Trusting Their Gut

When Seeking a Care Program, Parents Sometimes Have to Rely on Instinct

By Lexi Gray Andrew

Parents often spend months searching for a good fit in child care, taking into consideration things like curriculum, class size or a facility’s reputation. But even with all the facts spread out in front of them, sometimes parents end up following their gut instincts—or wishing they had. Statistical information goes a long way, but even the facts cannot assure parents that their child will bond with teachers, make lots of friends or feel comfortable at their new child care facility. Even when a factual comparison of local centers presents a clear “winner,” some parents don’t make a final decision until they see where their child feels most at home.

Trial and Error: A Common Thread
Carolyn Ronis of Leesburg has two adult children, so when it came time to select a preschool for her daughter Sofija, 3, she was familiar with the process. Still, her practical knowledge of early childhood education did not help her avoid a negative experience with one local preschool.

Ronis chose Sofija’s first preschool based on its location, and she ignored a nagging feeling that the facility was not right for her daughter. Ronis says she learned the teachers avoided interaction with the kids and often seemed uninterested in communicating with them at all.

“They would just talk to each other and totally ignore the kids, even when a child would specifically come up to a teacher to show them something. That was heartbreaking to me,” Ronis says.

Even though she felt uncomfortable with some of that preschool’s teachers, Ronis says she gave the preschool several chances to get it right. “They called and said they had let the other teachers go and hired new ones, and that Sofija would love the new teachers. So I visited yet again, and the new teachers were very nice—and I thought [they] would be great.”

Ronis adds, “Sofija had a great first two days, but then we never saw the new teachers again. Sofija often ended up with the very teachers we had initially complained about.”

Finally, Ronis took Sofija out of that first preschool and began her search yet again. She says it was ultimately her “gut” that led her to choose Sterling-based Classroom of Discovery, who has now been there for more than a year.

“We visited the facility and were impressed. Sofija felt very comfortable there—even after being traumatized at the last facility a few months earlier,” Ronis say. “Now my child is happy, loves school, loves her teachers, and we are fully aware of everything they have done in class each day—what more could we ask for?”

Even those with a wealth of knowledge about preschools have been disappointed with programs their children have entered. For instance, few people are as experienced with early childhood education as Stafford resident Patricia Reynolds. A professor in the University of Mary Washington’s master of education program, Reynolds is also the legal guardian of her grandsons Jonathan, 5, and Caleb, 11.

Jonathan is currently enrolled in the Red Apple School, located in Stafford, and Caleb previously attended the same program. Reynolds’ daughter also attended preschool at Red Apple in the early 1980s, giving the family considerable experience with that particular school.

Still, there was somewhat of a trial-and-error process for Reynolds where Jonathan was concerned. He was previously enrolled at another local preschool, but Reynolds pulled him from that program because it ended up not meeting her expectations.

“The other preschool didn’t have the kind of programming that was going to academically prepare Jonathan to go to school,” Reynolds says. “They were doing nothing more than housing the children, because the kids weren’t engaged in any academic-type activities.”

When Reynolds took Jonathan out of the other preschool, she immediately enrolled him in Red Apple. “The children at Red Apple are learning valuable life skills, because there are real guidelines for classroom behavior and interaction. It’s a wonderful way to socialize them so they are ready to attend grade school.”

She adds, “The focus at Red Apple is very oriented toward getting the kids ready for grade school. That’s been their philosophy from the very start, and it holds true today.”

Just Not the Right Fit
One warning sign that a child’s care situation is not working out is when his or her teacher is constantly frustrated and exasperated, and only has negative things to report, says Rachna Varia, co-founder of MindWell Psychology, a practice of child psychologists located in Chantilly. Preschool teachers should be able to balance out their reports with at least one positive thing to say about a student, she adds.

For infants and toddlers, who are at an age when they can’t yet express their feelings, Varia says parents will be warned in several ways if their child’s center is not working out. “Young children often cannot be consoled, they show regressed behavior, or there is a dramatic change in their sleep routine,” says Varia.

In order to prepare infants and toddlers for entering preschool, Varia suggests parents read back-to-school books like “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn, or “DJ Goes to Preschool” from the Arthur series by Marc Brown. Varia also says parents should “prepare children through play dates or by leaving them with a babysitter so they know the parents will come back.” She suggests parents tell their young children about a special event they plan to do with them after their first big day at school.

When it is taking a month or more for a child of any age to adapt to their new preschool—meaning they go to school crying or are still upset at the end of the day—the facility may not be a good fit, Varia says.

When a child doesn’t adapt to one particular program, it doesn’t mean they’ll never adapt to another, says Varia. “Montessori school might be better for more independent kids, while other children need more group structure. Some children might do better going to preschool three hours a day, three days a week, rather than a full-time program.”


A Peek Inside the Classroom
State initiative and national associations test schools

Virginia’s early care and education rating program, the Virginia Star Quality Initiative, takes into consideration the often-subjective process of how parents choose a preschool.

According to Kathy Glazer, former director of Virginia Office of Early Childhood Development, these star ratings place the most emphasis on how a preschool’s teachers and students interact. “Because of the importance of interactions—based on research—our standard weighs this facet most heavily,” Glazer says.

Anne Hyslop, who previously held the position of State Initiatives Coordinator with the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, was in charge of the initial phases of the program—tested in more than 180 classrooms throughout Virginia. “It is a really clear way to show parents what a quality preschool program looks like,” says Hyslop.

In the United States, all preschools have the opportunity to become accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), but each program must first meet a strict set of requirements that take into account, among other things, the importance of how each child interacts and adjusts.

NAEYC spokeswoman Kristina Gawrgy says, “One of the most important things to consider when looking into early childhood education programs is to ask and observe the relationship the teacher has with the children already in his or her care.”


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(January 2010)