In my pre-child fantasies, I effortlessly prepare my son for his educational journey. While handling the usual challenges (sleep routines, potty training, vegetable eating), I plaster the walls with brightly colored letters, organize age-appropriate toys according to developmental stages and sing enthusiastic jingles to help him count, rhyme and spell.
In real life, however, when my son turned 15 months old, I desperately began searching for preschools. I had reached the bottom of my nursery rhyme reservoir and my curious toddler’s half-hearted claps made it clear he was indulging me. Cat, bat and hat. Yay for Mommy, right?!
that we wanted our son to attend preschool was easy, while finding a program proved
far more challenging. As first-time parents and rookies in the school-search
game, my husband and I were overwhelmed with questions about how to find a
quality program, the search and decision process and how we might budget for
Luckily, we found answers to our questions, and I talked with a few experts to gather tips that will help you in your own preschool search.
Is preschool really worth it?
Among early-childhood specialists and educators, there is no debate here – the answer is a resounding Yes! “Preschool sets the foundation of a child’s educational experience and can influence future learning and success from kindergarten and beyond,” says Dawn Kurtz, chief research officer at Child360, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the development of the whole child, beginning at birth. Preschool helps children increase their attention spans and vocabulary, and learn important social skills such as self-regulation and how to interact with children and teachers in a classroom setting.
You can’t talk about preschool without talking about kindergarten readiness, and research suggests that children who don’t have some preschool experience by the time they enter kindergarten enter at a deficit that impacts them individually and impacts the class as a whole. “Learning how to self-regulate, to be OK without their parents and operate in a classroom with behaviors like raising your hand, speaking up and asking questions, sharing, etc., can present significant learning curves for some children,” says Kurtz. “Preschool is an attempt to level the playing field in a low-stakes environment, before children enter more assessment-based academic settings.”
Preschool is also good for children’s overall development because it gets them out of the house. “Literally, they get out of the house and go somewhere else where they can meet new challenges in an environment specifically designed to have their curiosity satiated,” says Rose Hogg, founder and director of Hogg’s Hollow Preschool in La Cañada Flintridge. “While caretakers at home might need to juggle many tasks and duties, a preschool teacher is right there, responding to children, answering all of their why questions in real time. This is how children learn.”
How do you spot a quality program?
Hogg recommends visiting no less than six programs to determine a proper fit for your child and family. Plus, there are some specific hallmarks that experts say parents should consider when evaluating programs.
For starters, pay close attention to the adult-child ratios in the classroom – 1-to-8 is recommended – as well as the credentials of the teachers. “The childcare site should be licensed, and teachers in the classroom should not only have appropriate child development permits, but also frequent professional development opportunities and training that allows them to stay current with trends in early-childhood education,” Kurtz says.
Becca Patton, director of early care and education for First 5 LA, a public agency and advocacy organization focused on early-childhood development, says that a preschool’s programming and curriculum should be “up-to-date, age-appropriate, play-based and child-directed.” This means preschoolers are allowed to dictate what they are learning based on their individual and collective interests, and learning through play instead of sitting at desks.
It is exceptionally important to pay close attention to the adult-child interactions in the classroom. “Quality preschool programming hinges on the adult-child interactions,” Patton says. “Parents should look for teachers who create warm, caring and nurturing environments for their students, teachers who verbally communicate with the children frequently and provide social and emotional support for them.”
There should also be a strong home-school connection and the opportunity for family engagement. “Parents should always feel they are welcomed in their child’s classroom and regularly kept abreast about what’s happening with their child,” says Kurtz.
For my family, other areas of interest were the school’s location and hours, as well as diversity in the classroom and among the teachers and staff. We also wanted experienced teachers who incorporated creativity in their approach to instruction, exposure to art and plenty of time on the playground. Plus, with baby number two soon arriving, we wanted to feel a sense of community with other families and children within the program, so that our son would have some extra support during this transition.
What about cost?
With the annual cost of preschool in L.A. County averaging $8,749 to $10,858 according to kidsdata.org, one can’t ignore the impact on the family budget.
