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What’s the Right Pre-School?

By Brenda Nixon
Guest Columnist Thirty years ago, pre-school was a nice little extra for children. Kindergarten was considered the first school experience. Neither my siblings, our friends, nor I attended pre-schools. The closest we came to formal learning before age five was Sunday church and Vacation Bible School.

The tide is swiftly changing for several reasons. Today, working parents need the childcare a pre-school offers. Some parents feel a sense of obligation thinking this is what defines good parenting today. A few fear their child will be left behind peers socially. Many parents presume three-to-five year olds require academic stimulation. Don’t feel obligated to send your child to pre-school just to give him an academic edge. The permanent head start parents can provide, advises pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, is to not push youngsters to perform.

Should you choose to send your child, avoid a pre-school that makes academics its main focus. In her book Mothering, pediatrician and child psychiatrist Dr. Grace Ketterman cautions, “Do not practice, and do not allow, any major emphasis on academics until kindergarten.” She cites new research is showing that kids are getting “burned out” before kindergarten.

Nonetheless, enrollment in early childhood programs, both public and private, has grown from 4 million in 1970 to presently over 6 million. Whether you use pre-school by necessity or by choice, the suggestions here will help you determine the right one.

First, don’t be lulled into a false belief that a program must be good if it has a waiting list. With the demand for childcare, many pre-schools have a waiting list.

Always select a program that reinforces your family ideals and values. Do you want a religious pre-school, corporate-run or neighborhood program? Do you seek traditional or Montessori curriculum?

Consider your child’s temperament. Do you have one who is a self-starter or one who needs a push and constant supervision? Do you have a child who thrives on structure or one who is spontaneous? How does your child adapt to change? Does your child successfully separate from you? Answer these questions then seek a school that matches your child’s disposition.

To ensure that a minimum level of health and safety standards is met, seek a licensed pre-school. Licensing does not influence curriculum, so a licensed church pre-school still maintains freedom to teach religion. An added bonus, find a pre-school that is licensed and accredited. Accreditation (not required by state law) offered to early childhood programs through professional organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has high standards.

Ask to read the prospective pre-school’s written philosophy, curriculum and goals. The NAEYC, for instance, encourages schools to have these statements written and available to parents.

Check out class size. The NAEYC recommends a 1:10 ratio (one teacher to 10 three-or-four year olds) and 20 as a maximum group size. Avoid programs with over-crowded rooms.

Ask about the teachers’ professional qualifications and continuing education. At least one teacher should hold an early childhood degree. But that’s not a reason to send or withhold your child. Academic letters behind a teacher’s name does not guarantee he/she is childcare savvy. Nearly every occupation requires annual continuing education, so ask how often the director and teachers attend in-service education.

Visit a pre-school at least twice during the hours your child would attend. Take note of the teachers’ attitudes and interactions with the children. Are teachers friendly, firm yet gentle, consistent in discipline? Are they giving attention to a crying child? Or respecting the child who wants privacy? Do they kneel down to each child’s level? Do teachers allow for individuality or do they work at making a group of cookie-cutter kids?

Teaching an energetic group of threes and fours is enormously exhausting. I know from experience. Pre-school (and all) teachers need support, respect, and parent participation. Good pre-school teachers appear to enjoy the job, are attuned to the children, and have quick responses. Ask yourself, are these the people you’d want to be left with all day?

Look for a rich learning environment - plenty of age appropriate books easily accessible to the children. Beware of pre-schools that insist children sit down and read in a formal way. Its possible three-year-olds can learn to read but children of this age benefit more from being read to. They need opportunities to make up stories, engage in dramatic play, and talk about ideas. Do you see a play kitchen and dress-up areas where children can use their imaginations and role-play?

Scan the room where your child will be playing and spending most of his/her time. Is it bright and cheery? Think about the environment where you’d want to spend your day. Do you see children’s artwork hung at their eye level, or is it displayed only to impress visiting adults? Does the artwork reflect creativity and uniqueness? Delete any prospective pre-school that displays cloned artwork.

A sand and water table, paints, musical instruments, clay, and other manipulatives acquaint children with the arts and improve eye-hand coordination. Do you see some of these available? Is the play area attractive and inviting to a youngster? Do you think it encourages exploration? Remember a child’s work is play; they learn hundreds of valuable lessons even when it appears they are just being amused.

Since children learn by moving around, ask how often the children play outdoors, have opportunity to run, and play without adult rules. This gives children a chance to use their large muscles and to learn social behaviors. Recess and free exploration are also ways to decrease a child’s adrenalin level. Adrenalin is a stress hormone that needs release.

Finally, consider the director’s attitude and relationship with both teachers and children. The director’s attitude spreads through a pre-school like wildfire. Is this person warm yet professional, sensitive and caring, willing to chip in and help out? Do teachers stay at the pre-school or is there constant turnover?

A stern-looking director dressed as if she (or he) works in an executive suite, rather than with energetic pre-schoolers, is hardly embracing this profession. My favorite, and one of the best, pre-school director is an older woman who wears casual clothing and daily sits on the floor with her kids. They are drawn to her. She loves them, teachers know it, parents know it and most importantly the kids know it.

©2002, Brenda Nixon.

As a speaker/writer, Brenda Nixon is dedicated to building strong families through parent empowerment. This article is adapted from her book Parenting Power in the Early Years available at and bookstores nationwide.

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