This is the ultimate guide for parents who are considering or choosing a preschool for their child.
You will find a checklist on what to look for and how to choose.
Everything you need to know about preschool selection starts here.
Table of Contents
Preschool, also known as nursery school or pre-k, is a facility that provides early childhood education to young children until they are old enough to start kindergarten.
Preschool learning is not mandatory and most preschools are private organizations. Parents who want to send their children to preschool need to look for suitable facilities and pay for the expenses themselves.
Some states offer public early childhood programs such as Pre-K or Transitional Kindergarten, but availability varies by state.
Preschools are not accredited schools. In most states, preschools are considered child care centers. They are required to obtain a Child Care license and meet state safety requirements.
For some types of preschool, such as Montessori, there are organizations that provide accreditation to preschools that meet their standards. But getting accredited is not a requirement to operate.
Many children start preschool at age three. Others start at age two or four, depending on family budget, school availability, or child care needs.
Each preschool has their own age requirements. Most require the child to be at least two or three years old to enroll.
Some also specify that the child needs to be potty-trained before they can attend.
Some schools have long waiting lists. You may need to apply even before your child is at the specified age range to secure a place. Make sure you check with each preschool for their application deadline.
Preschool cost varies by type and location.
Private preschools tend to be expensive. Here in Peninsula, California, private preschools can cost up to $1200 – $2500 per month.
Co-op preschools are run by parent volunteers. They are usually less expensive but parents need to contribute their time in exchange for the lower rate.
Transitional kindergarten / Pre-K, mentioned above, is offered publicly free to children, but the requirements are different by state. For instance, in New York, all four-year-olds can apply for Pre-K. But in California, only children whose birthdays fall in a specific range are eligible.
Head Start is a federally funded program that provides free comprehensive early learning and family support to preschool-aged children from low income families. However, their funding levels aren’t always sufficient to provide access to all eligible children. Apply as early as possible if you are eligible.
Studies show that early childhood education in general increases a child’s cognitive development, reduce grade retention and improve behavior during elementary years1.
Some studies even find that when these students grow up, they tend to involve less in delinquency and are more likely to have a skilled job2.
Research also finds that kindergarten readiness is a reliable predictor of future school performance3.
Parents should choose a preschool based on the quality of the teachers, the policy enforced by the preschool Director, resources and the overall environment, not so much on its written education philosophy.
Oftentimes, when you talk to preschool directors, you will find that they like to emphasize their education method.
Parents are, therefore, led to believe that they should pick a preschool based on the marketed philosophy.
However, preschools do not need any accreditation to use the names of those education methods. Subscribing to a philosophy does not guarantee it will deliver the same type or the same quality across the board.
Your child’s experience will mostly be shaped by the teachers, the environment and the policies of the preschool.
It is more important to understand how the teachers are interpreting and incorporating that philosophy into their teaching than whether they have a certain buzzword in their marketing brochure.
To choose a good preschool, after narrowing down several that fit your budget, schedule and commute, schedule a tour. During your visit, talk to the teachers and staff. Observe closely to see if they meet the criteria in the next section.
The National Institute Of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has studied the issue of early child care for decades.
It has consistently found that the quality of child care center (including preschool) is highly correlated to the outcomes of the child later4. It is prudent to find a high quality preschool for your child.
The NICHD has found that fewer than 10% of the facilities it surveyed fall in the “very high quality” category. That means most preschools are mediocre and some are even low in quality.
Parents have the important job of spotting the right one among many options. Fortunately, preschool quality is very easy to assess if you know what to look for.
Here are the criteria of a high quality preschool according to research.
1. Teachers have formal post-high school training
Studies find that higher teacher education predicts higher quality care. Look for teachers who have formal post-high school training, such as a 4-year college degree in child development, early childhood education, or a related field that addresses developmental needs of preschool children4.
2. Teachers are positive and caring
Early child learning is built on trusting relationships. Studies confirm that when teachers are positive and caring, children learn better and their development is more advanced5.
Positive teachers are happy and in good spirit. They are upbeat, helpful and smile often at the kids. They may pat a child on the back or hold their hands.
The teachers also repeat the child’s words, comment on what they say or try to say. They answer children’s questions and they don’t dismiss or ignore their concerns. Positive teachers are nurturing. They don’t engage in negative interaction such as scolding or yelling at the child.
3. Teaching is interactive and engaging
Look at how teachers interact with the child during class.
