Teacher Chen Chen Lu helps Lola Spasojevic, 3, hide some treasure in her multi-colored castle at the Children's Center for the Stanford Community in Palo Alto.

Teacher Chen Chen Lu helps Lola Spasojevic, 3, hide some treasure in her multicolored castle at the Children’s Center for the Stanford Community in Palo Alto. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

A growing body of research indicates that a high-quality preschool education can position children for academic success for years to come, but how does a parent know what to look for when it comes to selecting a school for their child?

Effective preschool programs share common elements that should be easily identifiable on even a brief introductory visit, said Stanford University education professor and early childhood education expert Deborah Stipek. Stipek met EdSource Today recently for a tour of the Children’s Center of the Stanford Community, a private, nonprofit preschool for children ages 3 months to 5 years open to the children of Stanford students, faculty and other employees. During the tour she pointed out best practices parents can look for during a visit to a preschool they’re considering for their child.

Preschool is not a mandatory grade, but it has long been popular with parents seeking more than just child care in the years before public school begins. While the Stanford center is a private program with substantial tuition costs, Stipek stressed that the techniques employed there can be seen at quality programs across the economic spectrum, from federally funded Head Start or state-run programs, to private preschools operating throughout the state. Most of the practices Stipek identified aren’t costly to implement, but seeing them in practice can give a parent important gauges of teacher effectiveness and student engagement. A slideshow accompanying this story illustrates the practices identified by Stipek in use at the Stanford center as well as at other centers.

The following are some key signs of strong programs that parents can look for:

Quality of teaching

At first glance, a well-run preschool can look a lot like children playing, but even play offers lessons for preschoolers. The educational value of building towers out of blocks or making pretty colors with the water in an ice cube tray isn’t always clear to an outsider, but a good teacher will be able to explain it, Stipek said.

“Good teaching is purposeful,” Stipek said. “If you ask the teacher, they should be able to articulate why (students are doing) this activity and what the learning goal is.”

For example, the children building a structure out of wooden blocks in one corner of the room are learning about spatial reasoning, basic physics and, since they’re working in a group, cooperation. The children mixing different colored waters in ice cube trays are learning about the basics of color theory: yellow and blue make green. Both activities are an example of children learning by exploring their environment, Stipek said.

“This is what cognitive development people refer to as ‘spontaneous development,’” Stipek said. “They get this kind of intuitive understanding of something – then later they’ll learn the science of it.”

Many of the teachers at the Stanford center have bachelor’s degrees in early childhood development, said center director Karen Myers, yet California does not require that preschool teachers hold bachelor’s degrees. While many child education experts say a bachelor’s degree or higher is preferred, the state requires only that preschool teachers hold a Child Development Associate Permit, which calls for less than a year’s worth of formal training and a few months’ worth of in-classroom experience. High-quality programs provide ongoing training for their teachers and some offer teachers help in pursuing additional certifications or higher education.

Good teachers of all levels know that young children have short attention spans and that the best way to get students to concentrate longer is to give them the autonomy to choose their own activity or their own way of doing a group activity. One way to measure a teacher’s effectiveness in this area is to look at student art displayed on the walls, Stipek said. If every piece of art matches – 18 identical brown teddy bears, for example – that could indicate that activities at the school are largely teacher-directed. High-quality programs will display more varied student artwork.

Giving students a choice about which activities they pursue does not mean teachers don’t have a plan for the day, Stipek said. Many preschools work with a curriculum, and that may require whole-group activities. That’s fine, Stipek said, as long as there’s a mix of teacher-supervised and self-directed activities.

“You don’t want to be telling (the children) what to do all the time,” she said. “You want to make sure there are experiences all kids get because they’re important, but it’s also important to let them bring themselves to the task.”

To ensure children have proper supervision, state law sets strict guidelines for how many adults are required to be in the classroom, as well as well as guidelines for how many children a certified teacher can supervise. Preschool classrooms in California are typically staffed by multiple adults, each with different experience and educational levels, to keep the adult-to-child ratios low. State law requires one adult per every eight, 3- or 4-year-old child in a preschool classroom, and one certified teacher to every 28 preschool students. Most centers employ assistant teachers, who often hold lower-level teaching certifications, to ensure that state ratios are met. In some co-op programs, parents may also help supervise classrooms. The required ratios are lower for younger children.

Tips for parents: Look for students participating in a variety of activities that allow them to exercise choice, be creative and have fun. Ask teachers or center leaders to explain the purpose behind a few of the activities you observe. Ask about the educational background and experience of the center’s lead teachers. 