There are, however, low-cost options worth investigating, including the California State Preschool Program, vouchers and Head Start programs. Kurtz and Patton also suggest checking online to contact your local chapter of the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, which helps families find childcare programs and connect with any available subsidies to assist with cost.
Kurtz says that smaller, family childcare homes tend to offer more-affordable tuition rates, and at the same time offer the same quality of care as larger centers.
Making a decision
After an arduous search, we selected a mixed-age, play-based program near my workplace. Our son’s new classroom has 16 students, with one head teacher and one assistant. Hours are 7 a.m.-6 p.m., and breakfast, lunch and a snack are included in tuition. We asked around a lot about this program (Another tip: ask for recommendations from people you trust) and heard rave reviews about the positive growth people saw in their children’s development.
What we heard about our son’s teacher, Guadalupe Aguila, aka Ms. Lupe, ultimately sealed the deal for us. A 19-year veteran of the preschool classroom, Aguila has a reputation for being able to simultaneously instruct and nurture her students. She has a unique way of loving her students and harnessing their best energy while teaching them about words and sounds, the days of the week, the calendar, shapes and math. On one of the days I randomly popped in to observe the classroom, they were learning about Venn diagrams.
“I want to build well-rounded individuals who are not only good at ABCs and 123s, but I also want them to be socially competent, to learn how to be independent, how to interact with others and how to develop an I can attitude so they won’t be afraid to try new things,” says Aguila. “I want them to be social learners and comfortable enough with themselves to ask when they don’t know something and to know it’s perfectly OK to make mistakes.”
My husband and I liked the sound and the feeling of this philosophy. (Another tip: Trust your gut). Aguila was also one of the only teachers we met who acknowledged our innermost feelings as parents. “Handing over your baby to someone else is a scary thing – period,” Aguila says. “I like for families to feel like my classroom is a home away from home, a setting where children and parents feel a sense of family in the classroom, and a place where parents know their child’s rights will be respected.”
No matter how busy they are, Aguila and her assistant teacher, Nancy Rocha, welcome each student in the morning with a hug and, “Good morning, Friend.” They ask children about their evenings and how they feel about the day ahead. They wait patiently while the children gather their responses. They encourage students to use their “strong voices” and their “looking eyes.”
“I want children to develop self-help skills where they don’t need as much support when they move on to kindergarten and more formal school,” Aguila says. “I am hoping to impact them by teaching them to love school and to love learning, to love coming to school and to be happy once they arrive.”
When I observe how Aguila and Rocha work their magic, I always walk away with a new approach or technique that we can incorporate at home. This has been extremely helpful as my son learns to appropriately express himself when he is frustrated.
On the day we first took my son to visit Ms. Lupe’s class and introduce him to his soon-to-be classmates, he walked into the classroom and began galloping like a horse and quacking like a duck. Though he had spoken excitedly about “being a big boy and going to preschool,” his nerves got the best of him.
I was unprepared, a bit mortified. While my instinct was to grab him and maybe even to slightly reprimand him, Aguila walked up to him and held his hands while she calmed him down. She lifted his chin and looked him in the eyes while explaining that she was very happy to meet him, that she appreciated his creativity (a horse and a duck?!), and understood he needed to “get out his sillies.” As she guided him around the room and into the circle of other children, she said, “Students, let’s welcome our new friend.”
We will always remember how the entire little community clapped for our son and, one by one, walked up to hug and welcome him. He hadn’t isolated himself with his antics, and in fact, the class was more than ready to receive him. We knew we’d made the right preschool decision.
One day weeks later, our son chose to roar like a lion upon entering the class, but this time, when he saw Aguila, he ran roaring right into her arms. Once you’ve made your decision about a preschool program, it’s reassuring moments like this that I wish for you.
LaCoya Katoe is a writer, educator and nonprofit administrator. She received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and is a Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation fellow. LaCoya is a mommy with a 4-year-old son and 10-month old daughter.