Many preschools will advertise themselves as being the best preschool, daycare, or child care center, 5 stars, or award winning. How can you really determine which programs truly are high quality? How do you know if it will meet the needs of your child and if it will be a worthwhile investment for your family? While there are a number of factors that go into this question, there are certain characteristics that differentiate high quality preschool and child care programs from the rest. When touring preschools, you will want to look for schools that demonstrate the characteristics listed below.
Signs of High Quality Preschool
1. Warm Environment - This should be apparent the moment you step into a preschool, daycare or child care center. Are you greeted by a smiling staff member? If you are able to see other office members, do they seem happy? Quality preschools should feel inviting to both parents and students.
What is the general feeling you get in the building? While I always recommend doing as much research as possible when selecting a preschool, it is also important to pay attention to your instincts. I have found when something does not seem right to a parent when they visit a preschool, that feeling is usual right.
2. Low Teacher Turnover - Unfortunately, teacher turnover is a major issue for many preschools. Widespread turnover could be a strong indicator that there are significant issues within the school. Research has consistently shown the importance of having a highly-qualified teacher in the classroom on student achievement. High teacher turnover is also very disruptive for the important relationship building which occurs between students and teachers.
3. Meaningful Student-Teacher Interactions - The evidence is clear that how teachers interact with students has a profound effect on student social and academic outcomes. Relationships matter, especially during the preschool years. When on school tours, watch how the teacher speaks to the students in the classroom. Are they actively engaging with students? Ideally they should be engaging in back and forth communication, asking open-ended questions, introducing vocabulary, and helping students make connections to their lives and prior learning. What forms of non-verbal communication do you see?
4. Effective Discipline Strategies - Learning self-regulation, conflict resolution strategies and how to use language to express feelings are all key skills that preschools should be helping children develop. Discipline should be used as a teaching tool rather than having a punitive focus. We want students to learn the skills that will prevent incidents from happening in the future, and how they can handle difficult emotions when they do occur. Look for evidence of how teachers speak with upset students and how any conflict is handled. Ask the school about their approach to discipline.
5. Clean and Healthy Environment - Your child's health and safety should be a preschool's top priority. The building and classrooms should have high standards for cleanliness, and furniture and equipment should be in good repair. With COVID-19, a healthy environment that should not only include cleaning/disinfecting, and hand washing, but schools should be taking additional steps such as daily student health screening, reduced class sizes, restricting building access. There should also be a focus on air quality which may include air purifiers and high quality filters (MERV 13 or higher if system allows).
6. Engaged Students - Learning should be active and learning should be relevant to the lives of students. This will usually include a large number of classroom centers with quality manipulatives that offer choice and build different skills. The curriculum should be relevant and make connections to the lives of students.Beware of programs that narrowly focus on academic skills, and do not have opportunities for students to play. There should be areas for building materials, art, music, dramatic play, and outside time. Lessons are most effective when they build off prior knowledge and student experiences.
7. Differentiated Instruction - Another important aspect of engagement is differentiation. Instruction and curriculum should be designed to meet the diverse learning needs of a classroom. Students are less likely to be engaged when the curriculum is either not developmentally appropriate for them, or if it does not provide sufficient challenge. Quality schools utilize small group and individual instruction to help meet specific student needs.
8. Open Ended Materials and Activities - Classroom materials should encourage children to think creativity and become problem solvers. Materials like blocks, sensory bins, boxes, recycle goods, and items collected from nature can be used in many different ways. A good way to see if a school encourages open-ended thinking is to examine the art on the walls. Does each piece look the same, or are students able to express themselves and be creative. Giving children the opportunity for self-expression, helps them make decisions and experiment.
9. Partnerships with Families - Quality program view families as partners and frequently communicate with them. Parents should feel that they are partners in their child's education. Ask on your tour what methods the school uses to communicate with families. How is a child's progress shared and how are concerns communicated? High quality programs also provide educational opportunities for parents which could include workshops, webinars, or resource libraries. There should also be opportunities for parents to participate in school activities and volunteer.
10. Values Cultural Diversity - Preschool is a great place for children to learn about the world around them and about people with different backgrounds and experiences. They are also forming their own self concept and should feel that their family's culture is valued and celebrated. Art work on the walls and materials should be diverse and families should have opportunities to share their traditions in classrooms. Books in classrooms should include diverse characters and families.
Which educational philosophy is best for your child?
Discovery Child Development Center is a project-based school that utilizes a constructivist/social constructivist approach to education. It is important to find a philosophy and approach to education that is a good fit for your child and your family when selecting a preschool. We will compare two of those here, constructivist and Montessori.
