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Starting preschool is a momentous event for your child. It's that first big step away from babyhood and toward childhood. Be particular when choosing a preschool.
Start your search at least several months before you want to send your child: In some areas, families need to get on wait lists years ahead of time to get a spot at a top preschool.
As you search, watch for the warning signs listed below. If you see any at a school you're considering, keep looking.
A so-so rating from parents
Don't hesitate to judge a preschool based on what you've heard from other parents. In this situation, word of mouth can be a source of important information.
Of course, try not to form a definite opinion about a school until you see it for yourself – disgruntled parents may simply have had a negative experience with the school or a personality conflict with the preschool director. Trust your own first impressions more than anyone else's. After you visit, if you'd be even the slightest bit reluctant to leave your child there, you should probably keep looking for another school.
Bottom line: If you share any negative opinions about a school, move on.
Rules and regulations are important for any institution. Schools without clearly established guidelines for everything from operating hours to how to handle emergencies are likely to have other organizational problems as well.
Similarly, preschools with a lax sick-child policy. should be crossed off your list. If children (and staff) who come down with a fever or the flu don't have to stay home for at least 24 hours, your child is much more likely to catch every little illness that comes along.
The preschool should require staff and children to have current immunizations and get regular checkups. This policy is a good indication of how seriously they take health and cleanliness concerns.
A preschool that balks at having parents drop by unannounced could be hiding something. If you run into a closed-door policy, move on.
Bottom line: If a school has loose rules and is poorly organized, it's not right for you.
A questionable curriculum
Skip preschools that either have no daily program or offer one that is static and unchallenging. Children need variety, change, and a chance to grow. If the school doesn't offer organized, age-appropriate activities that change regularly, or if television and videos are a big part of the day's agenda, keep looking.
A teacher who doesn't spend time reading to kids, encouraging creative play, and varying activities isn't meeting your child's development needs. But don't evaluate a school based solely on how many numbers and letters your child is learning – preschoolers aren't ready for a rigorous academic program.
It's also a bad sign if the school's structure seems rigid, with an inflexible schedule that doesn't leave room for children to explore at their own pace. The best programs encourage development naturally, so children may look like they're simply playing (that's okay).
The school gets another black mark if its selection of age-appropriate toys is lacking. Having enough of the right toys not only encourages your child's development by stimulating creative, imaginative play, but it may also help prevent kids from getting into too many tussles over who gets to play with what and when.
See our list of suggested preschool toys by age group.
Bottom line: Your child needs a wide range of age-appropriate toys and activities to encourage development. If the school doesn't offer them, keep looking.
An underqualified staff
Just as at a daycare center, preschool teachers should have at least two years of college and a background in early childhood development as well as CPR and other emergency training. They should also be responsible, enthusiastic, and well prepared. Make sure they share your philosophy on care issues such as sleep, discipline, and and nutrition.
Watch how staff members interact with their students: If they're inattentive, impatient, or distracted, your child deserves better teachers.
It's also important to make sure the school has enough teachers. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a preschool should have no more than 20 children in a group with one teacher for every ten children – or at least two teachers, even in much smaller groups. Big groups, no matter how many teachers they have, discourage individual attention and make it harder for children to interact well with each other.
A poorly compensated staff leads to high turnover. Of course, even the best preschools can sometimes find it hard to hire – and keep – dedicated employees.
Most preschool teachers are paid very little (usually just above minimum wage), and the demands of keeping up with a group of 3- and 4-year-olds every day can be wearying. But preschools that don't offer paid vacation and health insurance are even less likely to be able to retain staff long-term.
Bottom line: If teachers seem undertrained and overworked, or if turnover is high, the preschool isn't for you.
Dirty, unsafe facilities
A good preschool is clean and safe. It has to be to meet licensing requirements in most states.
Nevertheless, make sure the floors, walls, and kitchen area are clean. Also check that food preparation areas are far away from the bathroom, trash cans aren't overflowing, and the building is adequately heated, lit, and ventilated.
Make sure the preschool follows the basic rules of safety, too. Strangers shouldn't be able to just walk in off the street – and children shouldn't be able to wander out.
Toys and play equipment should be in good condition and upstairs windows (if any) should have stops or bars. Medication and all other hazardous substances should be stored out of reach, and the outdoor play area should be level and secure.
Working smoke detectors should be in place, radiators and heaters should be covered or otherwise protected, and a first-aid kit and fire extinguisher should be close at hand.
Bottom line: If the preschool seems dingy, cramped, or dangerous, move on.
An expired license
Ask to see a preschool's license and credentials, then call your local social services department to double check that everything is current. To be licensed, preschools must meet state licensing regulations for health and safety.
Of course a license doesn't guarantee quality care, but most states require certain credentials, and preschools that don't have them aren't fulfilling the most basic requirements.
Try to find a facility that has passed the stringent accreditation process required by NAEYC, a benchmark of quality childcare, by searching the organization's online database.
Bottom line: A license isn't everything, but if a preschool doesn't have one, pass.
Learn the signs of a good preschool.
Read more about finding a great preschool.