Choosing a Preschool: 5 Things That Matter & 5 That (Probably) Don't

Things to consider when choosing a preschool

In Los Angeles there is pressure to find the best of everything, and finding the best preschool for your little heir is no exception. Some parents jump on this task intimidatingly early, doing research and attending open houses even while Junior is still in utero. And there are so many choices: Play-based or academically focused? Montessori, Waldorf, full-time, part-time, cooperative, parochial, or secular? Media-free or media-intensive? A philosophy of "let children be children" or "teach them everything as soon as possible"? Perhaps we want our kids to learn to use their words in more than one language, to preserve their midday nap, or to spend most of their day playing outdoors in nature.

I recently read Preschooled, by my friend Anna Lefler. Anna’s novel is a witty, moving fictionalization of the celebrity-laden nursery school in West Los Angeles where we both sent our children—a place where the devil’s offspring wear Prada. Looking back, I couldn't help wondering how it was that I got sucked into that racket, and I started to consider what really matters and what doesn't. Preschool should be a place where children are supported in their childhood and parents are supported in their parenthood. Though it's easy to convince yourself that everything matters—from classroom paint color to cleaning products—hopefully this list will help you focus on what's really important in finding the right preschool for your child and family. (And don't forget to consult our guide to Los Angeles schools and preschools.)

Things that matter

1. Teachers' personalities
While a thoughtful or charismatic director can set the tone for a great school, students likely won't be spending much of their days with him or her. Try to arrange to meet the teachers in any program you're considering. Are they caring? Do they take children's questions seriously? Are they calm yet enthusiastic? What is the teacher turnover rate, and do teachers seem happy at the school? Is the mood in the classrooms orderly and warm, or chaotic and disjointed? You can learn a lot by observing, if the school tour guide and teachers permit it.

2. The schedule
For parents with flexible schedules, a half-day or partial week program might fit the bill. Parents who work full-time outside of the home probably need a full preschool schedule, often with after-care options to boot. If that coverage is key to your family's schedule, obviously that takes priority. If not, then it's worth considering that schools with shorter hours can mean students getting sick less often, since families with flexible schedules have an easier time keeping sick kids at home. Some schools, particularly cooperatives and "bridge" programs, are also good for parents who want to volunteer in the classroom—particularly when little ones aren't ready for full separation. Note that at half-day preschools, the morning slots are often the coveted ones, since toddler energy can peak in the morning (and nap in the afternoon). For some kids, though, a leisurely morning at home might be the best preparation for an afternoon at school.

3. Toilet training requirements
Most early childhood teachers admit that there is no universal "cutoff" age for toilet training, and for many kids it is a process that takes months or even years—and does not preclude being ready for preschool in other ways. Understandably, however, changing diapers is a task few teachers are eager to take on, so many preschools insist that kids be toilet trained before they enroll. This can be a recipe for disaster: I have known parents who were forced to leave a school or else keep their child home until he or she was “ready.” If you suspect this might be an issue for your family, it is worth prioritizing potty flexibility. The last thing parents want is for their child to feel rejected or inadequate around such a delicate and personal issue. (First Step Nursery School, where my daughter went, has no requirement.)

4. Academic philosophy
Whether you want your child to spend the day splashing in mud puddles or learning coding and Mandarin, the good news is that there's a school for you—and many between those extremes. Be aware that there is a big difference between play-based preschools and academically rigorous ones, and a school's emphasis is probably among the first things you'll notice in reading about or touring any preschool. But as one friend put it, even if you prioritize free play over academics at this age, school is preparing kids for learning with or without the ABCs (Waldorf schools, for example, teach pre-reading skills using marble runs and counting through hand-clapping games). Consider what your kid is ready for and your own priorities.

5.Happy Families
At least as important as the staff and policies are the families with whom you will be sharing the preschool experience. A wonderful community of like-minded families can make an otherwise unexceptional school into the perfect launchpad for your child's school career. These children are likely to be your little one's first significant friends, and these parents may be the first ones to invite your babe on playdates. And, since preschool gatherings often involve parents, this may become your new own social network, too. For some families, the preschool posse becomes an anchor for years to come. A thriving community of parents who volunteer together and feel welcoming is a sign of a happy place for children to begin their school journey.

RELATED: 10 Questions To Ask on a Preschool Tour

Things that probably don't

1. Kindergarten matriculation
Of course it's a huge relief if admission to a great preschool means automatic acceptance into a coveted K–12 school. But be wary of programs that use preschool as a way to vet prospective families without promising admittance into kindergarten: a rejection after growing attached to a school can be heartbreaking. Preschool should be focused on educating our children, not about insuring their acceptance into an elite grade school. Those of us who make the mistake of applying only to preschools that feed into one of Los Angeles's many prestigious elementary programs can too easily get caught up in seeking approval from the director to secure a kindergarten slot. This can result in a frenzy of apple-polishing that has nothing to do with our children's education and—worse—sets a tone of competitiveness and acquisitiveness in the classroom that even the youngest children can pick up on. 

2. Interactive technology and high-tech communication
Admittedly, it's great for working parents to be able to check in on their children throughout the day via an interactive website with photos and real-time videos and updates. But even putting other parents' privacy concerns aside, a school's energy is probably better put into teaching the children in real time rather than cyber-documenting them. These days, even schools that eschew this type of website usually send out weekly or daily emails with photos and stories about what your kid's been up to—and for many parents, that's more than enough.

3. Competitiveness of admission process
Some parents assume that if the line for applications stretches around the block, the school must be worth the wait. In some cases, that may prove true. But many wonderful programs are less well-known and can even be diamonds in the community center (often for a fraction of the price and admissions headache of more-prestigious schools). Don't disregard preschools that are up-and-coming, even if their brochures are not as glossy and their organization still needs some ironing out. It can be immensely gratifying to be part of the process of shaping a new school. (Check out our list of Westside preschools with no waiting list.)

4. Education level of teachers
The most important qualities in a preschool teacher don't necessarily come from fancy degrees or prestigious schools—though of course teachers should be certified and have experience and training. More important for this age group may be teachers' connection with children, their discipline methods, their compassion and warmth, their ability to see each child as an individual, and—perhaps most important—acting as role models; small children imitate everything! Arguably anyone, with or without an Ivy League education, can teach the alphabet, counting, and other basic skills; bringing warmth, passion, and their best selves to the task is the key.

5. State-of-the-art classrooms
Of course you want a school to be clean, orderly, and thoughtfully laid out; but you can't necessarily assess its quality by how spiffy the furniture, supplies, and gadgets are. Kids tend to be far less judgmental about superficial things than adults are anyway. A few friends sent their kids to preschools in basement classrooms that turned the parents off at first (the kids didn't care!) but ended up being warm, inviting play spaces loved by the children because of the teachers and the program. Don't turn away just because the play kitchen is a little scuffed, the carpets worn, or the toys a little beat-up. This could be the place your kids feel truly at home—which is one thing that really does matter in the end.

Photo credit: Matt Molinari via flickr

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