Friday, February 01, 2013

A Preschool Primer

I'm fortunate to know a veritable expert in the field of early childhood education.  Since our oldest is of the age where formal education looms on the horizon, I asked her if she wouldn't mind sharing some pearls of wisdom on things I should keep in mind as I begin researching our educational options.  After a really interesting conversation on child development, educational theories and the merits of formal education, I came away with this list of things to look for when choosing a preschool classroom.

The Learning Environment

Is the classroom stocked with toys that represent diversity?  Are there ethnic food toys and paints of varying skin tones? Does the library of books represent cultural and familial differences?

Are there dress up clothes for boys and girls beyond the traditional princess gear often associated with dress up play?

Do the classroom materials offer challenge and inspiration?  To add depth and interest, a teacher might strategically rotate toys so that one week children use blocks and trucks and the next week they're offered blocks and dinosaurs in an attempt to stimulate creative play.
Do parents have access to the classroom at all times? An open door policy is important for transparency and parent engagement.

What is the staff to child ratio?  Preschool should have no less than a 1:14 ratio.

The Educator and Curriculum

Are the children encouraged to produce original artwork?  If every project displayed on the walls appears to have adhered to a strict template, it's a tell tale sign that the teacher is not terribly creative or engaged and is probably more interested in conformity than individuality.

What percentage of time in the classroom is devoted to the children's agenda versus the teachers agenda? Preschool classrooms should follow a play-based child-led model of learning.

The school curriculum should not be hinged on holidays.  Surprisingly, I'm told it is quite common for a teacher to plan activities and art projects almost exclusively around holiday celebrations.

Are the teachers oriented to child development rather than grade level? Grades are somewhat arbitrary and children are most likely to succeed if their individual learning style and abilities are respected.

Does the school offer multi-age classrooms?  Valuable interactions and lessons exist when young children can learn directly from the big kids and then later become the big kids themselves. 

Does the teacher utilize an integrative curriculum?  No single curriculum model will ever meet the needs of a whole classroom of children.  A good teacher will pick and choose from a variety of models and discard approaches that don't suit his or her students.

How are the formal standards of education implemented?   Is the curriculum engaging such that it promotes joy in learning or is it rigidly devoted to meeting the standards?

What levels of teacher training are required by the school?  A degree in child development is a must for early childhood educators and a bachelors degree is preferable.

Does the school hold recognized accreditation?  Parents in the US can rely on the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) to identify early childhood education programs that have met professional standards. 

The Affective Environment 

Is guidance offered before discipline?  Does the teacher assist children to learn strategies to solve social problems rather than taking a punitive approach?

What is the style of interaction between teacher and student?  A teacher who has the emotional development of a child in mind will a facilitate whatever it is the child is showing interest in and help the child to clarify what they are experiencing.

Is there a policy on bringing a child's comfort objects? School is major transition for most children and the ability to bring a much loved toy may help to ease the adjustment period.

Reflecting on these points has been incredibly helpful in thinking through the type of educational experience I am seeking for my children.  I expect that it will also be useful in critically analyzing a classroom situation once they do begin school.  Many thanks to Suzanne for summarizing knowledge gained from years of experience in the field and for reviewing a draft of this post. In the next post, I'll discuss my research on preschool options and the decisions we've currently made regarding school.

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