Teachers should interact positively and frequently with the children. They ask thought-provoking questions and help kids to think deeper. They encourage children to talk. They also praise the child’s positive actions and inspire them to learn.
Teachers should be engaging rather than merely lecturing. They may sing songs, tell stories, read books or describe events. They use games and crafts to teach, and allow children to be active contributors to the classroom.
Besides academic topics such as alphabets, counting and shapes, teachers should also cover daily life knowledge3.
4. Use positive discipline and patiently guide the child’s behavior
Ask the school for a clear explanation of discipline policy.
All preschoolers are developing self-regulation and social skills. They need help to learn social rules and the words to express frustration. Good teachers should practice positive discipline. They should enforce discipline by patiently explaining and teaching, not by punishing.
Under no circumstances should children be physically punished or given punitive time-out.
5. A lot of free playing time and social learning with teacher’s help
Free playing has been proven to be one of the best ways for preschoolers to learn6.
Playing and physical activities stimulate brain growth and enhances early development7. Free play promotes prosocial behavior and allows children to develop social competence8,9.
Look for a play to learn preschool that not only incorporates plenty of free playing time in their schedule, but also has teachers who proactively guide conflict resolution and facilitate social learning (rather than just letting preschoolers “figure it out” on their own, because they can’t).
The child’s behavior may become worse if the preschool quality is low
Although attending preschool is associated with better cognitive development and social competence, studies show that the child’s behavior may worsen if the preschool is lower in quality.
This is another reason why parents should make an effort to look for a good preschool.
Pay an unannounced visit
Sometimes, what we see during a school tour may not be the real deal. When there are visitors, we all tend to be on our best behavior. That includes teachers.
Drop in during class time unannounced and see if you like the way the preschool runs when there’s no other visitors. A quality preschool should have teachers who act the same way whether there are visitors or not.
Ask about teacher support and turnover
Teaching young children is a tough job and teachers should be paid fairly. It is hard to be a happy teacher when you are underpaid.
Ask the director about how the preschool supports its staff in terms of livable compensation, benefits and professional development. Also check their teacher turnover rate as a high turnover is a sign of systemic problems.
Talk to other parents but keep an open mind
Talk to current and past parents if you can. But know that not everyone has the same definition of quality. You may have to ask more specific questions to get an accurate picture.
Verify the license is up-to-date
In the US, every child care facility needs to meet a set of safety standards to be licensed. Occasionally, some preschools let their licenses lapse.
Before finalizing your decision, check if the preschool has an up-to-date license. A preschool that doesn’t renew its license should raise a red flag (or worse, some are unlicensed).
Choosing a preschool can be overwhelming. Use this checklist to help you navigate the selection process.
- 1.Barnett WS. Long-Term Effects of Early Childhood Programs on Cognitive and School Outcomes. The Future of Children. 1995:25. doi:10.2307/1602366
- 2.Barnett WS. Preschool education and its lasting effects: Research and policy implications. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. 2008.
- 3.Grissmer D, Grimm K, Aiyer S, Murrah W, Steele J. Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: two new school readiness indicators. Dev Psychol. 2010;46(5):1008-1017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20822219.
- 4.Early Child Care and Children’s Development Prior to School Entry: Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care. American Educational Research Journal. March 2002:133-164. doi:10.3102/00028312039001133
- 5.Downer J, Sabol TJ, Hamre B. Teacher–Child Interactions in the Classroom: Toward a Theory of Within- and Cross-Domain Links to Children’s Developmental Outcomes. Early Education & Development. October 2010:699-723. doi:10.1080/10409289.2010.497453
- 6.Fisher EP. The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play & Culture. 1992;5(2):159-181. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1992-42498-001.
- 7.Becker DR, McClelland MM, Loprinzi P, Trost SG. Physical Activity, Self-Regulation, and Early Academic Achievement in Preschool Children. Early Education and Development. December 2013:56-70. doi:10.1080/10409289.2013.780505
- 8.Coolahan K, Fantuzzo J, Mendez J, McDermott P. Preschool peer interactions and readiness to learn: Relationships between classroom peer play and learning behaviors and conduct. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2000:458-465. doi:10.1037/0022-06126.96.36.1998
- 9.Guralnick MJ. Why Early Intervention Works. Infants & Young Children. 2011:6-28. doi:10.1097/iyc.0b013e3182002cfe