8 Questions to Ask When Looking at Preschools

Written by Anne Zachry, Parents Magazine

Selecting a preschool that is a good fit for your child can be exciting as well as overwhelming. As a parent, you want to be confident that you decide on the right program, but how do you make the best choice? Here are some specific questions that parents should ask at any type of preschool.

Selecting a preschool that is a good fit for your child can be exciting as well as overwhelming. As a parent, you want to be confident that you decide on the right program for your little one, but how do you make the best choice? Always inquire about practical matters first. "When visiting preschools, evaluate practical issues specific to your family's needs. These include the school's hours, proximity to your home or work, available transportation, after-hours options, cost, class size, and staff/child ratio," says Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., parenting expert and author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. "Be sure to ask about the application and admission procedures and the timeline for these. Start considering programs early and get information to make sure you don't miss any deadlines."

How early to start looking for a preschool depends on where you live. "Unless you live in an area with highly competitive programs, like New York City or Los Angeles, you likely have ample time to make a choice after thoroughly researching the options and exploring programs that align with your parenting approach and your expectations for a preschool," Dr. Levey Friedman says. If you don't live in such an area, start investigating your options 9 to 12 months before you expect to enroll your child. When exploring your preschool options, keep these important questions and considerations in mind.

What is the educational philosophy of the preschool?

Linda Whitehead, Ph.D., vice president of education and development for Bright Horizons, encourages parents to take an interest in the curriculum a preschool offers. "It's important to look for a discovery-based program, and not one that is primarily focused on drill and practice skills. While structure is essential, parents should look for a preschool that offers opportunities for children to make choices about their learning," Dr. Whitehead says.

In choosing preschool program that is best for their child, parents should consider the level of openness between the school and the family. "It's important that the family is welcomed into the program, encouraged to stop in at any time, and ensured that the center is giving the family feedback on the child's development and daily routine. It's important that open communication is maintained through parent conferences and feedback regarding your child's daily routines and development," Dr. Whitehead says.

What is the educational background and experience of the teachers and staff?

Of course, you want to be sure that your child's preschool teacher is experienced and qualified. "The teacher should have at least a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential and possibly more. Ask about her training and experience working with young children and with a developmentally appropriate curriculum. A good preschool teacher understands how children grow and develop," Dr. Whitehead says. The classroom teacher and staff should also be certified in CPR and first aid.

Marnie Trapp, director of Lady Bird Academy in Orlando, Florida, believes that it's important to get a feel for the staff and school. "I believe that each center has its own personality. It's not necessarily about the curriculum; it's all about the staff members and how committed, caring, and dedicated they are to the program," Trapp says.

Are there active play opportunities to develop gross and fine motor skills?

Preschools should offer plenty of opportunities for active play. Physical activity is critical for the development of a child's gross motor skills and promotes health and well-being.Table time is also a must. "It's important that children have daily exposure to fine motor activities, such as stringing beads, snipping paper strips, and pre-writing activities such as scribbling in shaving cream. Regular exposure to these tasks develops the hand skills children will need in kindergarten," says Barbara Smith, an occupational therapist and the author of From Rattles to Writing: A Parent's Guide to Hand Skills.

Do the children nap regularly?

Growing tots need to rest at some point during a busy preschool day, so don't forget to ask the teacher when naptime takes place. Ideally, naps should be scheduled at the same time every day and should not last more than two hours (more than that may interfere with your little one getting a good night's sleep). You'll need to know if the school supplies a nap mat, sheet, or pillow. If you're required to provide these items, ask if they will be washed at school or sent home each week. Use a permanent marker to write your child's name on all supplies that you send to school.

Are meals and snacks provided?

If the school provides meals and snacks, inquire about the food options. Are nutritious, well-balanced meals served? Are the snacks healthy? Is there an expected pre-meal routine, such as going to the restroom and washing hands? Will your child be required to use appropriate table manners, and will she have to eat everything on her plate? Can the children interact while eating? Little ones should have the chance to socialize during meals and snacks.

Is potty training required?

If your child isn't toileting independently, you'll need to ask if potty training is a requirement. Certain schools require a child to be fully potty trained; others are willing to assist with the process of training. If the school does expect your child to be fully toilet trained, ask how they deal with the occasional accident. You'll likely need to send a change of clothing to school with your little one, just in case.

How is discipline handled?

First and foremost, the classroom rules should be clear so that your child knows what to expect. Ask the teacher how she encourages positive behavior on a daily basis. For example, is there a reward chart or treasure chest in the classroom?

"I prefer to use the term 'behavioral guidance,' rather than discipline," Dr. Whitehead says. "I would encourage parents to observe and see if they feel comfortable about how guidance is handled. Parents should look for a positive discipline philosophy that helps children understand what they can do as opposed to what they can't do."

It's also important to know what discipline approach the teacher takes when conflicts occur or problem behaviors arise. Ideally, positive redirection will be the first course of action, with strategies such as a cool-down time to follow when redirection isn't successful. "The overall tone between children and teachers should be one of respect," Dr. Whitehead says. "Children's emotions should be acknowledged, and teachers should show empathy as children experience the ups and downs of a typical day."

Will the school provide references?

Before visiting the preschool, parents should contact its licensing agency to inquire about any possible complaints or violations. When visiting the school, ask the teacher or director if they provide references. Don't hesitate to ask, as most preschools are happy to share parent references upon request. When you call the reference, have a list of questions ready so you won't forget anything. Consider asking what the parent likes the least and the most about the program, how communication is handled, and how their child likes the preschool. There is much to learn from speaking to other parents at the school and getting the inside scoop.