Choosing a preschool for your baby can be a really confusing (and really nerve-wracking!) decision. Trusting anyone to take care of your child for several hours a day can be a scary thing. Luckily, there are ways of narrowing down your choices before you pack up your little learner’s tiny backpack and send them off.
Here’s what you need to know before choosing a preschool:
First, know the lingo.
There are so many terms that you’ll come across when researching schools for toddlers. Preschool, day school, pre-k, Mother’s Day Out, daycare . . . what do they all mean? Here is a quick rundown of the different terms you need to be aware of:
- Preschool—while the term isn’t indicative of a formal education, it generally refers to a program that a child is provided care and a curriculum-led early education environment for one to three years before kindergarten.
- Day Care—this term typically refers to an environment in which a child is cared for during the day (usually typical working hours, sometimes later) and not necessarily engaged in an early education setting. There is generally no set curriculum or structured learning activities.
- Mother’s Day Out (MDO)—this type of service is generally found in faith-based settings, like churches or synagogues. It’s kind of a hybrid of a daycare and preschool because they will provide care for infants, sometimes as young as 6 months through 5 years old. The older children often participate in structured learning activities and have a teacher-led curriculum.
- Pre-K—this is a program offered to children in the year before they enter kindergarten. It is different from preschool because it is highly structured and intended to prepare children to enter into the more teacher-led style of education offered by most public schools.
Nail down the basics.
You’ll need to ask yourself some logistical questions such as:
- Do you want the school to be located close to your home or workplace?
- How far are you willing to drive?
- Do you want your child in a two-day, three-day, five-day-a-week program?
- What is your budget?
- What times do you need your child to be cared for?
- Are there after-school programs that you will need?
Determine your preferred curriculum.
Just like learning the lingo for the different types of programs, you’ll need to learn some lingo to know the difference in what kind of learning environment your child will be in. Here are a few of the different styles of curriculum you’ll likely run into:
- Montessori—this method focuses on the individuality of the child. This method believes that each child learns at their own pace and that this process should not be inhibited by comparing one child to another.
- Child-centered—this type of setting considers the child’s interest when planning daily activities. Classroom activities are based on the interests of the children as opposed to teacher-planned activities.
- Faith-based—a preschool that is often run by a church and center the daily activities around their faith’s philosophies, often incorporating chapel and faith-based stories into the curriculum.
- Teacher-led—this setting is the opposite of the child-centered setting. This setting focuses on teacher-planned curriculum and activities and is a more structured learning environment.
Do some real-life research.
School websites are great for getting a feel for the school. However, there’s nothing more informative than getting some real-life opinions from people who have been there, done that. Start asking friends, teachers, moms in Facebook groups, etc., their opinions on the preschools you’re looking into. They can give you some real insight into the daily environment and curriculum that will be invaluable to your decision-making process.
Take a tour of the school on a school day.
When you’ve narrowed down your list to 2 or 3 preschools, schedule a tour at each facility during the school day. This way, you can observe the teachers, staff, and children in action. Ask yourself things like:
- Does the environment feel warm and welcoming?
- Do the children seem engaged and happy?
- Does it feel like my child would feel safe here?
- Is this the kind of environment I can see my child thriving in?
Read the parent handbook and ask questions.
Typically, every preschool has a parent handbook that you can request a copy of before you enroll your child. Read it. Make sure you understand their policies and write down any questions you need answers to. Make sure you agree with their policies. For example, things such as correcting behavior issues or whether or not they’ll accept vaccination exemptions if that’s important to you. Take notes when you get answers to your questions so you can compare and contrast each school to make sure it fits your needs.
Prepare to wake up early, stand in line, or get put on a waitlist.
If you’re enrolling your child in a preschool program for the first time, be prepared to hurry up and wait. Generally, February and March are the prime months for enrolling your child for the following fall semester (crazy, right?!). If your child is a first-time enrollee, you will likely only be allowed to enroll after the current students and their siblings are allowed to enroll. This means that you may only be able to put your child on a waitlist. Don’t freak out if you’re waitlisted . . . it happens often and it doesn’t mean you won’t get in.
If you are required to register your child in person, be prepared to get up early and stand in line with many other mommies. Kind of like Black Friday sales but without the bags of goodies at the end. And don’t forget to bring all your required paperwork with you when it’s time to enroll your child. In most cases, you will need the registration packet, a well-child statement from your child’s pediatrician, your child’s vaccination record (or an exemption form if the school accepts them), and a check for the registration fee.
I know getting your baby into a good preschool school can seem very overwhelming the first time around. Do your research and know what you’re looking for before you try to find a school. It will make the process of choosing a preschool that much easier for you. And it may take your child (and maybe even you!) a few weeks to fully adjust to being away from mama for several hours in a day, but I promise that your baby (and you!) will do just fine, and you will both come to love school days!