The Complete Guide to Choosing the Right Preschool for Your Child

Education is one of the most important gifts you can give your child. Education, of course, begins at home, but preschool will be your child's first foray into a formal learning environment. Preschool is any sort of formal education designed for children, generally three years to five years old, who are too young to enter kindergarten. These programs can vary widely in structure and curriculum, and the differences among programs can help you select the best preschool for your child.

While it may seem that toddlers are a little young for school, preschool actually forms a strong foundation for future success. Parents are recognizing the role preschool plays in childhood development, and enrollment in preprimary programs has increased. In 1990, 59 percent of children ages three to five years old were enrolled in some type of preprimary program. By 2014, that number increased to 69 percent, according to the National Center for Education.

From an individual perspective, preschool is a stepping-stone for academic and social success in a number of ways. Balanced preschool programs combine learning with playtime to afford your child the opportunity to learn important skills that will help him or her succeed in academic areas like reading and math, while providing a structured environment to explore interaction with their peers and build social skills.

Children enrolled in preschool also have the chance to take on some independence. They can make decisions and become curious about the world of learning. A strong preschool program includes toys and learning tools that will spark your child's natural craving for new knowledge and experiences.

A preschool opportunity is wonderful for your child, but you have your work cut out for you when it comes to choosing a preschool program. Each child is different, and so is each preschool program. You have to consider what kind of experience you want your child to have, as well as the quality of each possible program on your list.

Here is a comprehensive guide to help you navigate your options. It includes the questions to ask when choosing a preschool.

Preschool Versus Daycare

Preschool and daycare both serve as a form of childcare, but the two types of programs differ in many ways. Daycare centers and preschool programs both must be accredited, but daycare centers are not required to have an educational strategy. Daycare is more likely to focus on napping and playtime. A good daycare program may focus equally on education, but you will have to research the possibility.

The hours are one of the biggest differences between daycare and preschool. Daycare centers tend to be open longer and cover weekends and holidays. Preschools likely adhere to a school calendar, with weekends off and more breaks. Daycare may be an easier option for working parents.

Preschools generally involve parents more than daycare centers. There may be a transition period, where you attend the first few preschool classes with your child. You can also likely expect to hear regular updates on your child. A preschool program will probably cost more than a daycare program. It’s not always the case, but the educational focus of preschool usually makes it more expensive.

Both preschool and daycare offer benefits. You simply have to evaluate your child's needs, your own schedule and the family budget.

 Public School Versus Private School

Preschool programs can be federally funded, state-funded or private institutions. The Head Start Program is a federally funded program that provides pre-kindergarten services for children, from birth to five years old, of low-income families. In order to be considered eligible for preschool programs administered by the Head Start Program, families have to be below the HHS Poverty Guidelines.

However, the Head Start Program is not the only public option. Many states fund their own preschool programs. In 2005, 800,000 children were enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, meaning more children were enrolled in state programs than in the Head Start Program, according to the Center for Public Education.

The level of teachers' education also varies widely between state-funded programs, federally funded programs, and daycare centers, according to the Center for Public Education. Only 30 percent of Head Start teachers have bachelor's degrees, while 87 percent of school-based preschool program teachers have bachelor's degrees. At daycare centers, 38 percent of workers have a bachelor's degree. A total of 38 state-funded programs require their teachers to have specialized training in early childhood skills. The Head Start program set a goal for half of its teachers to have at least an associate's degree or higher by 2013. States generally also require their teachers to have state licensure.

Private school teacher requirements can vary widely. Do your research to determine teacher qualifications in a private school. Another one of the biggest differences between private preschool and public preschool is the cost. A private program will require parents to pay tuition, and the price of that tuition will vary widely based on your location and your school choice. For example, the annual cost of center-based care for a four-year-old was $11,420 in Minnesota and $8,768 in Nevada in 2015, according to the Child Care Aware of America 2016 Report. While the cost may be a considerable barrier, some families consider the expense well worth it. Paying tuition often means parents have more input when it comes to what happens in the classroom.

