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5 Red Flags at Your Child's Preschool That Shouldn't Be Ignored

Ms. Meyers taught preschool and kindergarten for years. Now she evaluates early childhood education centers and spots many areas of concern.

Whole group instruction gets overused when the student to teacher ratio is too high.

Whole group instruction gets overused when the student to teacher ratio is too high.

Parents Should Keep a Watchful Eye

After thoroughly researching preschools and painstakingly selecting one, some parents then make the critical mistake of letting down their guard. When they become troubled by certain aspects of the program, they’re hesitant to make waves and even more reluctant to switch schools. They figure that their youngster seems happy enough and convince themselves that no experience in early childhood education is perfect. Tragically, though, overlooking red flags is something that moms and dads can live to regret.

As a former teacher who now visits and evaluates preschools, I implore parents to stay alert and keep their eyes open. I encourage them to speak up when things aren’t as they were promised. Moreover, I beseech them to always keep in mind that preschool owners are running a business in which profit margins are incredibly slight and, therefore, they worry constantly about keeping down costs.

In early childhood education, salaries are low, employee turnover is high, and morale is often odious (despite teachers remaining adept at presenting smiley faces). Because of these factors, program quality and consistency can suffer. With that in mind, here are five red flags at preschool that moms and dads should never overlook.

5 Red Flags at Preschool

1. The class size keeps growing.

2. The owner promotes academics over play.

3. Phonological awareness isn't emphasized.

4. The children's art looks the same.

5. There are few math manipulatives.

1. The Class Size Keeps Growing

Many scholars in early childhood education agree that a low teacher-student ratio is the most essential element of a quality preschool program. It's imperative, therefore, that parents stay adamant about keeping the class size small. This is especially true when a persuasive owner tries to convince them that adding just one or two more children won't be detrimental when, in reality, it most certainly will.

When I taught preschool, my boss would routinely add students throughout the school year. We'd begin in September with a reasonable teacher-student ratio of 1:10. By November, though, it would typically grow to 1:11 and then 1:12 by March. If parents questioned it (which they rarely did), the owner gave her standard response to appease them. She'd say: "Don't worry. My very talented and experienced faculty can handle the increased numbers without any difficulty."

Moms and dads, though, should not fall silent to such a response and push back. Without a doubt, adding just one more student can drastically reduce quality. It results in less individualized attention, fewer small group activities, greater safety concerns, and more conflict among kids. It also increases the likelihood of a teacher getting burned out and not surviving the school year.

One of the worst effects of larger numbers is increased whole group instruction at circle time. Because of their short attention spans and need for hands-on learning, children find this frustrating, stressful, repetitive, and boring. It's an adult-centered experience, not a child-centered one, that results in a less than optimal learning environment for them.

In their 2012 findings, Hanover Research reported the following critical information about preschool class size:

Smaller class size and lower student-teacher ratios are strongly correlated with achievement and learning, especially in younger students. The accepted teacher-student ratio for a pre-K program is 1:10, as stipulated by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) However, the ratio is further parsed to address the different needs of different pre-K groups, with a 1:6 ratio preferred for students age 2.5 to 3; a 1:7 ratio for 4-year olds; and a 1:8 ratio for 5-year-olds.”

If the class includes children with special needs, the teacher-student ratio should be lowered even more.

2. The Owner Promotes Academics Over Play

In order to appease parents who want their kids prepared academically for kindergarten, more preschool owners now offer early enrichment. Unfortunately, in doing so, many co-opt ideas used at elementary schools and thrust them upon young learners. As a result, little kids get subjected to developmentally inappropriate practices such as writing in workbooks, doing paper-pencil math assignments, and sitting through teacher-directed lessons. As a result, they can suffer from undue stress and frustration and get turned off to learning.

Moms and dads, therefore, should see a preschool owner who pushes early academics as waving an enormous red flag. In reality, those who create a child-centered environment and promote a learn-by-doing approach are the true champions in early childhood education. They're the well-informed ones who know that decades of research show that play is the best way for youngsters to build their vocabularies, enhance their communication, expand their imaginations, practice their social skills, promote their curiosity, and develop empathy.

Today, we have companies around the globe seeking employees who possess a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ). It's these "people person" skills that are in greatest demand. In fact, there are now a plethora of books and workshops that claim to help people cultivate emotional intelligence so they can thrive in the workplace and move up the corporate ladder.

Yet, any preschool owner worth her salt knows that EQ is best fostered at an early age and through one vehicle: play. Instead of teaching it to adults at workshops, emotional intelligence is best learned during childhood as kid interact, talk, negotiate, share, compromise, and pretend. Any owner who doesn't appreciate the supreme importance of play at preschool is someone who moms and dads should surely doubt.

In this must-see TED talk, Dr. Peter Gray explains why free play is not only critical for a child's well-being but for society's as well.

3. Phonological Awareness Isn't Emphasized

Not promoting phonological awareness on a daily basis is another red flag at preschool that parents shouldn't ignore. They should make certain that there's a program in place that emphasizes these sound-related skills that are the foundation for reading. Studies show that kids who are phonologically strong are much more likely to become competent readers. With that goal in mind, preschool teachers should be promoting it with the following activities:

  • Reading nursery rhymes, poems, and rhyming books such as Dr.Seuss.
  • Asking the children to name phonemes in words (cat has three phonemes kuh-aaa-tuh). Asking them to name the beginning, middle, and ending sounds.
  • Having the youngsters clap the syllables in words (food has 1 syllable, pizza has 2 syllables, spaghetti has 3)
  • Stressing the sounds of letters over the names of letters (it's more important children recognize that cat ends with the sound tuh rather than the letter t).
  • Playing music that rhymes by singers such as Raffi, Dr. Jean, and Hap Palmer.

