Imagining your child, who surely was born just yesterday, leaving your home and heading to preschool is no easy task. First, there’s choosing the right preschool. Then, there’s the letting go.
I wasn’t sure where to begin.
As a former school administrator and preschool teacher, I imagined this day to be easier. But, it felt way more uncomfortable now that it was my child. Not only did I have to consider my child in someone else’s care, but I also had to consider all the factors that go into choosing the right preschool facility: Price, location, curriculum, ratings, age range, subsidy, availability, etc.
So, I did what any parent does. “Google, here I come!”
I spent many hours scouring the internet, calling, and taking tours to decide what school fit our family best. Terms like “NAEYC,” “Montessori,” and “Waldorf,” flew at me and I realized I needed a quick refresher on what all these words actually meant!
I also wanted to hear from my community about their experiences: “How did your child like it? What did you love most? Were they able to accommodate your child’s special interests/needs? Why did you choose this or that?” were all questions I relied on as part of making my own informed decision. I took notes, listened, and referred to trusted databases with parent reviews.
Eventually, we were ready to choose the right preschool for my son. I felt like I won the jackpot when we secured a coveted spot, while also successfully differentiating all the terms along the way. I was surprised by how deeply I felt a sense of relief when our decision was made.
Now, on the precipice of making this decision again and choosing the right preschool for my second child, I am referring back to the information I compiled while picking a preschool for my son, hoping I feel much less overwhelmed on the second go-around. I also added a few extra things that I’ve learned along the way… hoping to save another rookie-mom from the same Google searches I once had to make.
Allow me to share my beginner’s guide to choosing the right preschool:
Preschool vs Daycare
Often, these terms are used interchangeably when discussing your child’s early school needs. “Preschool,” however, refers more specifically to schooling for children ages ~2.5-5 that follows a structured curriculum and development-based activities to prepare the child for kindergarten. Preschools’ operating hours tend to mimic those found in the public K-12 schools (~8 AM -3 PM) with hours potentially added on for extended care. Finally, some schools prefer to differentiate preschool from daycare by acknowledging that their lead teachers hold bachelor’s degrees in education.
Licensing, Accreditation, and STARS
Vermont Child Care Licensing– The majority of Vermont child care facilities are required to be licensed. This includes preschools, daycares, camps, and many large, home-based programs. According to the Department of Child and Family Services, “These rules are minimum requirements established to protect the health and safety of Vermont’s children in out-of-home care.” (A common exemption includes home-based daycares with no more than 2 families outside of the caregivers’ family.)
In addition to licensing, many preschools undergo an accreditation process that ensures that they follow a set of quality standards. Two of the accreditation organizations in Vermont include NAEYC and the Vermont STARS program:
NAEYC is “a professional membership organization that works to promote high-quality early learning for all young children, birth through age 8, by connecting early childhood practice, policy, and research.” Its rating system falls on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest rating a facility can achieve. The NAEYC rating helps to measure such aspects as staff competencies, curriculum, and the relationships between staff and adults to ensure positive, supportive environments for all.
STARS is “Vermont’s quality recognition system for child care, preschool, and afterschool programs.” Similar to NAEYC, it has a scale of 1-5, and measures aspects such as staff qualifications, student/staff interactions, and the overall strength of the program.
All of these measures helped to reassure me both as an employee, and a parent, that a childcare facility was taking the proper steps to promote a safe, healthy, and fun learning environment for the staff and children involved.
There are several curriculum options to choose from, however, I chose the three most prominent curriculums that came up in my preschool search:
Montessori is “a method of education that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play.” This approach places a lot of emphasis on the child’s decision-making abilities and materials used to promote “natural curiosities.”
Reggio-Emilia “views young children as individuals who are curious about their world and have the powerful potential to learn from all that surrounds them.” Through this approach, children are often exposed to learning in multiple forms such as art, expression, music, print, etc. Collaboration is also highly valued and classrooms may include mixed ages.
Waldorf “offer(s) a developmentally appropriate, experiential, and academically rigorous approach to education.” As part of their curriculum, Waldorf schools believe in inspiring students and using varied methods that include art and literature to help students experience learning. One of the goals of Waldorf education is to have students emerge as life-long learners who are passionate and are of service to the world.
There are also many programs throughout the state who choose not to label their curriculums. Instead, they may opt to list important components that could include: outdoor education, play-based learning, religious/faith-based, STEM, love/kindness, etc. It’s important to take some time to read about individual programs to see which align with your own family values.
Questions to Ask
For this one, allow me to refer back to a fellow Vermont Mom Writer, Kat Salemno. Kat devised, “16 Questions to Ask When You Are Choosing a Daycare.” Kat encapsulates most of the common questions asked and covers everything from health and safety to the sick policies and hours.
I would also add two of my own questions:
- How does your facility support teachers? This could include examples such as leave, pay, creative license/freedom in their classrooms, mental health support, etc.
- What does parental involvement look like at your school? Are there opportunities to volunteer, visit, etc?
Affordability and Tuition Assistance
I would be remiss if I didn’t share that one of the most important factors that often goes into choosing a preschool is cost. Childcare is expensive!
First, when considering the cost of childcare, it’s important to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Some childcare facilities provide a yearly tuition rate, while others provide an hourly rate. In addition, some only run during the school year while others run year-round. Finally, some run for more hours, or charge extra for things like before and aftercare. To help get the most accurate cost, I converted all options into an hourly rate, dividing all tuition by the months in session and hours of care.
Second, it’s important to know what types of support exist for parents when it comes to offsetting some of the childcare costs. Here are a few options:
Employer Benefits- Ask your work if they provide any type of childcare benefits.
VT Child Care Financial Assistance– Based on income guidelines, Vermont’s Department of Children and Families provides childcare support to qualifying families. Note: you must also check to see if your preschool qualifies.
Act 166– “Provides access to publicly-funded prekindergarten education for Vermont students.” Essentially, Vermont children over the age of 3 by September of that year will be given 10 free hours for 35 weeks annually in any available, prequalified program. Parents must apply to receive this funding.
Head Start Programs– Programs available to children ages 0-5 at no cost for low-income families.
Early Childhood Special Education Services- Provided for preschool students with identified disabilities and significant developmental delays.
Scholarships- Many childcare facilities offer their own scholarships to enrolled families, as well. Always worth looking into.
I know this can all seem overwhelming… trust me. But, I hope above all else you learn to prioritize the factors that are most important for you and your child. Maybe it’s location, price, curriculum, etc. Whatever the case, I hope this guide saves you some time and effort, and helps you to make an informed decision when choosing the right preschool.
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