroom," says Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Another question to ask is what is a typical day like for students at the school? Find out how your child's day will be structured. Although introducing some structure is an important part of preschool, a good  program will include enough time each day for "exploration, free play, and peer interaction" says Jack Shonkoff, M.D., the head of the National Academy of Sciences committee on integrating the science of early-childhood development. Keep in mind that each individual school sets their own tone and has their own method. So do your research and see which program might be the best fit for your little one. Maybe your child would thrive with more structure, or maybe you have a more free spirited little one that would feel more comfortable in a less structured, more creative environment.

Building on the structure question, another good question to ask is how does the school approach learning? Some philosophies are more play-based and some introduce reading and math earlier than others. There are  multiple philosophies with early education. Some preschools might follow specific educational models like the Montessori Method or the Waldorf approach. Some schools might use Dr. Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences or Dr. Mel Levine's All Kinds of Minds strategies in the classroom. Doing a little research into the different teaching methods and philosophies might help you make the best decision for your child.

A crucial question to ask when looking at schools is how is discipline handled in the classroom? According to Diane Trister Dodge, coauthor of Preschool for Parents, "Children need to learn how to work out their problems, not be isolated from them". The best teachers know how to deflect problems before they become conflicts. You also want to make sure that their style of handling conflicts between students and discipline is similar to your own philosophy. It's important that you agree with a school's disciplinary approach and trust their judgement since small children have a hard time with mixed messages, they might get confused if they are getting time outs at school but a different response at home. Part of being a preschooler is about testing boundaries, and you want to make sure that the teachers handle this in a way you feel comfortable with and support.

Perhaps most importantly, trust your own instincts. You know what works for your child better than anyone else. From everything from when their naptime is (or was) to when they are hungriest, or how much structure or lack of structure they need you are the best expert on your own child. Plus, "There are no quantifiable answers," Dr. Shonkoff says. "We're guided by the science, but this is still an art. Watch your child: Is he relaxed and happy? Never underestimate the importance of your own instincts." Also, what worked best for your best friend's child might not work best for yours. Many moms depend on the advice from their mom friends, and rightly so, but when choosing a preschool you definitely have to keep your child's individual personality in mind. Your friend might rave about one school and how much she loved it, but it might not be a good fit for your little one.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are many schools in the area that start children out in two year old programs. Our next post will discuss how to tell if your child is ready for preschool and when to start them in a program. We will also be keeping you informed on when these programs start enrolling students. One of the big surprises for me was that some of these programs even start enrollment in the fall nearly a full year before your child will start, so it is important to start looking at which school might be right for you in advance. Although it may seem like a daunting process, here at Mamatoga we want to make it an easy and comfortable process for you and your little one. We'll supply you with all the information you need to make the best choice and to get your child started on their path in learning, and if there is anything you would like us to cover specifically please let us know! Feedback from you readers helps us make this the best site for parents in the area, so get in touch and stay tuned!