How to Pick an Early Childhood Program

A positive childcare or preschool program lays the foundation for later success in school. However, it is important to recognize that the right program for one child may not be appropriate for another, even for two children in the same family. Begin the selection process by considering what kind of setting best suits your child and your family's needs.

  • Nursery or preschools are private or locally funded, secular or religious and are located in either private facilities or municipal buildings.
  • Cooperative preschools require parent involvement in the classroom. Parents serve as teachers' aides for a few days per month or share in other routine tasks, such as bookkeeping and maintenance.
  • Montessori schools are operated on the philosophy that young children learn best through direct sensory experiences, such as manipulating blocks or pegboards. This philosophy is reflected differently at each Montessori school.
  • Lab schools are affiliated with colleges or high schools and use student teachers. Some also combine programs with research studies on effective early education.
  • Full-day programs (often called daycare) are located in an individual provider's home or in a separate childcare center.

When picking a program, find out the size of the school, its location, the number of days and hours offered, the availability of extended hours, how different ages are grouped, class size and the cost of the program.

After deciding which type of program best meets your criteria, you should visit more than one preschool or daycare site so you have a basis for comparison. Ask yourself the following questions:

The Program

  • Does the program have a clear, written statement of its goals and philosophy?
  • Does it consider a child's social, emotional and physical needs?
  • Is the atmosphere warm, nurturing and accepting?
  • Does the curriculum meet your child's needs?
  • Is the content culturally diverse and free of sexual bias?
  • Does the school offer a balance of individual, small-group and large-group activities?
  • Do activities encourage self-expression?
  • Is there a balance between quiet periods and vigorous activities?
  • Is there a routine to most days?
  • Are expectations and limits clear?
  • What is the discipline policy?
  • Does the program have an up-to-date state license? Is it accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, a division of the National Association for the Education of Young Children? (Accreditation is a voluntary self-study of staff qualifications, physical environment, curriculum, parent questionnaires and observations by the director, staff and a representative of the NAECP. It's not a guarantee that the program is good or right for your child, but it does provide one further indication of quality.)

The Teachers

  • What are teachers' qualifications?
  • What is the ratio of children to teachers?
  • Is there frequent staff turnover?
  • Do teachers encourage and respond to children's natural interests?
  • Are they cheerful and patient?
  • How do the adults interact with the children and with each other?

The Setting

  • Does it look safe indoors and outdoors?
  • Can you imagine your child in this setting?
  • Are the children happy, relaxed, feeling good about themselves and engaged in meaningful play?
  • Does the setting foster productive interactions between children?
  • Is there a wide variety of materials? Are they orderly and easily accessible?
  • Do equipment and toys encourage individual and group play and improve gross and fine motor skills?

Parent Involvement

  • Is parent involvement welcomed and encouraged? How?
  • Will the school's administration refer you to parents whose children have attended the program or are attending, so you can call them?

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