Classroom environment

Preschool classrooms should have an open floor plan with low shelves, tables and chairs and a visible bathroom section, Stipek said. Though it can look odd, state law requires that toilets for children in preschool and day care programs be within view of the teacher. Often they will be set behind a low wall that an adult can easily see over but that provide some privacy from other children.

“Look at the environment and see how safe it is if the child wasn’t being watched every second,” Stipek said.

The unique artwork created by students at the Children's Center for the Stanford Community in Palo Alto is a sign that the program allows children to create their own work.

The unique artwork created by students at the Children’s Center for the Stanford Community in Palo Alto is a sign that the program allows children to create their own work. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Stipek pointed out the rounded corners on a nearby bookshelf as an example of a safe environment. Parents should look for general cleanliness as well as safety features such as covered electrical sockets, toys without sharp edges and safe storage of potentially dangerous materials, including paint and cleaning supplies.

Blocks, dolls, books and anything else available for free play should be readily accessible by students without adult intervention, Stipek said. During “center time,” when children can pick various activities set out for them around the classroom, materials should be set out at low tables that children can access on their own.

“A thing you see in not-very-good schools is that kids have to ask for toys,” she said. A strong “teacher wants to maximize the genuine, problem-solving interaction with the child,” Stipek said, not spend time retrieving toys.

Even the arrangement of materials in the center at Stanford is purposeful: An area for reading contains a couch and bookshelves; one corner has several types of blocks on display and plenty of space for building; and a third area dedicated to dress-up and make-believe play provides a toy stove, a pretend phone and a “doctor’s office.” Stipek said clear separations between different parts of the room help children navigate their environment. They know where to find the books, they know where to put the blocks away and they know where to go if they want to pretend to cook dinner with their friends.

“One thing we’ve learned about early childhood is how important pretend play is, so really good schools have an area that’s conducive to pretend play,” Stipek said.

Pretend play teaches children empathy, encourages language development and gives them space to solve problems. If a child is pretending to be a doctor, for example, he has to think about how the doctor would feel toward his patient, practice saying adult “doctor” words, and figure out what to do when there are more dolls than bandages. Allowing time and space for this kind of play is important for development, Stipek said.

Tips for parents: Look for well-organized classrooms that allow teachers clear sight-lines when children are playing independently. Low shelves should be stocked with items that encourage children to play creatively. Check that classrooms and playgrounds are clean and include child-proof safety measures. 

Attention to student performance

Some parents may cringe at the thought of their young child being tested, but a strong preschool program will keep track of the development of individual children. Several well-established assessments of social and emotional growth as well as academic preparedness are available to early childhood educators. These non-academic assessments help parents and teachers measure important developmental traits such as self-esteem; whether children understand what adults are telling them; a child’s ability to keep trying a new task – like rebuilding a tower that’s fallen down; and fine motor skills.

Noticing and identifying developmental delays, learning disabilities and health problems is another part of a preschool’s job. Parents should be notified of any concerns and work with teachers to identify ways to address the issue if such a delay is identified.

There is not a set list of skills that children are expected to have when they leave preschool, but the assessment of developmental growth used in most California preschools can give parents an idea of the kinds of skills children should have to be ready for kindergarten. Social skills like the ability to take turns, control impulses and play cooperatively with peers are critical skills for doing well in kindergarten.

On the academic side, children who can identify letters and numbers, know how to hold a book and turn the pages and understand early math concepts, such as counting and the names of shapes, will be well prepared to start kindergarten. Some preschool programs place more emphasis on academic skills than others, and parents should ask center leaders for more details on their program. High-quality schools offer children time to play and explore, have teachers who present activities that encourage thinking and problem solving, and offer a clear way to track developmental progress, Stipek said.

Tips for parents: Ask center leaders how they track child development and screen for potential problems. Look for an outline of the school’s curriculum or ask how pre-academic skills are encouraged.

Student, staff interactions

Teachers should interact with children on their level, literally. The three teachers in the Stanford Center preschool classroom regularly crouched or knelt next to their students.

Gabriel Garfin, 5, bandages a doll with a hurt tummy in the pretend doctor's office at Children's Center of the Stanford Community in Palo Alto.

Gabriel Garfin, 5, bandages a doll with a hurt tummy in the pretend doctor’s office at Children’s Center of the Stanford Community. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

“Notice that she just got down on her knees and made eye-to-eye contact?” Stipek said as a teacher greeted a child waking up from her afternoon nap. “That was a wonderful little interchange that shows a teacher who is approachable and supportive.”

