When parents get beyond, “is there an opening,” they often have no idea what question to ask the preschool director next. As a child reaches preschool age, parents face endless options about where to enroll their child. Will it be near home or work? What is the school’s educational philosophy? What type of preschool curriculum is used? Are the teachers experienced?
Preschool directors say that all of these factors are important—along with many more. The most surprising thing, says preschool director Vicki De Hamer is when parents don’t have any questions at all.
Here is some advice from preschool directors themselves on just what types of questions are best to ask when searching for a preschool in Maryland.
Questions parents should ask preschool directors
“I’m amazed when parents come in to enroll their child without asking any questions or touring the school,” says De Hamer. “Some parents have already made up their minds based on the referral from a friend. But the preschool has to be the right fit for each child.” Asking questions should be an important part of every preschool search.
How many questions are too many? De Hamer once had a parent who had three pages of typewritten questions but De Hamer did not mind answering all of them.
“There is no limit on the number of questions you can ask,” says De Hamer. “When you’re entrusting your child to me, you have every right to know the answer to every question you have.”
Preschool director Antoinette Crivello points out that preschools have a responsibility to provide information.
“I believe it is the job of the school staff to make sure that parents are very well informed about its curriculum. A well-organized school will have important information about the school outlined in a packet to give to families,” says Crivello. She adds, “There are, however, important questions that parents should have in mind when shopping for a school.”
Ask about educational philosophy
Preschool directors agreed that the most important questions parents should ask revolve around the type of educational philosophy that drives the school and the qualifications of the teachers.
“The parent needs to find a school that has a philosophy that they believe in,” says De Hamer, “not just the first school that has an opening.”
Questions may include:
What is the school’s educational philosophy? Is it developmental, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, academic, faith-based or something else? How does the philosophy shape the daily curriculum and activities? How does it affect class size? Does it support more group activities or individual learning? How is learning encouraged?
“I would expect a parent to ask what their child will be doing during the day,” says preschool director Jean Johnson. Educational philosophies can guide the way a day is structured. What may seem like play to parents is often an important part of learning.
Ask about teachers’ qualifications, turnover and training
Teaching qualifications vary greatly among preschools.
“There is little experience and education required by law for someone to be a preschool teacher,” notes Crivello. “Teachers at the beginning of their career can often be very good, but they should be working in a school where there are experienced staff to help mentor them.”
What is the turnover rate of the teachers?
“If there is a big turnover, it could be traumatic for the child who has to keep going through changes,” says De Hamer. Teachers and preschool directors who have been at a school for a long time are likely happy with their environment and this satisfaction filters down to the children.
What is the teacher-to-child ratio? An average class of 3- or -4-year-olds should have no more than 10 children per adult, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Also, ask preschool directors if their staff members are trained in CPR and First Aid. Have the teachers undergone a background check?
Ask about discipline
Every school deals with discipline a little differently. Is the way the school handles discipline compatible with the way you as the parent discipline your child? What is the policy for biting or disruptive students? How are parents notified of problems?
Ask about community involvement
“How does the school communicate with parents about their child and school happenings?” asks preschool director Ruth Phillips. Are there parent-teacher conferences? Is there a newsletter? Phillips explains that community building reflects the team efforts of parents and teachers.
“What can parents offer to the school in terms of services? Does their job provide free or discounted items that could be part of an auction?” asks Phillips. Are there opportunities for parents to be involved? Most importantly, can parents visit at any time?
“Parents should be able to drop in at any time,” says De Hamer. “If they can’t, parents need to ask ‘why.’”
Ask about extracurricular activities
Parents should ask preschool directors about extracurricular activities offered. Some special features to look for include: field trips, involvement in the community, music, art, physical education, foreign languages, guest speakers (such as a dentist or zookeeper), health screenings (auditory, visual), and parent workshops for kindergarten readiness.
