Ah, spring. So many things to look forward to: tulips, playgrounds and … preschool applications?

Although it’s only been a few weeks since the groundhog saw his shadow, it’s time to start making plans for next fall. If you feel overwhelmed by the process of finding a preschool, you’re not alone. Early childhood education is an exciting but bewildering maze with huge variation in program types, cost, and quality.

Early childhood expert Marcy Whitebook points out that enrolling in preschool is much more confusing than enrolling in elementary school. She says the landscape of K–12 education is like the geography of New York City: mostly organized in a logical grid that you can follow on a map.“But early childhood is more like Los Angeles,” as in: sprawling and not always clearly labeled so sometimes you find yourself in a different neighborhood than you expected.

So how do you find your way?

Despite having an advanced degree in child development, I felt stressed and overwhelmed when it came time to choose a preschool for my child. To help other parents, I spent two years researching what good preschool classrooms look like and how families can find them. Although there is no definitive map for arriving at the “right” preschool, programs do have some signposts. You just have to know they are there.

What I learned from visiting schools and talking to experts boils down to this: Focus on the teachers.

Children’s learning and development revolve around relationships with adults, and the teacher-child relationship should be a special one. Great teachers are warm and nurturing, and they guide children rather than punishing them.  They tell children what to do, rather than what not to do. They find fun opportunities to nudge learning, like singing songs that teach about rhymes, or helping children count the number of legs when they find an insect. Great teachers are curious about each child’s unique personality and needs, and they believe every child has potential.

Great teaching is most visible when you see it in action, so it’s very helpful if you can tour preschools. Of course, many of us aren’t able to visit during school hours, but we can ask program directors or current students’ parents about how the teachers interact with kids and how much experience they have. Some schools are also starting to offer virtual tours that you can watch at your convenience. You can learn a lot during a quick tour, if you know what to look for and what questions to ask. Here’s a cheat sheet — feel free to take it with you!  

What to Look for in a Preschool

  • How do adults talk to children? Do they bend down to their eye level, use their names, and talk in a warm, encouraging way? Or do they sigh, roll their eyes, and talk down to children?
  • Is there a daily routine? Do children seem to know what to expect and what is expected of them? Look for clues that teachers use consistent guidance — for example, about how to treat others or how to cope with transitions.
  • What do teachers do when conflicts arise? Do they give children strategies for managing social challenges and explain why they are important?
  • Are children active and happy, with choices of activities and plenty of time to play outside?  
  • Do you see children’s art on the walls? If the art is varied and messy or you don’t know what it’s supposed to be, those are good signs! However, if every child made a ladybug in the exact same way, that suggests teachers are focusing on compliance rather than creativity.
  • How much teacher turnover is there? A high turnover rate can be a sign that teachers are unhappy or treated poorly, and can compromise chances for children to build stable, trusting relationships.

For many families, selecting a program mostly comes down to cost and convenience. Those factors are indeed very important, but there is a surprising array of programs even within a price range. Spending a few minutes learning about program specifics is well worth the effort. Asking questions isn’t disrespectful; in fact, most preschool staff welcome questions. After all, preschool should be all about exploration and learning new things — for parents, too!

Great preschools can look different and, as we often tell our children, “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” I found a wonderful preschool for my children that has an unassuming entrance in the loading dock of a large building and no windows. It also has outstanding teachers and bright, engaging classrooms where children are busy and happy. There are lots of these hidden gems out there, just as there are also lots of programs that look great on the outside but feel hollow inside. As you get ready to send your child off to school, it’s worth doing a little homework, well before your child has to do any of their own.

Watch Together

Getting ready to send your child to preschool? This Daniel Tiger strategy song can help you talk about what to expect.

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