Finding a preschool for your toddler is no small undertaking, both from a practical and emotional standpoint. And for many parents, it is cause for significant anxiety since it may be the very first time they will commit the care of their little one to someone outside of the family.
Here are some tips to help you navigate this important—and for some, difficult—milestone.
1. Make a list. When I was planning for my daughter’s entry into preschool, I was preoccupied with finding a place where she would be happy and comfortable, important factors to be sure. And thankfully, I found such a place, but many of the other factors I should have considered, I did not. As a result, I didn’t anticipate the time it might take me to get to her preschool in rush hour traffic. What was a twenty-minute drive under the best of circumstances, took an hour or more in the morning. It is a good strategy to sit down with your spouse or partner, or anyone with whom you co-parent your child to make your wish-list for a pre-school, clearly identifying and separating the things it must have from those that you would like it to have but that may be negotiable.
2. Check your local ordinances and regulations governing preschools and daycare centers. Child care centers and preschools are generally regulated by state and local laws and ordinances that may prescribe things like the ratio of caregivers to children, the availability of certain types of foods, environmental safety precautions and the like. It is important to know what those standards are in your state or locality, and to inquire with the relevant authorities about whether the school of your choosing has a record of compliance. Many, if not all of these regulations are in place to protect and preserve the safety of children in their care, a goal you certainly share as a parent.
3. Prepare questions that you want to ask in advance. In general, preschools tend to be bright, cheery and physically appealing places and the people who work there—should you visit—will be trying to impress you. Don’t allow yourself to be unduly swayed by the Dora the Explorer decals, soothing, pale yellow walls, and the smiling face of the preschool director. Come prepared to ask all the questions you need answered in order to feel comfortable that you are leaving your child(ren) in a place where you feel confident they will be safe and happy. Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. Ater all, you are entrusting them with your child. I recall thinking, as I left my six-week old baby at her first day care center, that I had only met her caregivers on one single occasion before that. The amount of faith that required is staggering in retrospect. I suggest that you not go on “faith” alone, but on rigorously researched information, and the responses given to your well thought out questions.
4. Consider several options. It’s always a good idea to look at several options before making a final decision. Take advantage of open houses and visit several preschools that meet your criteria. It may be a good idea to bring along your preschooler to see the one or two finalists after you’ve narrowed the field a bit. Take note of how they interact with their surroundings and how the staff and caregivers interact with them. Allow them to ask questions (if they have any), and pay attention to what they say about the reasons they did or did not like the places. When I toured two close contenders for a preschool for my daughter. One center gained the edge because the staff person giving us the tour made eye contact with my daughter frequently, spoke to her as frequently as she did to me, and at the end of the visit, my daughter was reluctant to leave.
5. Find out what other parents have to say. Early childhood care and education is a competitive business these days. Some national daycare and preschool chains have sophisticated websites with happy and smiling children and parents pictured. Just reading the reviews can make you excited about the enriching experience your child will have if they attend. But testimonials on websites and references provided by the schools are by their nature meant to be overwhelmingly positive. For a reality check, join parent groups or online boards where real parents discuss their experiences. If you go on a tour of a preschool, spontaneously speak to parents whose kids currently attend the school. Or if possible, reach out to them in another venue.
At the end of the day it's important to remember that preschool is an exciting time! I still remember watching my daughter blossom from a baby to a smart, vivacious, chirpy little girl who couldn’t stop talking about her new teachers and friends. The satisfaction I got from watching her cross that threshold banished all my fear and helped me look ahead to the next stage of her development, as eager and excited as she was to see her world grow larger as she formed bonds with other children and caring adults.More about Parenting Preschoolers:
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