According to Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, a majority of low-income four-year-olds are enrolled in preschools and child care centers that are of poor quality. These children already have two strikes against them and mediocre child care may be the final blow. Even though it’s “only preschool,” what happens before kindergarten matters. So how can you tell if your child’s preschool is good enough? What should you look for?
Your child may not have the disadvantages in life that low-income children often have. But quality child care matters for your kids too.
The first thing to look for is that a child is enrolled. According to Barnett, even poor preschool is better than no preschool. Children who get no preschool start kindergarten already a year behind. This is because what matters in kindergarten is not so much academic ability – things parents may think they’re providing at home –but habits of mind necessary for school. Children who come to school knowing how to work in a group, how to follow complicated directions, how to do school work, and how to pay attention in the midst of distractions, these children are ready to learn. And these are the skills that even the most inadequate preschool develops.
The second thing to look for is a teaching staff that knows how to work with children and enjoys teaching them. A good child care or preschool teacher should know how to develop children’s skills in pre-math and pre-reading. She should know how to guide children’s behavior without squelching their curiosity. She should be respectful of children’s ideas and she’s got to be nice. She has high standards but she knows her job is to help children reach them.
In a preschool run by a school district, teachers should all have a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate. They will be well-paid and will have access to lots of professional development. If your school district doesn’t offer a preschool program or if your child is ineligible for your district’s program (some are limited to children with low-income and other risk factors), then find the very best preschool you can with the very best support of its teachers. Ask about a teacher’s college preparation. Ask if the school closes for professional development days (even though this is an inconvenience for you, it’s something you want). Ask about the number of children per teacher. Ask how long teachers typically stay and how quickly they leave. If you can, watch teachers in action. You are looking for the same professionalism that teachers display at your local elementary school. Are teachers proud of what they do or are they always on the lookout for a better job?
Third, find a place where play is center-stage. Play is the medium by which children learn. The Tulsa, Oklahoma preschool program, showcased as a national model, devotes two hours of unstructured “free” play every day for every child. Sit down instruction, with children filling in worksheets and memorizing facts, is not a positive thing. It’s inappropriate for young children. In a good preschool, children are moving around, doing interesting things together, as their teachers observe, guide and ask questions.
Noticing a quality preschool or child care center isn’t difficult – the signs are obvious or can be discovered by asking a few questions. Finding a quality preschool may be more difficult. But the results are worth the search.
Your child’s school success is determined in large part by what happens at age three and four. Choose quality for your child.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.