Promoting phonological awareness should always be done in a fun and lighthearted manner. Because it's all about the sounds of language, it should be taught orally and not with workbooks or other paper-pencil tasks. Workbooks of any kind aren't developmentally appropriate for preschoolers and are another glaring red flag.

4. The Children's Art Looks the Same

A magic wand made from a paper towel roll, adorned with paint and glitter, a stained-glass vase made from tissue paper squares, glue, and a soda bottle, a picture frame made from Popsicle sticks and's hard for parents to see these adorable preschool craft projects as a red flag. After all, they take great delight in displaying them in their homes or gifting them to grandparents on special occasions. Yet, for the sake of their youngster's imagination and initiative, they really should see them as a negative.

These teacher-directed craft projects do little to promote a child's creativity, decision-making abilities, and self-confidence. In fact, they do the very opposite. Because they're taught in a step-by-step follow-my-sample way, they restrict a youngster's budding artistic vision. Moreover, they make kids feel frustrated and inadequate when their completed projects don't look as polished as the teacher's. Instead of being inspired by the creative process, they're left feeling defeated.

In The Ooey Gooey Handbook: Identifying and Creating Child-Centered Environments, Lisa Murphy makes the case for preschool art programs that give kids autonomy. It's the guide that I used when promoting art to my students as well as my own two kids. These empowering experiences help youngsters discover a passion for art through painting, collage-making, drawing, printmaking, and molding with clay. With child-centered art, the process of creating is celebrated more than the finished product. Kids make things that reflect their uniqueness. They learn to talk about their art and what it represents. Most significantly, they come to see creating as a joyful activity that's soothing to their souls and lets them express themselves in ways other than words.

Teacher-directed art stifles creativity, decision-making, and self-confidence.

Teacher-directed art stifles creativity, decision-making, and self-confidence.

5. There Are Few Math Manipulatives

A preschool with few math manipulatives is a red flag that parents shouldn't dismiss. A well-stocked classroom should have Geo-boards, Unifix cubes, sorting objects, Cuisenaire rods, pattern blocks, counters, dice, number lines, scales, a cash register, and play money. If moms and dads see that these items are lacking, they should seriously question how math is being taught and if it's being done in a hands-on, age-appropriate way.

A solid preschool math program is one that gradually transitions children from the concrete (manipulatives) to the abstract (numerals). It stresses exploration, small group activities, and dramatic play such as running a lemonade stand, being a checker at the grocery store, or pretending to be a bank teller. Teachers integrate numerals, counting, pattern-making, and problem-solving into the curriculum through games, art, finger-plays, and songs.

Elliot Eisner, the highly regarded professor of Art and Education at Stanford University, argues that teachers should set out the same manipulatives again and again throughout the school year. By repeatedly using these materials, he claims that youngsters develop “automaticity.” This, in turn, results in a strong understanding of mathematical principles. Studies show that kids need long, uninterrupted blocks of time to explore materials deeply and gain knowledge from them.

Today, many preschool teachers use a large calendar as their primary means of introducing math concepts such as counting, sequencing, and patterning. Some experts in early childhood education, though, argue that letting kids explore with math manipulatives is much more effective and developmentally appropriate. In their article entitled, "Calendar Time for Young Children: Good Intentions Gone Awry," the authors say that math is best taught in small groups where kids handle materials and the teacher guides their exploration. They claim that this is far more powerful than calendar time when kids sit passively while the teacher goes through the days of the week, the months of the year, and yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Since these concepts of time are meaningless to young children, they contend that calendar is largely a waste of time.

Final Thoughts

Early childhood education should be a magical time when learning is new, fun, and empowering. If parents stay vigilant about their children's preschool, they can help them become passionate, self-motivated learners. If they see red flags and choose to ignore them, though, they risk making preschool a less than inspiring experience for their kids and that's a terrible shame.

In this video, a teacher explains why exploration is such an important part of a quality preschool.

What Do You Think?

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on August 28, 2016:

Thanks, teaches 12345, for reading and commenting. As a former director of childcare programs, I know you're aware of the huge turnover among preschool teachers. That's why it's so important to have a strong program in place that emphasizes child-centered learning, hands-on exploration, and small group work. It takes a strong leader to resist today's pressures to incorporate structured lessons, academics, and paper-pencil tasks. Good preschools are still out there, but they're harder to find.

Dianna Mendez on August 28, 2016:

As a former director of childcare programs, I found it most rewarding to work with teachers with a passion to teach quality education and supported by parents engaged in their child's education. There are a few preschools out there providing this type of learning environment. If a parent finds one -- stay with it and support it! Your tips are great and provide insight on what to observe as a parent.

McKenna Meyers (author) on September 28, 2015:

Thanks for the compliment. I have a tremendous passion for early childhood education and early childhood intervention. However, recent experiences have made me wary. In too many instances, we're doing the opposite of what the educational research tell us to do. It reminds me of years ago when schools started to reduce or even eliminate recess so they could add more academic time. Well, with the epidemic of childhood obesity, we now know that was a bad idea. But, in truth, we knew it was wrong all along.

ologsinquito from USA on September 28, 2015:

This is an excellent article. I've never even imagined there could be so many problems in a typical preschool setting.