Ask for references
“I wish more parents would ask for references,” says preschool director Darla Suder. “If they could talk with other parents of the center they would gain insight into the preschool and it could help ease their fears.”
You can find good referrals by talking with parents in playgroups, at the playground or in other children’s activities.
Ask about special needs and financial needs
Does the preschool accept children with special needs? Preschool director Jan Elliott suggests asking, “What is their policy on inclusion?”
Financial need is often overlooked. Are scholarships available for those who cannot afford full tuition? Does the school offer part-time or hourly pricing for those who do not need full-time care?
Ask about security
Security is more important today than ever before. Does the preschool have only one entrance and exit? Is the play area fenced in to keep young kids from wandering away during recess? What security measures are in place?
Questions to ask yourself as you tour a preschool
Are the teachers getting down to the children’s level to talk with them?
Do teachers yell across the playground?
Are the rooms organized? Is children’s recent artwork displayed?
Do the classrooms have different activity stations?
Are there adequate areas to play inside and outside?
How do you and your child feel when you walk through the gate?
Do the children seem happy and busily engaged?
Pay attention to your child’s instincts as a clue to whether the school provides an environment that will support his growth and development.
For some of us, asking questions may seem contrary to an expectation of trust about the preschool or ourselves. Yet, preschool directors remind parents of that old adage, “The only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked.”
Best questions parents have asked preschool directors
We asked preschools in the area to let us know what was the best question a parent ever asked. Here are some of the responses:
Q. How do I best prepare my child for your preschool?
A. Read to them! – Liz Barclay, past admission director, at Indian Creek School in Crownsville
Q. In a co-op, where parents are involved and working in the classroom, when should a parent interfere with children who are experiencing a conflict?
A. It is impossible for the teacher to be involved in every little conflict. I have told parents to contact me if the conflict is more than a child could handle or if she wasn’t sure as to how to handle the conflict! – Lotte Weaver, former teacher at Magothy Cooperative School in Pasadena
Q. What is the turnover rate for the staff?
A. If staff has been employed for an extended time, you can tell that relationships have been built within the staff as well as with the children. High turnover shows that there is a management issue and children are less likely to build strong relationships with their caregivers and there is an issue in consistency. It helps get an idea as to the level of teamwork and what kind of relationships your child will develop while at the center. – Alice Anne Loftus, executive director/owner, Bright Beginning Children’s Learning Center in Crownsville
10 tips for choosing a quality preschool program
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has developed 10 standards for quality programs for children. This list, based on the NAEYC standards, can be a starting point as you evaluate local programs.
- Teachers make children feel welcome
- Teachers help children learn to resolve conflicts in positive ways
- The program addresses children’s social, emotional, physical, language and cognitive development and builds foundations for school success in reading, math, science and the arts
- Teachers carefully supervise all children
- Children’s work is displayed in the classroom
- Teachers provide time for group and individual attention
Ongoing Assessment of Child Progress
- Teachers and families create learning goals for children
- Parents are provided with information about program activities
- Teachers meet regularly with parents to discuss their child’s progress
Health, Nutrition and Safety
- Children have regular opportunities to run and play
- Nutritious food is prepared, served and stored safely
Qualified Teaching Staff
- Teachers have necessary qualifications
- Teachers complete an orientation program before working with children
- The program provides continuing education opportunities for teachers
- Families are welcome to visit the program
- Program staff and families plan events together
- The program visits playgrounds, museums, libraries and other community resources
- Invites local musicians, artists and others to interact
- Helps families connect with support services
Safe and Healthy Physical Environment
- Toys and materials are clean and in good repair
- First-aid kits, fire extinguishers, fire alarms and other safety equipment are available and installed
- Outdoor play areas have fences or natural boundaries to them
Leadership and Management
- The director has necessary qualifications, such as a 4-year college degree with expertise in child development
- The program is licensed by the applicable state agency
- Written policies for health, safety and discipline are in place
—Elizabeth A. Berg
Originally published in 2013. Updated in 2021.