Choosing the Right Childcare Program: A Parent’s Guide
It’s no secret that attending an early learning program will prepare your child to succeed in kindergarten and beyond, but finding the right program can be as overwhelming as it is exciting. After all, the decision is not only a big event in your child’s life, it is also a significant milestone in your parenting journey! As a result, you should approach this task in the same way you would approach finding a new job or a new house. In both cases, you would expect to invest lots of time and energy in making the right decision. The same goes for selecting an early education program.
Step One: Start with the Basics and Identify Your Priorities
The best way to keep from becoming overwhelmed by the process of choosing a childcare program is to first clearly define what is important to you and your family. This will help you narrow down the general location and type of setting you should research, making the process of comparing programs more manageable.
- Is it important for the facility to be near your home?
- Is it important for the facility to be near your workplace?
- Does the facilities’ schedule accommodate your own schedule?
- Is your family eligible or interested in subsidized programs such as Head Start or other state-funded programming?
Step Two: Become Familiar with Common Terms
For most parents, the most confusing part of choosing an Early Education program is trying to make sense of terms and acronyms you may not be familiar with such as, “Montessori Method,” “IEP,” “Waldorf Approach,” and “faith-based.” Oftentimes, these terms refer to the programs’ “educational philosophy” which is essentially what the program values and emphasizes within its curriculum. While educational philosophies are numerous and their definitions are not set in stone, here are a few of the most popular philosophies you may encounter:
The Montessori Method
The distinguishing feature of the Montessori Method is that children learn at their own pace and educational progress is not be based upon comparing students to one another. Letting children learn at their own pace also affects how classrooms are arranged, with children ages 3, 4, and 5 all being in the same room. This allows the older children to serve as role models for the younger ones, and also exposes children to different ages
The Waldorf Approach
The Waldorf Approach is a play-based philosophy characterized by a predictable structure, providing children with a dependable routine, such as certain days of the week for set activities like baking or gardening, as well as mixed-age classrooms with the same teacher for multiple years. What stands out about Waldorf is its stance against traditional grading systems and exclusion of media in the curriculum. Waldorf does not include media (computers, videos or electronics of any kind) and also does not involve academics, which means no homework, tests, handouts or even desks.
The Reggio Emilia Approach
Reggio Emilia programs are known for a project-based approach, which many preschool programs have borrowed. In a project-based curriculum, lessons are based on the interest of the students. Reggio Emilia programs are also known for documenting what children do, taking photos, making videos, and writing observations. This allows children and teachers to review what they’ve done throughout the year.
The Bank Street Approach
Advocates of the Bank Street Approach hold a child-centered philosophy and believe that children are “active learners, explorers, experimenters, and artists” and benefit from a diverse curriculum. The system stresses the importance of materials in the classroom and views the teacher as a “facilitator of learning.” This method aims to help children make sense of the world around them by studying multiple perspectives, both in the classroom and in nature.
The High Scope Approach
This approach emphasizes letting children oversee their own learning. Children are taught to plan for what they would like to do each day and participate in review sessions to discuss the success of their plan. The High Scope Approach maintains that “children learn best through hands-on experiences with people, materials, events, and ideas.”
Step Three: Do the Research and Schedule a Visit
Once you have defined your own requirements and have a good idea of what type of program would best suit your child, you should have a list of programs you are interested in visiting and learning more about. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Licensing – Ask to see copies of all licenses and certifications required by the state agencies that regulate the program.
- Is the program licensed by the Department of Public Welfare or the Department of Education?
- Does the program participate in any accreditation programs?
School Schedule – While flexibility may suit the needs of parents, it is important to remember that some children may find the unpredictability of who or how many children will be in the classroom on any given day upsetting.
- What are the operating hours of the facility? Find out when they open and close and what holidays the school is closed.
- What type of scheduling is available? Full-time, part-time, and flexible scheduling are generally available to accommodate your work schedule depending on the program.
The Facility – Make sure you schedule a visit to programs you are considering to get a feel for the school and its atmosphere.
- Does the school feel warm and welcoming?
- Do the children look happy?
- Do the school encourage parents to visit and spend time in the classroom?
- How well does the school setting match your child’s temperament and maturity level?
- Is the facility clean and well maintained?
Health and Safety – Discuss with the Program Director general safety features of the program so that you can ensure your child will be well taken care of and the learning environment is safe.
- Are meals and snacks provided?
- Is potty training required?
- Does the school have clearly defined protocols on when to call 911 or Poison Control?
- Is there a fire safety and escape plan in place? Are there posted evacuation plans, smoke detectors, and fire extinguishers?
- Are staff members trained in CPR and first aid? Are there first aid kits readily available?
- What is the school’s illness and medication policy? Are children required to have immunizations and regular health evaluations?
- Does the facility have a monitored entranced, accessible emergency information, and a child release policy?
Teachers – Your child’s primary interactions in an early education program will be with his or her teachers. Before you even meet with the teachers, ask the Program Director about staff experience, training, and certifications.
- What is the staff-to-child ratio?
- What kind of staff training is offered and required?
- What percentage of the staff hold degrees in Early Childhood Education?
- What is the turnover rate among teachers?
Curriculum – During your child’s early years, they will be experiencing rapid growth cognitively, socially, physically, and emotionally. Learn how the school addresses each of these areas.
- Is there a developmental curriculum that includes a variety of activities and experiences?
- What is the school’s educational philosophy and do you agree with it?
- Is there a balance of between play and formal learning, as well as group and individual activities?
- Do the children have outdoor play? Look for secured play areas with age-appropriate supplies and equipment that promote the development of motor skills.
- Is there an opportunity for napping?
- How are children grouped in classes?
- How is discipline handled?
Step Four: Making Your Decision
Now that you have properly vetted each of your options, it’s time to make a decision! Use our Checklist (link to PDF here) to ensure all your concerns have been addressed.
Positive word of mouth is a powerful endorsement. Be sure to speak to friends, family, or other parents in your neighborhood for some final insight. Often times you can get the best information from peers whose judgement you trust and may have first-hand experience with programs you are considering. Many programs also happy to provide references.
Most importantly, trust your instincts. A program may boast shiny new books and supplies, have a pristine facility, and be affordable as well, but if it doesn’t feel right then it isn’t! At the end of the day, only you can decide what is best for your child and family.
Remember choosing the best early education option doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. Successful parents approach the process aware, informed, and ready to ask questions. Proper preparation will make the process efficient, effective, and meaningful for you and your family!