Finding a good preschool fit

Finding the right preschool for your child can be a daunting task but there things to look for that can help make the decision easier.

Preschooler puzzel WAs soon as they took the tour, Marc and Maria McKenna of Stevensville knew they had found the right preschool for their children.

“We were looking for a good balance of play and structure, coupled with a nurturing atmosphere,” says Marc McKenna, of their search three years ago for their oldest, who is now 5.

The family toured several schools before visiting St. Andrew by the Bay Preschool in Annapolis.

“Right away we could see the love the teachers had for the kids and for their jobs,” he says. “We knew immediately that it was a fit for our kids.”

More families than ever are choosing to enroll their children in preschool before kindergarten. According to the National Center for Education statistics, 68 percent of all children have had some form of preschool education by age 4.

A lot of factors go into finding the right preschool, according to Leah Tipton, director of St. Matthews Early Education Center in Bowie.

“Children come into preschool with a huge range of language, social and emotional skills,” she says. “Parents want to look for a school that strikes a balance of structure but also has the ability to address each child’s need individually.”

One of the key components to finding the right preschool fit is to take a tour. More important than academic standards and teacher ratios is the feel of a school, parents and administrators agree.

“Taking a tour is essential,” says Beth Dunleavy, director of St. Andrew by the Bay Preschool. “I always encourage the parent to bring their child as well. The child has to like it, and it’s important to see the classroom in action.”

What to look for on a tour

Below is advice from preschool administrators and parents on what to look for when touring a preschool.

  • Is the facility adequate? Are the classrooms large enough? Are bathrooms accessible? Is it clean?
  • Is there a main office to greet visitors? “If I walked into a building and I had to find someone before they found me, that’s a red flag,” Tipton says. “Someone should be near the door to greet visitors right away.”
  • How are the play and learning areas set up? “Look for organization — are toys organized by function, are they labeled, are there different play areas?” Tipton asks.
  • Is it a positive setting? “I always tell parents to look for a bright and cheery environment. There should be artwork displayed that gives children a sense of pride,” says Lisa Oesterling, director of Christ Episcopal Church Day School in Stevensville.
  • Are things labeled? “It should always be a print-rich environment with lots of labeling to help kids learn,” Oesterling says.
  • Is the outdoor space safe? “I would look at a school’s outdoor play surface and make sure that it is soft, is an enclosed space, and includes age-appropriate equipment,” Dunleavy says.
  • Are the kids encouraged? “This is an age when kids are trying to regulate their own behavior and gain self-confidence,” Dunleavy says. “It’s a trust thing from the very beginning between teacher and student, and it’s important to observe the ways that kids are encouraged and engaged.”
  • Do the kids look happy to be there? “Are they self-confident and asking questions?” Tipton asks. “If a child looks nervous or afraid to speak with a teacher, that could indicate a red flag.”

Practical questions to ask

Be sure to come armed with questions to ask when on the tour of the school from the teacher to student ratio to dismissal procedures. Below are some questions recommended by Tipton and Oesterling to help evaluate various aspects of the school:

  • What are the student to teacher ratios?
  • Are the teachers credentialed and do they have their bachelor’s degrees?
  • How long have the teachers been with the school?
  • Are the doors locked during the day?
  • What kind of measures does the school have to keep track of visitors?
  • Is there a policy for emergencies as well as dismissal?
  • Are parents welcome to visit the school at any time?
  • Are parents allowed to volunteer?
  • What’s the school’s policy on behavior, tolerance and bullying?

When you've found the right fit

Katie Pinkham, of Riva and a mom of a 3-year-old, knew she wanted a preschool where she could get to know the teachers and families and have a sense of community. She found that on a visit to South County Co-op Preschool in Davidsonville.

“After observing the teachers and meeting some parents, I knew it was right — and I loved that it was a co-op so that I could volunteer on occasion,” she says.

Marianne Campanella, mom to two preschool-aged daughters, had a similar experience when she visited the School of the Incarnation in Gambrills.

“I knew that it was right when I saw how the teachers stressed inclusion, integrity and initiative,” she says.

For the McKenna family of Stevensville, finding the perfect preschool formed the foundation for a happy school experience. “My daughter loved her preschool experience, and my son is so happy there now. We did our homework in terms of the search, and asked all the right questions,” McKenna says. “But in the end, it’s an intangible — it just felt right.”

By Katie Riley

Find our directory of area preschools here.

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