Constructivism - In this philosophy, students are actively involved in their learning. Through experiences knowledge is constructed. Constructivism roots are found in the work of Jean Piaget on cognitive development. Piaget theorized that children pass through 4 distinct cognitive phases of development and through active experiences, they acquire new knowledge. As children, interact with their environment, knowledge is shaped.
Lev Vygotsky similarly emphasized hands-on interactions with one's environment, but his theory placed a much greater emphasis on the social aspect of learning. His approach is known as social constructivism. For, Vygotsky interactions with others builds knowledge. Vygotsky saw learning as a collaborative process. He describe a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where learners reach the next level of mastery through working on tasks that our just beyond their current abilities with the support of a teacher or mentor.
Montessori - The Montessori method was created by Maria Montessori when she opened the first Montessori school in Rome, Italy in 1907. Montessori methods focus on children directing their own learning and are given freedom to select activities. Students receive large segments of uninterrupted work time in Montessori classrooms. Montessori classrooms are traditionally mixed-age classrooms. There are specific prepared materials students in Montessori classrooms utilize.
By Mike dlott
Discovery Child Development Center Director
We know many parents have struggled with the decision of whether to send their child back to preschool and daycare. While families need to ultimately make the decision that is best for their family and their own comfort levels, there are certain steps that preschools and child care can and should be taking to protect the health and safety of their students, teachers and families. Our building was closed for several months during the spring and early summer. During that period, I dedicated significant time talking to medical professionals, environmental engineers, scientists and families. While we can never completely eliminate the risks from COVID-19 while it is spreading through our communities, the actions listed are important to reduce those risks as much as we can.
1. Class Size - How many students and teachers will be in my child's class? Research shows that the larger the group size, the greater the risk. At our school for example, we decided to reduce all of our class sizes by 50% this fall.
2. Health Screening - How are students screened before coming into school? It is important that students and families are asked every single day about possible symptoms and exposure to COVID. We set up daily questions through the Brightwheel App that parents must answer before checking their child into school. The app also allows us to quickly communicate with families if there are any health related updates during the day. Temperature checks may be helpful for identify for sick students, but they are not sufficient for screening students.
3. Illness - When should a student stay home from school and when are they able to return? Preschools and child care centers should be able to share the specific guidelines they have for excluding students from school. We utilize a decision tree that clearly spells out when a student would be ask to stay home and for how long. It is also important that there is a clear procedure for when they are able to come back to school (ex. a negative cover test, 10 days since symptoms began).
4. Positive Cases - If a student or teacher tests positive what will happen? While we hope there are not any cases at your child's school, there should be a clear plan for handling any positive cases. Would a classroom have to shut down, how about the rest of the school? Some of this will depend on what the local health department advises, but plans should be developed for any potential closings and may include remote learning options. Now that we know more about COVID, the goal is to have children in school as much as possible and to avoid large closures if possible. Decisions should be made in coordinations with health and safety professionals..
5. Masks - Will teachers and students wear masks at school? We know masks work to reduce the spread of COVID. Adults should be wearing them throughout the day, and all students who are able to wear them should wear them. With practice we have found students, especially in pre-k and kindergarten can do really well with masks.
6. Distancing - What social distancing strategies does the school use? While distancing in a preschool is difficult, there are a number of strategies that can be used to help. Reducing the number of students in a class provides more space to spread students out. We have utilized stable cohorts, eliminating as much as possible mixing between different classrooms. While we normally love having parents visit our classrooms, we have also restricted our building and classroom to essential visitors.
7. Air Quality - What steps is your school taking to keep the air in the classroom clean and healthy? We now know that COVID spreads through the air. We also know that good filtration and ventilation can make a real difference, especially when combined with the above strategies. At Discovery we have added air filters to every classroom to increase the rate of air changes per hour in the rooms. We have also increased the fresh air through our HVAC system, and regularly have our air filters changed. These steps are especially important in preschools and child care centers, as many do not have windows that open for safety reasons.
8. Hygiene - When will children be required to clean their hands? Handwashing should be scheduled throughout a child's day for students and staff. Critical times for washing and sanitizing include arrival at school, upon returning from outside, when using the restroom, before and after meals and before departing school.
9. Sanitizing - What is the plan for cleaning and sanitizing the school? Making sure a preschool or daycare has the highest standards for cleanliness, is always important, but especially now. Are toys and manipulatives regularly cleaned and sanitized? Is there special attention given to making sure high touch surfaces are kept clean?
10. Education - How is information on health and safety procedures shared with families? Communication is vitally important to make sure the whole community is aware of the school's policies and procedures. Information should be regularly shared and there should be a person coordinating the responses. We have a community compact that all parents at our school sign, a health and safety committee, a health and safety parent guide.