You’ve done your research on Paper Pinecone so you know the schools you’re touring are a good fit on a basic level. Their schedule works with yours, you know their potty training requirements, and you’ve done some homework on their philosophy. Now it’s time to see the school. Here are questions to help you determine if this is the right place for your family.
- Conflict Resolution and Discipline
The school must have an approach that you’re comfortable with, as conflict will absolutely occur amongst preschoolers whose brains are still developing. They’re still learning social norms and they’re still learning how to communicate. So, when conflict arises, what does the school do? Are they more apt to step in immediately, or do they let children attempt to problem solve on their own? When and how are parents notified when an incident occurs? How is behavior corrected if a child hits or bites? (Note, you should ask about biting policy, especially if you have a biter – many schools send children home for the day.) What does the school consider inappropriate behavior? Take into account the type of parent you are. Do you feel it’s necessary to hear about every minor conflict or would you prefer to only be told when there’s a physical altercation or another major event?
- Staffing and Ratios
A school is only as good as its staff. First, every state sets minimum student:teacher ratios, so check yours and first ensure the school you’re touring meets them, but preferably does better. Next, learn about the teachers’ qualifications. Asking about college degrees is one thing, but more importantly, what practical experience do they bring? Do they have teachers who specialize in certain areas? What about turnover? How long does staff tend to stay? Are any teachers expected to leave the school soon? If so, what’s the plan for replacing them? If the school has mixed age classrooms, likely your child will be with the same teacher for years. But if they don’t, do teachers move with the students at the end of the year or will your child have a new teacher every year? If having a school open as many days as possible is important to you, be sure to ask if the school closes for staff development days, and how many there are each year.
- Technology in the Classroom
We all know that too much screen time is bad for our children, but some childcare centers are using it a little too liberally. If there is a TV, be sure to ask how often it’s on and what kind of programming is shown. Is the content related to a lesson, or are cartoons put on in place of supervision? Ask if infants are permitted to watch TV and if they have specific policies regarding technology. If the school uses an app that allows teachers to post pictures throughout the day, you know that they’ll have their phones on them at all times. Are they also texting or checking social media? It can be hard for all of us to resist the urge, but staff should be focused on the children.
- Childcare Philosophy and the Curriculum
There are many different philosophies and curricula and their application will be different for every preschool. Some philosophies encourage more independent learning, like Montessori, while others, like Reggio Emilia, take a more cooperative approach. If you’re touring a Montessori school, how is collaboration taught? If you’re touring a school with a cooperative philosophy, what does the school do to foster leadership and independence? Some preschools group children by age, but there’s research to suggest that mixed-age classrooms have benefits to children of all ages. How is the classroom structured and how does this impact the curriculum? Ask about art in class – is it process over product or vice versa?
- Kindergarten Prep, Growth & Milestones
Kindergarten, especially public kindergarten, can be a hard transition from a play-based preschool for many children. Ask what the school does to prepare children academically, socially, and behaviorally. What fundamentals are children expected to know to enter kindergarten? In what ways does the school measure success and what is done when a child is deficient in a specific area? Will the school notify you in advance of a parent/teacher conference if your child is struggling? Do they create an individualized plan to ensure your child improves? How often are parent/teacher conferences held throughout the year?
- Parental Involvement in the School
Does the school have fundraising expectations or evening and weekend activities you’re expected to attend? Do they ask you to assist in the classroom, and if so, how often? If you’re looking into co-op schools, your involvement will be quite high, but it will still vary from place-to-place so make sure you’re comfortable with the level of commitment they require.
- Time Spent Outdoors
Spending at least an hour a day outside is essential for preschoolers. They need both the physical activity and time to develop gross motor skills. Playing also promotes brain development and intelligence. What outdoor activities does the school provide and how much of the day is spent doing it? When inclement weather is a factor, especially for a prolonged stretch of time, what does the school do? Does the school apply sunscreen to the kids throughout the day?
- Keeping Kids Safe & the School Secured
Safety is the most important thing to most parents so ask what measures are in place to set your mind at ease. Observe the entrance of the school to see how access is granted. Who maintains the list of people permitted to pick up your child? If there are substitute teachers, are they given access to that list? What is the school’s drop in policy for parents? Ask about their plans in case of fire or natural disaster and communication with parents during such an event? What about injuries at school? How severe an injury does a child need to sustain for it to be reported to you? What, if anything, needs to be reported to the state? Are you the type of parent who needs to know where every scrape, bump, and bruise comes from, or do you only need info if something more significant happens?
- References from Current Families
A school should be willing and able to provide references from families who are currently enrolled. These families will be able to give you greater insight into what to expect and honest feedback on where the school can improve.
- Additional Questions
During your tour, many of these topics will likely be covered and you may have questions that aren’t mentioned here. Depending on what you value, these are some additional things you may want to ask about:
- Does the school require all children to be vaccinated?
- Can the school accommodate children with food allergies or dietary restrictions?
- What experience do the teachers have with special needs children?
- Are there enrichment activities available and if so, is the cost included in tuition?
- If your child requires antibiotics, will the school administer them?
- How diverse is the student body?
- Are children stereotyped by gender in any way?
- Is the school closed for extended breaks during the year?
- If the school takes children on field trips or provides transportation, are car seats provided for each child and do all drivers have clean records, licenses, and insurance?
- What are their favorite books to read to the children?
- What is their cleaning procedure after an illness hits several children?
- Are families notified if several children come down with the same illness?
- What is their drop-in policy?
Switching schools after a short stay is stressful for you, your child, and the school, so it’s important to ask as many questions as necessary to make sure that this is the right place for you and your family. Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid of being seen as a helicopter parent. Preschool directors want you to ask questions. Plus, it’s helpful to the other families as well, who may not be as prepared as you are.
If you have specific questions about finding the right program, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Stacey Grumet is Founder and CEO of Paper Pinecone, the most useful resource for connecting with daycare, preschool, and before/after school programs that meet your needs. She lives in Los Angeles with her perfectly adequate husband and precocious 3-year-old daughter (as of this writing). Every day she strives to be the world’s most ok mom.