10 QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT PRESCHOOL
10 things to know about your child’s preschool
This month, thousands of children will enter kindergarten in our area. There will likely be trepidations and tears, but many children will simply wave goodbye to their parents as they saunter in with all the confidence and poise a 5-year-old can muster. That’s because for many, if not most, this is more back to school than off to school.
Nationwide, 42 percent of children have had some kind of school experience prior to kindergarten, and in Bergen County it is rare for a child not to have that head start. For some youngsters this may have been a one year pre-K program. Others may have up to three years of preschool under their belts. Either way, young students are entering kindergarten more academically and socially experienced than their parents were at that age.
How important is it that children have preschool experience? “Very,” says Lorraine Castellano, the owner and director of LEAP Preschool in Ramsey. “Having a positive preschool experience sets the stage for higher learning later on,” she says, “as well as furthering social and emotional development.”
Indeed much data bears witness to this and many public school and state- funded programs are extending preschool access to more and more children.
Still, much of the preschool landscape is populated by private programs. The majority are nonsecular independent schools. But you will also find church/temple-affiliated schools, culturally affiliated schools and cooperatives where parents are required to volunteer at the school a certain number of hours per month. With tuition sometimes approaching that of a state college, preschool can be a significant financial investment. So it pays to do your homework when selecting one for your child.
Here are 10 things to consider:
How old must my child be to attend?
That depends on the school. Preschools are licensed to take children as young as 21⁄ 2. Any younger and they need to adhere to a different set of guidelines. Even so, some schools may only take children older than 3, or just have programs for 4 and 5 year olds, so you will need to check with the school. And while you are at it, ask about the diaper policy. Some schools won’t accept children who are not yet toilet trained, so be clear about the school’s policy.
What’s the curriculum and philosophy of the school?
Most preschools are exposing children to academics in some form; it’s more a matter of when and how.
LEAP in Ramsey follows an eclectic play-based approach where concepts and information are introduced within the context of playing. This is appreciated by Ramsey’s Shannon McLaughlin. “My oldest child went to preschool in the city, and that was the typical New York experience,” she says. “This time around I wanted something simpler. Not so much a school setting. No worksheets, no dittos.”
The school should be able to articulate and share your child’s learning goals and curriculum with you. Cliffside Park parent Nina Flogaites sends her 4-year-old daughter to Palisades Pre-school and Kindergarten in Fort Lee. “This school has the perfect balance for my family,” Flogaites says. “There is a gradual introduction to academics and literacy, but they also emphasize science which is very important to us.”
What is the daily routine?
The structure and flow of the day is a clue to the philosophy of the school. “Structure is important,” points out Castellano. “Kids need to know what comes next. Within that there should be a balance between large and small group activities.”
You should be comfortable with how your child will be spending his day, but forget about using your own experience to benchmark what goes on in today’s preschool. “Kids are more sophisticated these days,” Castellano says. “I’m doing things in the 3-year-old classes that I used to do with kindergartners!”
Look for breadth of activities.
Childhood is a time of experimentation and offerings that provide the opportunity to try a myriad of activities. Some schools provide specials such as music, art or language as part of the curriculum, or things like cooking, Tai Kwon Do and the like as after-school activities.
Susie Lee Jin of Fort Lee is particularly impressed by the range of activities that her son’s preschool provides. “The field trips the kids have and the visitors that are invited to do special programs with the kids are wonderful,” she says.
How are the school and staff credentialed?
To call themselves a preschool, institutions in the state of New Jersey must be licensed. The requirements for licensure are many and relate to physical environment as well as staff credentials.
Note that under New Jersey state requirements, not all preschool teachers need to have a college degree in early childhood education. In fact they don’t necessarily have to have a college degree at all as long as they are working within the staff ratio guidelines of the state and under the supervision of an appropriately licensed teacher. Beyond that, it is left to the individual preschool how they will staff their classrooms.
For Flogaites, this was an important factor. “I knew the teachers at the school had teaching degrees and that they were required to go to professional development workshops,” she says. “When I observed them I immediately got the impression that they were professional, knowledgeable in their field and experienced.”
What is the atmosphere like?
No matter your preference for curriculum or academic emphasis, we’re still talking preschool and most parents are looking for a warm and caring environment.
Castellano says staff interaction gives you a good indication of this. “Notice how teachers are responding and reacting to the children,” she says. “Are they bending down to greet and talk to the kids? Are they making eye contact?”
McLaughlin says, “Rely on your instinct. Notice how comfortable you feel when you go to the school.”
Is the physical environment appropriate?
First and foremost, check for security. It should be a given, but Lee Jin points out that when she was visiting preschools one school had no security and she was able to “walk right in” without challenge. Conversely, children should not be able to wander about or gain access to the outdoors without adult accompaniment.
On a related note, be wary of schools that limit parent access. Palisades Pre-School & Kindergarten Head Teacher Anne Marie Bishopp says her school has an open door policy when it comes to parents. “They are welcome anytime,” she says, “and we even have one-way glass in our classrooms, so parents can observe their kids.”
Next, check out the classrooms. Look to see that things are accessible to kids and at their eye level. Outdoor play is also an important preschool component, so be sure to look at that space. How is the space accessed? Does it have age-appropriate equipment? It should be safe and secure. Flogaites took special pains to evaluate play areas when she was looking at schools. “I didn’t want the play area to be near a highway, because of fumes, or a busy road for safety,” she says.
What feedback will the school provide?
Report cards at age 3 does sound a little harsh, but let’s face it, parents want to know what is going on and how their child is doing. So ask schools you are considering how and what they will communicate to you.
Castellano says her school tracks a child’s skills and individual progress. They send home progress notes and reports and hold individual conferences for parents. Flogaites loves the weekly emails and monthly calendar from her child’s teacher that keeps her up to date on what is going on in the classroom, so she can support that learning at home.
What options exist for children with special needs?
Many school districts provide preschool programs for students with special needs, so check in with your district as a first step. Additionally, some independent schools are inclusion oriented and have staff accredited in special education. It’s best to be upfront about your child’s needs, advises Bishopp, so that you and the school can assess if the school is a good fit for your child.
What do parents say about the preschool their child attends?
You can and should do your own research when considering a school. Make sure to visit the schools on your short list and plan to spend some time observing and not just touring. But the real acid test is how parents talk about their child’s preschool.
Flogaites says her child’s school treats parents and kids “like rock stars!” Lee Jin loves the diversity of her child’s school. And McLaughlin says there is no better indicator than that her child is happy and eager to go to school each day.
GETTING READY FOR THE BIG TIME A positive preschool experience provides solid academic preparation for kindergarten.
EXPERIENCE COUNTS Choose a preschool where teachers are required to have teaching degrees.