The majority of private preschools have some sort of religious affiliation. In fact, 79 percent of private school students attend schools with a religious affiliation, according to the Council for American Private Education. Some parents may find this aligns with their values and the values they want their child to learn, while other parents may prefer their child's education to be secular. Always ask about a school's religious affiliation and how it plays into the curriculum. The answer and how you believe it will affect your child's education will help you reach a decision.

Private school classrooms also tend to be smaller than public school classrooms. The majority of private schools (87 percent) have 300 students or fewer, according to the Council for American Private Education. The smaller teacher-to-student ratio may result in more personalized attention for your child. Parents may prefer larger classrooms to afford their child the opportunity for social interaction with a larger group of children.

Finally, you will need to prepare yourself for a rigorous admissions process in private schools. They will likely request interviews with both the parents and the child. The exclusivity may seem beneficial to parents, or it could seem like too much pressure. This is another matter of personal taste.

There are many public preschools, but access may still be any issue. Not all districts have a public preschool option. In this case, parents may be forced to consider the private options within a reasonable distance of their home.

Private preschool and public preschool both have pros and cons. It is up to parents to weigh their options and determine what is best for their child.

 Full Day Versus Part-Time

The amount of time you want your child to spend in early education each day is another major consideration when choosing a preschool. Some preschools offer half days, while others operate on a full-day schedule. Half days can be great for parents who want to introduce their children to the education system but also want to spend time with them at home during the day. If both parents are working full-time, full days may be a better option. Cost becomes a consideration again. Part-time preschool will most likely be less expensive than a full-time program.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found full days at preschool have a number of benefits. When compared to national averages, children who attended preschool all day long outperformed children in preschool for a half day in the following areas:

  • Literacy rates. Of the children who went to preschool all day, 85.1 percent were above the national average for literacy in their age group, compared to 74.6 percent of the children who attended preschool for part of the day.
  • Math skills. Of the full-time preschoolers, 84.4 percent were found to have above-average math skills, compared to 72.3 percent of the part-time preschoolers.
  • Socioemotional skills. Full-time preschoolers also outperformed the part-time preschoolers with 73.4 percent demonstrating above average socioemotional skills compared to 56 percent.
  • Language skills. The majority of full-time preschool students (81.2 percent) showed above-average language development, while 61.7 percent of part-time preschool students had above-average language skills.

 The structure of full-time and part-time programs will differ. A full-time program will likely focus on educational activities in the morning and have a scheduled lunchtime, nap hour, snack time and playtime in the afternoon. Children in preschool are young enough to need a nap period. A part-time preschool program will likely leave naptime and a midday meal to parents. Some full-time programs may provide lunch and snacks, while others may request parents provide the food items. Consider whether full-time or part-time would be best for your child, as well as which option will fit your own schedule.

Traditional Education Versus Nontraditional Education

 Parents have the freedom to evaluate a number of different types of preschools. Some adhere to a traditional education style. A traditional philosophy means the preschool classroom and objectives are led by a teacher. The teacher will create a curriculum with specific goals in mind, such as learning basic concepts like numbers, letters, shapes and behavior in an academic environment. In this type of setting, children will listen to their teacher and work on one activity at a time as a group. The traditional philosophy focuses largely on preparing children for kindergarten and their future academic careers.

There are also a number of nontraditional preschool philosophies:

  • Montessori schools are one of the most popular types of nontraditional preschools. The philosophy was developed in the early 1900s and endures today. A Montessori school places more control in the hands of children and less emphasis on teacher control. Instead, teachers serve as guides who help children through individual activities. Montessori preschoolers are placed in a more hands-on environment where they learn at their own pace. Children are taught how to use different toys and materials for various projects. They can then work on the project until they finish. The preschoolers are always expected to clean up after themselves before starting a new activity. Montessori teachers can change their curriculum based on each child's individual needs. The Montessori educational philosophy is meant to foster independence, leadership skills and self-esteem in children.
  • Waldorf schools are another type of nontraditional preschool. The Waldorf philosophy strives to find a balance between creating a predictable routine and creativity. Children at a Waldorf preschool participate in a schedule of different activities that include traditional things like reading, but also try activities like gardening. Unlike a traditional school, Waldorf preschools reject any notion of grading or tests. Additionally, Waldorf schools have no computers or electronics.
  • The Reggio Emilia philosophy is a third nontraditional option. This type of preschool is based on a system developed in Italy during the 1940s. At a Reggio Emilia preschool, students focus on group-based learning. Much of the learning at this type of preschool can be spontaneous. If children express interest in a particular subject, the teacher will encourage them. The teacher also spends a significant amount of time documenting the children's progress through a combination of notes, video and photographs.