Creating eye-to-eye contact encourages students to talk with teachers longer, thereby developing their language abilities, and it makes children more comfortable with their teachers, creating a bond that gives children a solid base from which to explore. Research shows that a secure attachment between teachers and young children encourages learning.

Preschool teachers are stand-in parents for very young children, who learn best when they feel cared for and emotionally connected, Stipek said. Teachers must tend to minor injuries and sometimes help children with tasks such as tying shoes or changing pants after bathroom accidents. A hug if a child is feeling anxious or hurt is appropriate for this age group, she said.

Another way teachers can connect with children is by engaging them in conversation. Strong teachers spend more time listening than talking, Stipek said. In addition to making children feel validated, it “gives kids some space to develop their language skills,” she said.

Children should also interact with each other voluntarily as well as at the teacher’s behest. When there’s a disagreement between children, teachers should help them settle it between themselves whenever possible, rather than doling out punishment. In fact, Stipek said, disagreements should be rare in a well-run classroom with plenty to do and materials for everyone.

“By having the clear routine and having a safe environment, the teachers don’t need to be yelling at the kids,” Stipek said of the Stanford center classroom. Since students knew what to expect from their teachers and their classroom, they were less likely to have outbursts, she said.

One incident illustrated what Stipek said was an effective teacher response to an upset child. A boy shouted, “It’s mine!” when another child wanted to use the same art supplies. A teacher was at his side immediately, but instead of scolding him, she said, “That was a pretty big reaction.” By acknowledging how the child felt without judging him, the teacher was able to move past the outburst quickly and address the issue of sharing. In a moment, the boy had calmed down and there was a plan for how the two children could share the art supplies.

Tips for parents: Look for classrooms with engaged teachers and children who show spontaneous signs of trusting their caregivers, like running up and hugging them or asking them to join in a game of pretend. See if children choose to play together during free time and ask teachers what they do to encourage cooperation.

To view the complete photo essay, click here or follow the Photo Snack link on the last slide.

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.


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  1. Jack Mulligan 1 month ago1 month ago

    I can’t believe I never thought of considering the layout of a preschool as part of the decision. I always worry that my very active child will hurt himself when he’s doing things on his own so it’s really important to me that supervision is optimal. I’ll have to start considering that as part of the preschools quality. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Lillian Schaeffer 2 months ago2 months ago

    This is some great information, and I appreciate your point that a preschool teacher should be able to tell you what the activities are teaching the children. My daughter turns four this month, so I want to get her started on preschool this fall. I’ll definitely try to find a place that has quality teachers who are able to show what they’re teaching the children. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Lillian Schaeffer 2 months ago2 months ago

    These are some great tips, and I appreciate your advice to pay attention to how preschool students interact with the staff. My daughter is almost old enough for preschool, so my husband and I have been discussing finding her a preschool. I’ll definitely be sure to visit before making a decision, and I’ll pay careful to attention to how the students and teachers interact. Thanks for the great post!

  4. Faylinn 3 months ago3 months ago

    I just moved my family and I to a new state and so I am trying to figure out which preschool I will be sending my son to in the fall. I definitely want a program where the teachers are well trained. However, how do students benefit from teachers who have bachelor degrees compared to those who do not?

  5. Kyle O'Ren 3 months ago3 months ago

    You’re right about the importance of a child to be tested in preschool programs. It’s important to identify any developmental issues or learning disabilities as early as possible. It’s great that a third party like a preschool can administer tests to help find out more about your chil.d

  6. Lillian Schaeffer 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is some great information, and I appreciate your suggestion to find a preschool with good quality of teaching. My daughter is old enough to go to preschool now, so I want to find a good program for her to learn and have fun in. I’ll definitely ask about teaching methods to see if the children are given some choice in how to do things so they can grow in their own way. Thanks for the great post!

  7. James Bergman 4 months ago4 months ago

    One of the thing I pay the most attention to when signing my children up for preschool is how the teacher interacts with them. If the teacher can get their attention and get them to trust them, eye contact is big, then chances are that my kids will learn more from said teacher. In my opinion having a good teacher makes up for a lot. So, even if the location isn't my favorite, if I … Read More

    One of the thing I pay the most attention to when signing my children up for preschool is how the teacher interacts with them. If the teacher can get their attention and get them to trust them, eye contact is big, then chances are that my kids will learn more from said teacher. In my opinion having a good teacher makes up for a lot. So, even if the location isn’t my favorite, if I love the teacher I will take my kids there.

