What’s the Right Pre-School?
By Brenda Nixon
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
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 christianbook.com and bookstores
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