A traditional preschool exposes kids to an academic environment they will no doubt encounter at some point in their lives. Nontraditional preschools aim to give children skills they will need to excel in academic and social situations. Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia schools are a few of the nontraditional preschool options. You can always explore other philosophies. You have the option to choose whichever philosophy appeals to you and helps meet the educational goals you have for your child.

Know Your Child's Needs

 What to consider when choosing a preschool is a long list, but don't forget you need to think about your child's needs. Think about how your child behaves and learns at home. Does she have trouble sitting still? Does he like learning things with his siblings and friends or does he like to play quietly by himself? A preschool might be a great fit for one kid and the opposite for another. Your child's strengths and areas in need of improvement are a great place to start. Examples of typical strengths and weaknesses in preschool-age children include:

  • Attention span
  • Sharing with others
  • Self-control
  • Listening to instructions
  • Recognizing basic letters and numbers

Objectively think about what your youngster excels at and what could be better. Then, evaluate your school options. Is the traditional environment right for a child who struggles with his attention span? Is a school focused on only group learning right for a child who is still very shy? These questions can be difficult to answer, but as a parent you will have an intuitive sense of where your children shine and where they need help.

Sometimes you do not find the perfect fit right away. After your little one starts preschool, look for signs of whether or not your child is thriving. Is your child happy to go to preschool each day? Does she come home happy? Have you seen him improve since starting preschool? If you answer "no" to any or all of those questions,  you might want to reevaluate your preschool choice. 

How to Research Your Options

There are many questions to ask when choosing a preschool. Ask yourself and prospective teachers these questions well in advance of selecting a preschool. With potential admission and enrollment deadlines, the earlier you start thinking about what you want in a preschool the better. Here are a few of the most important questions to ask while researching:

  • Location. How close do you want your child's preschool to be to home or work? A preschool located nearby will be convenient in terms of transportation, as well as proximity to your child. If you get a phone call that your child is sick or had an accident, you can arrive at the school quickly. A higher quality school or school in your price range may be farther away from home and work. Think about each of these factors when deciding on location.
  • Safety. The physical location of a school has much to do with a preschool's overall safety, but it is also important to talk to the teachers about what safety measures they have in place. Is there a CPR-certified teacher? How does the school handle fire drills? Above all else, you want to know you are leaving your little one in good hands.
  • Cost. You want to give your child the best preschool education possible, but remember there is nothing wrong with setting a budget and sticking to it. To prevent yourself from falling in love with a school that will ultimately be too expensive, find out about the price up front
  • Teacher qualifications. Do the teachers at your potential schools have degrees in early child education? What level are those degrees? Always find out what experience preschool teachers are prepared to bring to the classroom.
  • Reputation. Lastly, what kind of reputation does your potential preschool have? You can talk to parents who have children there and even look up reviews online. While one bad review may mean nothing, an overall bad reputation is certainly something to consider.

If you are feeling a little lost, don't worry — it’s normal. You can attend preschool fairs to learn about different schools, join advice discussion boards online and ask to tour local preschools. Some preschools will let you observe a classroom in action, which is a great way to get a better idea of what you want for your child

Each child is different. No one person can tell you how to choose a preschool for your child. Research all of your options to make sure you find the best fit. Look at all of the preschools — traditional and nontraditional — around you, ask your questions and put together a list of pros and cons. You might find a couple great options or one preschool that stands out as a great fit.

If you live in or near Cedar Park, Texas, you have an excellent option to consider. Schedule a visit at the Sapientia Montessori School and see firsthand why parents love the hands-on learning style of Montessori schools.