Choosing your child’s first preschool or finding a new preschool when you move can be challenging and stressful. This is especially true for areas where there are many schools but limited openings. Most parents begin their search with a few key factors in mind — price, location, schedule, student-teacher ratio — but there are a few other things to consider that you might not have thought of yet.
Once you find a school you like, it’s a hassle to change. Your child will miss her friends, and you must again enter the cycle of application fees, deadlines, and waitlists. So it’s ideal to find a school that will work not just for the coming year but for all of your child’s preschool years. If you add the considerations below to your mental checklist, you may save yourself time later by making the best long-term decision for your family now.
(The tips below are most applicable to half-day preschools rather than centers that offer full-time care.)
Inclement Weather Policy
What does your preschool do for snow days and inclement weather? Do they make their own calls or do they follow the local school district? If the local school district starts late, do they cancel or have an alternate schedule? Preschools usually serve neighborhoods and relatively small geographical areas while school districts can be expansive. This means that snow might not be that bad in the preschool’s area, but busses in the larger school district can’t run.
If you are counting on the hours of care that preschool offers, it’s worth considering how their snow policy relates to that of the school district and how many days of the year the district cancels. Also, does the preschool offer make-up days at the end of the year for days missed due to snow? If you have a flexible schedule, this may not matter at all, but for some parents, it may matter a lot.
Minimum Age and Siblings Who May Attend in Future Years
What is the minimum age for children to attend the school? Obviously you will want to make sure your child is eligible, but what about younger siblings in future years? Many preschools enroll children who turn two by the school-year start date (or by the local school district’s cut-off date which is usually within a few weeks of the start date, frequently the end of September). But some preschools take children as young as eighteen months and others don’t start until age two-and-a-half or three.
If you have an infant, it’s worth thinking about the age they will be able to attend preschool with their older sibling. If your infant was born in the late summer, even when selecting a school for your older child, you may want to strongly consider schools that take young 2s and not just older 2s. When the time comes, you’ll be happy you did.
Schedule for Future Years
Look at more than just the schedule for the year your child will first enroll. If you need care every Thursday due to your work schedule, and the 2s class offers this, you don’t want to be in a bind next year if the 3s classes are only offered on a Monday / Wednesday / Friday basis. If the days care is offered are crucial, check to make sure the school has no plans to restructure the days-of-the-week offerings in the future.
Many half-day preschools offer lunch bunch programs or enrichment classes that add an extra hour or more to the three or four hours of class time. Some also offer an early drop-off option. If you are interested in these programs, make sure to find out how they are structured. Do you have to commit to them for the year or by the month? Or can you use them on a day-to-day basis as needed?
Even if you don’t think you need extended care, are you sure you won’t need it next year or every now and then (like when you have a doctor or dentist appointment)? Maybe you think your child is too young to be away from you for more than just a few hours right now, but you may not feel the same way when they are in the Pre-K 4s year. By then you may welcome the extra school hours and even view it as a nice aid in transitioning to the longer kindergarten school day.
Speaking of the longer kindergarten day, frequently six or seven hours at many elementary schools, do you have any notion of delaying kindergarten? Does your child have a birthday late in the school year, meaning he or she will be one of the youngest in the class? Does your child tire easily or struggle with separation anxiety?
It’s hard to know how you will feel when the time for kindergarten arrives, but it can be a huge plus if the preschool you are considering offers kindergarten or an older 4s class open to five-year-olds who aren’t quite ready for a full day. One thing to keep in mind is that even if you choose to delay kindergarten, many school districts will work with you the next year to decide if your child should enter their kindergarten program or go straight to first grade.
If you have older children in addition to your preschooler, you may want to make sure the school calendars match up well. Many preschools will set their teacher workdays, conference days, and holiday breaks to match closely with the local school district’s calendar, but you may want to check. Or if your older children attend private school, their schedules may differ from the preschool schedule. It may be convenient to have your kids all in and out of school at the same time — or maybe it’s actually nice to have a day off with your older child while your younger one is in school and vice versa. However you ultimately feel about this, it’s worth considering it before you make a decision.
Does the preschool expect your child to be potty trained by a certain time? This may not matter when you child enters the first year of preschool, but a few schools may expect children to be potty trained by their 3s year. You may not want the stress of potty training around the school’s schedule versus your child’s. If you want to minimize stress, it would be wise to choose a school where they are happy to work with individual children based on their own level of development regarding bathroom independence. (Even some 4s will still have accidents due to a variety of reasons — too preoccupied with the task at hand to sense body cues, anxiety about using a bathroom outside of their home, still-developing fine motor skills that make opening snaps and zippers difficult, etc.)
Of course you want a school that’s not too far away from your home, but if you plan to drive back home each day you drop your child off, this matters even more than you might think initially. You will be making a roundtrip for drop-off and another roundtrip for pick-up. If you are considering one school that’s ten minutes farther away than another, that ten minutes will add up to forty extra minutes of driving on every preschool day (and twenty fewer minutes of time at home getting stuff done). This may not matter as much at first if your your two-year-old only goes two days a week. But by the time you have a four-year-old who goes to school daily and has social events at the homes of the clever parents who live right by the preschool, it will matter more. If you have a fussy infant along for the ride or if you just don’t love being in the car, then you should really think about those extra minutes.
When you attend a school’s open house, it may seem like there are far too few spots for so, so many applicants. Getting your child in may seem hopeless, but remember that all the other parents feel the same way, too. Ask the school’s director how long the waitlist has been in past years and how fast they usually move through it. Ask other parents with kids already enrolled in preschool how many schools they applied to and how quickly spots opened up after they were initially waitlisted. Since many families are applying at multiple places, schools may move through waitlists faster than you think.
Keep in mind that a school may have the most open spots to fill in the classes for the youngest students they admit. This is because the youngest students get first priority when moving up to the next class level, leaving fewer spots in the upper classes for the next school year. Of course, this is not the case if the school adds a class to the next level up. Still, it’s something you may want to ask about and consider at each school you look at — and if you really love a school but are deciding what age to start your child, keep this in mind. Obviously the first consideration must be your child’s personality and social-emotional development, but if you think your child is ready early on, your search for preschool spots at schools you like may be easier.
Are you looking at traditional preschools or cooperative preschools? Parents have fewer responsibilities at traditional preschools, but the tuition cost may be higher. At co-ops, parents are usually expected to help in the classroom on a regular basis and to assist with school maintenance, operations, and fundraising. You will get to know other families and have many great opportunities to closely observe your child at school, but the time commitment on your part will be significant.
Teachers, Classrooms, and Playgrounds
These are probably the most important factors of all. Attend open houses or schedule tours. Is the director relaxed and welcoming? Do you like the class sizes — not just in terms of the student-teacher ratio but in terms of the number of kids in each class and how the classrooms are laid out to accommodate them? Does the playground support what you envision for your child’s time outside? Are there natural elements, loose parts, and sensory-stimulating spaces? Is the school set back in a neighborhood or right by a busy street? Do the teachers connect with the kids, show empathy, and offer the right amount of guidance without being overbearing? Do they use positive language and seem patient? Seeing different schools in action may be all you need to narrow the choices down to a select few.
The only way to end here is by wishing you lots of luck in making your preschool decision. And know this: once your child does get into a preschool you both love, you don’t have to go through this miserable process again — until kindergarten!
You might also like: How to Help Your Child Have a Good Day at Preschool.