Most parents approach the search for child care or preschool with a mix of practical and emotional considerations. Schedule, cost and location are a few important factors, so a good first step is to talk to family and friends, and begin to narrow down the programs near your home or office that works with your schedule.
Write down a list of key questions and begin to contact programs to get a sense of space availability, cost, enrollment procedures and other basics. You will begin to get a sense of the school on the phone, but the in-person visit is where you really determine whether this will be the right fit for you and your family.
Although many high-quality programs welcome walk-in visitors, most early childhood directors advise that you make an appointment so you are sure to have time to talk with the director and have a tour. Bring your child if you need to, but many parents find it most useful to visit first on their own in order to really focus on the program.
It’s helpful to review a checklist before your visit. Below, we’ve compiled common questions to ask and key observations to make when visiting an early education center:
Questions to Ask
· What are the group sizes and how many teaching staff are in each classroom? (Note: In Massachusetts, toddler rooms generally cannot exceed nine children with three educators, while preschool rooms cannot exceed 20 with two educators). You may find programs that improve upon these ratios.
· Is the program NAEYC accredited? The National Association for the Education of Young Children accredits programs demonstrating best practices in a number of areas.
· What is the philosophy of the school?
· What kind of parent communication will you receive? It’s reasonable to expect daily written updates for infants and toddlers and weekly updates for preschool children. You should also see evidence that parent participation and feedback is welcome.
· Is the program licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (DEEC)?
· What are the qualifications and longevity for the staff?
· What are the qualifications of the staff and the program director? Having a B.A. in Education or a Master’s Degree in Teaching does not guarantee quality. Good teachers are warm, nurturing, interested in children, motivated to learn more about their field and respectful of the natural knowledge and skills that children bring to the classroom.
· Is there a consistent schedule for child activities? You should see a posted schedule, including a mix of active and quiet times as well as time for small and large group activities. The schedule should be predictable so that children and staff know what to expect each day.
Things to Observe
· Can I envision bringing my child here every day? Would my child have a good time in this classroom?
· Do the children seem happy and well cared-for?
· Does it seem like children are responded to if they are sad or crying?
· Do the adults smile and seem happy to be at work? Do they seem to like children? Do they make eye contact with
children and listen to what they are saying?
· Does the director (and/or teacher) feel like someone I can talk to?
· Do I trust the adults in this program?
· Were all my questions answered? Do I feel comfortable asking more questions?
· Was my phone call/email returned promptly?
· Do you see lots of books? Are they in good condition? Evidence that writing materials are available for children who want them? Word labels for classroom items (“paint” or “blocks”) are a good sign for preschoolers, but might not make much sense for infants and toddlers. You want the sense that the staff understand the developmental needs of children at different ages and stages.
· Look at wall displays, but also at examples of work on shelves and in cubbies. Is creativity evident? Seeing all artwork looking the same or following a teacher’s example is a red flag.
Just as the early learning program will support your child’s social, emotional and cognitive growth, it should also be a setting where you feel supported and welcomed as an adult and a partner.
Jeanne Ruckert Lovy is the Assistant Vice President, Young Children and Their Families at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. The JCCs of Greater Boston has five Early Learning Centers in the Greater Boston area. For more information, visit bostonjcc.org/elc.