Choosing a Daycare or Preschool
For a new, or newish, parent, choosing a daycare or preschool for your child can be a harrowing experience. For those who will be returning to full-time work outside of the house, long wait lists often mean finding placement before the child is even born, and thus having no notion of what type of program will suit his or her personality. The combination of factors to consider—
program, teachers and caretakers, convenience, cost, facilities—can feel overwhelming. Here are eight pieces of advice, with insights from parents who have been there:
- Rely on other local parents. Seek out your neighborhood parent Facebook group, listserv, friends of friends, etc., and ask for the good, the bad, and the ugly. Find parents who have similar circumstances. Administrators and school directors, even the best ones, are trying to sell spots. Other parents are the best way to get the real skinny on the schools.
- Consider the cost. Childcare is expensive. The cost of a full-time daycare center or preschool in Northern Virginia can cost more than college tuition. Just because a program is pricier doesn’t mean it’s better.
- If possible, visit when school is in session. Take a close look at the facilities. Is everything clean and childproofed? Is there space for mobile children to crawl or walk around? Are toys developmentally appropriate? Having all organic, fair-trade toys isn’t necessarily a requirement, nor are the latest technological gadgets, but if you’re looking for a spot for your 3-year-old, you want to see more than just soft infant toys.
- Watch the teachers/caregivers. Are they down on the children’s level, interacting with them, or holding babies on their laps? How is a conflict resolved? What’s the student:teacher ratio? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1 adult for every 3 children up to 12 months, 1 adult per 4 children for 13 to 35 months, and so on.
- Ask all the questions. You are trusting your child to these people, so find out everything you want to know. Do they practice positive discipline? Are the adults certified in CPR and First Aid every year? What happens if your child gets hurt, or is just having a bad day? How long do you need to keep your child home if he’s sick? What happens, especially in a home-based daycare situation, if the caregiver gets sick? What kind of communication can you expect? What if there’s an emergency and you’re going to be late to pick your child up? What’s the policy on food? What sort of a schedule are the children on? This is another area where your fellow parents are an invaluable resource. Ask them what questions they had. You’re bound to hear something you didn’t think of.
- Listen to more than what the school director is saying. An administrator can say all the right things about pedagogy and policy, but listen to her tone. Is she warm? Does he seem genuine when interacting with your child? Are they eager to answer all of your questions thoroughly and with kindness? How accommodating can the school be to your family’s needs?
- Are the teachers happy? Find out what the typical rate of turnover is. If most of the caregivers are only there for a year or two, why? The longer a caregiver stays, the more job satisfaction he or she is likely to have. Furthermore, what kind of training do they have? Higher levels of education can indicate higher levels of care and enrichment, so look for programs where the teachers have at a least a four-year degree in a related field, like early-childhood education.
- Don’t sweat college admissions now. Studies have shown that preschool can have long-term benefits in terms of school readiness and social development, but worrying about toddler academics isn’t what this period of care and schooling is all about. Certainly, seek out a facility with a philosophy that matches your values, be it a Montessori preschool, a home-based or nature-centered childcare program, or a religious daycare, but focus need not be on the 3 Rs at this juncture. Rather, seek out a program where you feel confident your child will be safe, loved, and well-cared for.
As if choosing the right daycare or preschool for your child isn’t challenging enough, parents of what we’ll call “borderline babies”—that is, children whose birthdays fall within a couple of weeks of the September 30 kindergarten cutoff (here in Virginia) date—have yet another decision to make if the program they select is divided by age. Do you want your child to be the oldest in the class, where she might gain confidence by her developmental abilities being ahead of some classmates’ and have the opportunity to be a leader, or the youngest, where he might be inspired by slightly older children who have progressed more, and perhaps develop some skills earlier than expected?
Probably the most famous recent examination of the benefits of an age advantage is in Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, and subsequent discussions around academic “red-shirting,” —that is, holding back a child whose birthday falls just before kindergarten entrance—have been widely examined. However, many schools will advise keeping a child “on track”—that is, placing them according to their birthday, with some local elementary school teachers remarking that students who began early are often noticeably behind their classmates. That said, as one mother pointed out, sometimes it’s necessary to finagle your 23-month-old a spot in the preschool twos class “for Mama’s mental health.”
Parental Preschool Jitters
Let’s be honest. That first day you take your child to daycare or preschool is probably going to be more stressful for you than for your kid. Stories of parents who plaster on smiles for drop-off, then cry in the car abound. But here’s what you need to remember: You’re all going to be okay. Here are a few tips to quell (mostly your!) first-day anxiety:
- Get comfortable with the school. That means ask all the questions, meet the teacher, see the facilities … the more you feel at ease that your child is in good hands, the better you’ll feel about this new step in your life.
- Give yourself a pep talk. She’ll have fun. He’ll learn new things. It’s good for kids to be around their peers. This is time for me to get work done without interruption.
- Remember, adjustment can take time. Maybe your shy child will cry and cling at the door, and that is bound to break the heart of any parent who isn’t used to dealing with separation anxiety (yours or theirs). But most children will quickly adjust to the new environment, even if there is some (completely normal!) regression. Again, remember: You did the research, asked the questions, and chose the best possible option. You’re all going to be okay.