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How to choose the best preschool for your child: A quality indicator checklist

Child Care SearchParent Resources

2nd October 2019

Finding the right preschool for your child is a daunting task. Parents face a nationwide preschool shortage, especially those who live in a “child care desert.” In addition to merely finding  accessible preschools, there’s the matter of trying to identify high-quality programs.

Some studies have found thatonly 8-10% of preschool centers nationwide are rated high in quality, even though studies show that less likely to fail future grades, more likely to graduate high school and go to college, and less likely to end up in the justice system


What should parents prioritize on their preschool search?  All Wonderschool programs follow a Quality & Safety Promise that goes above and beyond licensing requirements to ensure a high-quality experience for families, but there are a lot of preschool options for families, so we put together a quality indicator checklist of what parents should look for during their search:

1. License check

Only consider options that are licensed by the state regulatory agency for all center-based programs and family child care homes.

2. Academic basics

Ask about hours, educational philosophy and curriculum, teacher credentials, teacher turnover rates, and guidance strategies. But don’t get too hung up on teacher credentials, cautions Daryl-Lynn Johnson, director of Unity Preschool in Evanston, IL. “Credentials don’t necessarily mean a better teacher.” A great teacher may not have a masters in education; many years experience can be even more valuable.  “If a teacher has a masters in early childhood education, that’ll be more meaningful than a masters in elementary education,” says Johnson. Also, when it comes to turnover, she says, “You want a balance.  A place where the teachers have been forever is not necessarily better. That might mean they’re stuck in their ways. Some turnover is actually a good thing.”

3. Visitor policy and parent interaction

View the school calendar and inquire about family activities, volunteer opportunities, and visitor policy. The program should have an open visitor policy for parents. Also make sure that the calendar itself works for your family—is the program year-round, or is it closed during certain weeks or months that you’ll need care?

4. Daily schedule

For babies, program should follow the individual schedule of each child, so that they eat when they’re hungry, sleep when they’re tired, and aren’t trapped in a seat the entire day. For toddlers and preschoolers, a more structured day with a predictable schedule and routine is best.

5. Outdoor time

How often do they take the children outside? Ideally,  all children, even babies, go outside daily – even multiple times per day.

6. Quality check

Ask about any quality assessments or ratings completed by the program, which can easily help indicate a high-quality environment. If you wish, says says Sarah Erdman, Lead Teacher at FB Meekins Cooperative Preschool in Vienna, Va, “You can also check and see what kind of violations they have been cited for. This may be no big deal (“Oops, we messed up some paperwork”) to big deal (“Oops, we let a child get traumatically injured.)”

7. Teacher ratios

What are the teacher/student ratios? Compare to your state regulations. Lower ratios are another indicator of a high-quality program.

8. No yelling

Are teachers engaged with the kids? Do they kneel down to their level versus talk down to them? Do you hear the sound of happy, busy children or do you hear yelling and chaos? Look for context behind any noise and activity. Also, look into what the school’s discipline policy and how they adhere to it, says Johnson. “Are you OK with time outs? If they do time outs, what does it look like? Some schools do time outs too much and the timeouts can feel alienating and on display. I’d look for a school that does redirection.’” It’s a personal choice; just make sure that the school’s discipline policy is something that you feel comfortable with.

9. Parental gut check

More than anything, parents should go with their gut. Check how you feel when you’ve stepped into the building.” Unsure exactly how you’re supposed to feel? Visit one or two additional programs, even if you think it’s unlikely your child will go there, to get a feel for what type of environment you lean towards.

10. The classroom

On your tour, scope out where your child will be learning. “I had one teacher whose classroom was totally jam packed with stuff, and for some kids that was so overstimulating the kids just couldn’t handle it.” says Johnson. Look for a well-organized classroom with kids’ art on display. Also, a preschool with a TV or allows screentime is a big no-no and signals a lack of engagement and activities for children – minus a few exceptions (for example: students learning about insects and the kids are interested in a praying mantis but there isn’t one around to look at. The teacher finds a 30-second video online to show them what one looks like in real life, and how it moves, and how it eats).

11. No big promises

“If they promise you that your child will be speaking Mandarin and Spanish and reading and writing by age 2, smile politely and back away slowly,” says Erdman. There is no fast track or academic advantage for little children. “You want a play-based experience. It can be whatever flavor your prefer (regular, Montessori, Waldorf, etc.) but you want play to be first.”

12. Happy parents

>If parents are satisfied with their program they’ll be glad to sing its praises to you (and the program should be happy to provide references.) Johnson recommends asking other parents what communication from the school is like and inquiring what the school community is like: “Some are drop off and go, some people really like that, for some school the school becomes part of the core community—do you socialize with other parents?” Some parents forge lifelong friendships with other preschool parents, whereas others can’t or aren’t interested in participating in extensive school-related socializing.

13. Location

If you and/or your spouse work far from home, it can be hard to decide between a school closer to home or work. There are pros and cons of each—do you want to be close to your kids if something happens during the day, or do you want them in a program that’s part of your home community? Each family will have different desires and needs around location, but the important thing is to walk through what the routine would be, how difficult it would be to commute with your children, and other logistical questions in order to focus your search appropriately.

Print out and use these tips as you are searching for a great preschool in your area. Don’t forget to check out preschools in the Wonderschool network. We keep classroom ratios low, help teachers with licensing and accreditation, help parents easily monitor teacher’s credentials and quality assessments, and make it simple for parents to visit and get answers to their most important questions. This helps teachers focus on what they know how to do best—creating an excellent quality environment for your kids.

Start your preschool search through Wonderschool here.

Mia Pritts

Mia is the Head of Early Care & Education at Wonderschool. She started her career as a preschool teacher 20 years ago and has since taken on major leadership positions in the field of Early Care and Education. In addition to deep knowledge and expertise in all operational aspects of childcare programming, she has also helped launch several shared business services initiatives specific to the field of ECE.