  8. John Carston 5 months ago5 months ago

    I’m glad to have found this site for the helpful preschool tips you’ve provided. You’ve shared a lot of good advice for finding a great preschool like what to look for in a good classroom environment and quality of the teaching that I’ll need to use. Thanks for the helpful advice for finding a preschool.

  9. Jen Pack 6 months ago6 months ago

    As my children have started getting older I have realized that I need to start looking for a preschool program for them. I like how you point out the importance of visiting potential preschools to see how the environment is and how safe it would be. I imagine that you could also get a feel of how the teachers are and how happy the kids are to be there. I will be sure to try that out!

  10. Priyanka 6 months ago6 months ago

    Great observation

  11. Rockford Johnson 6 months ago6 months ago

    Great post! Thank you for helping me understand what to look for in a preschool. I like how you said that"At first glance, a well-run preschool can look a lot like children playing, but even play offers lessons for preschoolers. The educational value of building towers out of blocks or making pretty colors with the water in an ice cube tray isn’t always clear to an outsider, but a good teacher will be able to … Read More

    Great post! Thank you for helping me understand what to look for in a preschool. I like how you said that”At first glance, a well-run preschool can look a lot like children playing, but even play offers lessons for preschoolers. The educational value of building towers out of blocks or making pretty colors with the water in an ice cube tray isn’t always clear to an outsider, but a good teacher will be able to explain it.” The preschool that my niece goes to has really helped her develop her mind and has helped her to be a smart, intelligent girl at such a young age.

  12. Justin Knox 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for the help. My oldest daughter will be starting preschool soon and my wife and I are trying to decide where to send her. I like your emphasis on the classroom environment. I think classrooms are very telling about a school. I want it to be a place where my daughter will feel comfortable and excited to be there.

  13. Dee Francis 7 months ago7 months ago

    These tips are really good to know to help me find a good preschool for my son. I liked your tip to do some research about how a program tracks child development and screens for potential problems. That seems important to help with my son's development in school. You also made a great point about how looking at the curriculum and how academic skills are encouraged at a preschool when choosing one. I would want … Read More

    These tips are really good to know to help me find a good preschool for my son. I liked your tip to do some research about how a program tracks child development and screens for potential problems. That seems important to help with my son’s development in school. You also made a great point about how looking at the curriculum and how academic skills are encouraged at a preschool when choosing one. I would want to know what my son is going to be taught and that he’s going to receive a lot of encouragement from his teachers in class, so asking these questions will help me find the right school to send him to. Thanks for the tips!

  14. Children Of America 1 year ago1 year ago

    Whenever parents call into Children Of America and ask us questions about our school they are trying figure out if COA will fit into their families lives. I encourage any parent who is searching for child care to 1. Ask as many questions as you can think of, don't worry, we don't mind :) 2. Drop in and see how your child likes the facility 3. Trust your instincts. You know your child and family … Read More

    Whenever parents call into Children Of America and ask us questions about our school they are trying figure out if COA will fit into their families lives. I encourage any parent who is searching for child care to 1. Ask as many questions as you can think of, don’t worry, we don’t mind 🙂 2. Drop in and see how your child likes the facility 3. Trust your instincts. You know your child and family better then anybody else, so trust your gut. 🙂 http://www.childrenofamerica.com/locations.cfm

  15. Paula Campbell 3 years ago3 years ago

    Thank you for this article which is an excellent guide for parents and for school board members (that would be me) with preschools in their districts. As an aside, my granddaughter attends this school and during my short visits there, I have found it to be an interesting, supportive, creative, and most importantly, fun preschool. Congratulations to them on a job well done.

  16. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    It's also important to request written proof that: - all teachers employed by the preschool are "highly qualified" under the No Child Left Behind Act; - the preschool administers the CST - Algebra I annually; and - the preschool's long-term cohort studies reflect high college admission rates. In all seriousness, this is an excellent article, Lillian. You and Prof. Stipek touch many bases and offer clear examples to parents. The photo of a boy playing with a doll is … Read More

    It’s also important to request written proof that:

    – all teachers employed by the preschool are “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act;

    – the preschool administers the CST – Algebra I annually; and

    – the preschool’s long-term cohort studies reflect high college admission rates.

    In all seriousness, this is an excellent article, Lillian. You and Prof. Stipek touch many bases and offer clear examples to parents. The photo of a boy playing with a doll is daring. It not only reinforces the point about the importance of “pretend play” but also encourages parents to look beyond arbitrary gender roles.

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