Tools for parents: What to look for in a preschool program

October 20, 2013

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. 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. 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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