The early years are critical to children’s development, and as that awareness has grown, so has interest in preschool. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than two-thirds of U.S. 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool, up from only 28% in 1970. And 44 states and the District of Columbia now offer some free public pre-K.
Multiple studies — from the Perry Preschool Project in the 1960s to emerging data on Boston’s public pre-K program — have found that children who attend preschool have more school success and better life outcomes than those who do not, even many years later.
But quality matters. In many pre-K studies, an early boost in “school readiness” skills has been shown to fade out over time. And a randomized, controlled trial of Tennessee’s public pre-K program found that, by sixth grade, children who had attended pre-K were significantly worse off than peers who had not gotten slots in the program. While researchers can’t be sure what caused these results, it’s clear that programs vary greatly in quality and effectiveness.
So what makes a high-quality preschool? And with so many choices — from co-ops to churches, day care centers to public and private pre-K-12 schools — how do you find what’s best for your child?
Early childhood education experts say that the type of program you choose is less important than key factors like how teachers interact with students, whether the space is specifically designed for young children and whether learning is play-based and culturally responsive.
“I think sometimes we get caught up in these ideas that there’s a perfect model or there’s a perfect school, but you can get a great experience in many different places,” says Suzanne Bouffard, a developmental psychologist and author of “The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children.”
“I actually think that’s part of what makes it so hard,” she adds, “because a lot of us don’t know what to look for, a lot of us are overwhelmed by the options.”
Here are some factors to keep in mind when selecting a preschool.
Teacher quality is one of the most important factors in a good preschool, experts say, and it can’t always be measured by a piece of paper.
“As a parent, you really want to look for, does the teacher respect the children, does the teacher treat your child as an interesting person to learn about, and is there joy in the classroom,” says Dale Farran, a professor of early childhood education at Vanderbilt University and an author of the Tennessee study. “And you don’t need a teaching degree in order to create that kind of environment.”
Ideally, parents should arrange a preschool visit where they can observe teachers in action. One thing to look for is teachers who listen more than they talk, says Deborah Stipek, former dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
“I’ve seen a lot of teachers asking open-ended questions but not really listening to the child’s response,” she explains. “It’s like her job is to ask the question. But what her job really is is to engage the child in a meaningful conversation, which requires listening to the child and following up with the child.”
If you’re unable to visit during the school day, Farran suggests talking with teachers about their approach. “See if they get excited about the kind of learning opportunities they might be able to provide,” she says. “If (the teacher) goes right into, ‘I make sure they know all their numbers and letters,’ that’s not what you want.”
Good early childhood teachers see each child as a puzzle to figure out, not an empty vessel to fill, experts say.
“You’re trying to figure out their talents, you’re trying to figure out what makes them tick,” says Iheoma Iruka, a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and founding director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at the university’s Frank Porter Institute for Child Development.
That’s a different framing than the traditional notion that teachers are there to “make kids smart or fix them,” Iruka says, and it’s one that’s particularly important for Black kids, who are “often positioned as ‘less than’ or not smart enough.”
Educators should see the gift in each child, Iruka says, and “provide the space, the opportunities, the materials to affirm them and engage them.”
A Classroom Designed for Younger Learners
When you visit, consider whether the space is set up for the needs of young children. “Within the classroom, you don’t need a lot of desks or tables,” says Farran. “You need a rug, where they can sing songs and all gather together, and then you need a lot of centers that have interesting things to do.”
If the pre-K is part of a K-5 or K-12 school, the preschool space should be separate from the rest of the school, ideally with its own bathroom and playground right outside the door. “The more transitions children have to do, the more negativity there is, because teachers have to control children,” Farran explains — for example, keeping them in line and quiet in the hallways.
Bouffard notes that parents looking at a private elementary or pre-K-12 school should evaluate the pre-K and the rest of the school on their own terms. Preschool classrooms should look distinctly different from the rest of the school, even the elementary classrooms.
“I’ve been in a number of private schools where the pre-K classroom is a little more structured, a little more uniform,” she says. And while these were not low-quality environments, she says, “they were not my favorite classrooms, because they weren’t as focused on holistic development, and on getting messy and exploring things.”
Look for classrooms that display children’s work, rather than generic posters, and that reflect the cultures of the children in the class.
“I’m looking for … are there ways to bring in nature, bring in artifacts from other countries, bring in languages,” says Iruka. “I’m looking for a sense of, this space is breathing, and it’s also representative of the kids in the classroom.”
And if class is in session, you should notice “a productive hum,” says Bouffard — not silence. “Kids should be busy and they should be chatting and they should be making the noise that young children make, but not in a chaotic way.”
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“It’s important to understand that what academic learning looks like in later elementary school is not what it should look like in preschool,” says Bouffard. Young children need to “construct” knowledge by playing, exploring and discovering, not listening to a teacher give a lesson.
In some pre-K classrooms, academics and kindergarten readiness have become synonymous with the teaching of basic skills like counting, letters and letter sounds. But experts say it’s far more important that preschools help children develop the deeper cognitive and social-emotional skills — like self-regulation, attention, executive functioning, flexibility and persistence — that will lead to long-term school and life success.
“There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, everybody’s going to learn them by the end of kindergarten,” says Farran. “What you really want is a child who is confident, who’s got good language skills, who can be persistent, and who has been provided the opportunities to learn about the world in ways that encourage that child to learn more about the world, to be more curious.”
To build those deeper skills, preschool classrooms should feature a mix of child-directed free play and what Stipek calls “playful learning.”
Playful learning, also called guided play, involves activities that are designed with a specific learning goal in mind, but that are hands-on and open-ended, with teachers engaging children in questions and conversation as they work.
Teachers “might model a bit, introduce some new vocabulary, but they’re not telling children what to do or asking children to reproduce what they do,” says Bouffard. “They’re really making children be an active constructor of their knowledge.”
Culturally Responsive Classrooms
Preschools should reflect the communities they serve, another factor that isn’t captured in state-level quality standards. “Being rated as high quality doesn’t mean it’s actually culturally responsive,” in particular for Black children, says Iruka.
Parents should not only look at the curricula, books and materials that are being used, but also at educational practices, she says. “I look for spaces where there’s not this … control of body and mind, this level of you must do this this way, you must act this way, or if you don’t, then you are being disruptive.”
There should be diversity among the school’s teachers and leadership, and parents should make sure the program feels like a good fit not only for their child, but for their family, experts say.
“If it doesn’t work for me, if I’m not able to interact with the leadership and my child’s teacher in a way that’s comfortable and affirming, eventually that’s going to wear thin,” Iruka explains.
Alternative Approaches: Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio-Emilia
Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio-Emilia-inspired preschools are guided by approaches designed specifically for young children, and tend to emphasize exploration and discovery. But Stipek cautions that every program is different.
“What people call Montessori or Reggio-inspired varies hugely,” she says. “The one thing I would say to parents is don’t just go by the name. Observe. And the same things apply.”
Bouffard agrees. “I think sometimes we use the names of these programs or these models as shorthand” for a high-quality program, she says. “And I really encourage people to both be thoughtful about what’s happening in the classroom and also to not be stressed about whether it has to be a Montessori, or Waldorf or whatever it might be.”
Experts emphasize that pre-K is not a “magic bullet” for solving educational inequalities and that your preschool choice is not the be-all, end-all of your child’s educational journey.
“I would just tell parents, you know what, kids are built to grow and develop, and it’s important we allow that flourishing to happen,” says Iruka, “and not feel the pressure to create the Einstein baby.”
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