Ten Things Parents Should Avoid at All Cost When Choosing a Preschool for Their Child
Do No Harm!
“First, to do no harm” is a maxim taught to aspiring doctors at medical school, warning them that it's often better to do nothing for a patient than intervene and risk greater damage. As I visit dozens of preschools each year, I think this saying should now be used in early childhood education as well. That's because some youngsters today would be better off with no preschool education than the one they're getting that's developmentally inappropriate and turns them off to learning.
Many preschools today are just the bottom rung of a long academic ladder where little kids get prepped for kindergarten. Play has been minimized and teacher-directed lessons have increased, causing kids to feel stressed out, killing their imaginations, and making them sit still and listen at a time when their brains are wired to explore. Sadly, the very things that many uninformed parents desire in a preschool are the things that are most harmful to their kids. With this in mind, here are ten things that moms and dads should avoid at all cost when choosing a preschool for their child.
1. A Teacher Without a Degree (or Units) in Early Childhood Education
There's a sad trend in early childhood education today of elementary school teachers getting hired to work at preschools. Some parents see this as beneficial, thinking their youngsters will get better prepared for the academic rigors at kindergarten and beyond. They're discounting, however, the profound differences in early childhood education versus elementary. Those with early childhood education (ECE) units have intensely studied how young children learn best: play, hands-on exploration, social interaction, and sensory experiences. They know how to provide activities that engage preschoolers in a fun and age-appropriate way without requiring them to do things that cause undue stress, frustration, and self-doubt.
2. An Academic Focus
The current obsession with preparing kids academically for kindergarten ignores the vast majority of educational research that shows it's detrimental to young children. The acclaimed Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, observed how youngsters learned and saw that it was different from how adults acquire information. He saw that kids construct their own knowledge through experiences, not having it handed down to them from grownups. The best preschool teachers, therefore, act as guides who encourage exploration and discovery. They provide rich hands-on learning opportunities and stimulate deeper understanding by asking probing questions.
3. No Philosophy
A school-wide philosophy shapes the culture of a preschool and puts everyone (teachers, parents, and kids) on the same page. It guides every decision made at the school (both big and small) on matters such as curriculum, discipline, nutrition, manners, sharing, and playing. My son attended a parent co-op preschool with a philosophy that children learn best through play and that moms and dads should work together to provide a fun and stimulating environment for them filled with developmentally appropriate activities. Each month the director of the preschool and its elected board conducted a meeting for all parents where the school's philosophy got illuminated and re-enforced so our shared commitment to play never wavered.
Having computers in a preschool classroom is a sure sign that teachers don't appreciate how precious this time is for kids to play, socialize, and explore. It shows they're not familiar with the research that states young children on average spend a whopping seven hours a day watching screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends just one hour for two to five-year-old youngsters. Any respectable preschool owner knows kids need to spend less time with technology, not more. Letting preschoolers watch screens is lazy and irresponsible.
5. Workbooks, Worksheets, and Paper-Pencil Tasks
Writing activities at preschool put the cart before the horse. Rather than paper-pencil tasks, which are developmentally inappropriate, youngsters should do fun activities that strengthen their hand muscles and build dexterity: pounding, squeezing, and molding play-dough, doing puzzles, coloring, painting at the easel, stringing beads, playing with stickers, squirting water bottles, and squeezing sponges. By exploring hands-on materials, children develop their pincer grasp (the thumb and index finger working together to pick up objects), which is necessary to hold a pencil comfortably and correctly when they're in elementary school.
6. A High Student-to-Teacher Ratio
For optimal learning and safety reasons, a preschool classroom of four and five-year-olds should have a student-teacher ratio of no more than ten children per adult. Otherwise, the needs of the youngsters will not be met, teachers will get frazzled, and discipline problems will manifest. Moreover, when there are children in the class with special needs (autism, Down's Syndrome, ADHD, physical, mental, and emotional issues), another teacher should be added. If this doesn't occur, all the youngsters suffer and the high turnover rate among teachers in early childhood education will continue.
7. An Owner Who Treats Her Teachers Poorly
The high turnover rate among preschool teachers is due to their measly pay, low status in society, and the poor way they're treated by their employers. While it would make sense that outstanding preschool teachers get treated like gold by their bosses, this is often not the case. The dirty little secret in early childhood education is how beloved teachers, who are held in high esteem by parents and students, are made to mop, vacuum, and clean the bathrooms after class. They also put in numerous unpaid hours writing lesson plans, planning field trips and projects, and returning phone calls from moms and dads. If the owner of the preschool doesn't value her teachers, this is a good indication of her poor character and callous attitude that permeates the environment and affects students.
8. Long Circle Times
As I visit preschools from year to year, circle times keep getting longer and longer, stretching to 45 minutes or even an hour. The sad truth, though, is that children's attention spans haven't changed, staying at approximately 15 minutes. Years ago when circle time began, it was a way to establish a sense of community. There were songs to sing, stories to read, games to play, and dances to do. Everybody was engaged, happy, and felt a sense of belonging.
Circle time today, however, has moved far away from its original intent. It's now an opportunity for teachers to fill children with information—most of which is meaningless to them and developmentally inappropriate. There are the days of the week, the concept of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the calendar, the weather, patterns, counting, and numeral recognition. If children get bored, frustrated, and can't sit still, they're sent to time-out as punishment. Then teachers tell mom and dad that their youngster is “immature” and “disruptive” even though the behavior is totally normal for preschoolers, especially boys.
9. A Small Classroom
When it comes to early childhood education, size does indeed matter. No matter how preschool owners spin it (like calling a tiny classroom “cozy"), they know better than most that youngsters need a lot of room to move their bodies, explore their environment, and have plenty of materials to use. Preschoolers build self-confidence by trying new physical feats—running, skipping, climbing, balancing, and dancing—and should be encouraged to do so. In a space that's inadequate, teachers are forced to limit movement because someone might get hurt or property might get damaged. A large classroom and a large outdoor area are essential for exploring, playing, and pretending. Wide open areas are necessary to develop strong, healthy bodies and self-assured spirits who are willing to take risks and practice new skills.
10. No Dramatic Play Areas (or Too Few)
The cornerstone of a quality preschool program involves multiple dramatic play areas: a kitchen where kids pretend to be chefs, a veterinary clinic where they treat sick pets, a puppet theater where they imagine being different characters while putting on a show. A teacher who understands the importance of promoting imagination in preschoolers is someone who knows what early childhood education is all about and is willing to advocate for kids. This is incredible at a time when it's easy to give up and simply offer the academic rigor that so many parents want.
As a former preschool and kindergarten teacher, I can't say enough wonderful things about this book. We need Nancy Carlsson-Paige as a voice of reason, advocating for our youngest learners. Too many experts in early childhood education have gotten silenced in our country's push for academic rigor. Nancy does a fantastic job of explaining why kids need more imaginative play and down-time and fewer teacher-directed lessons. I highly recommend this book for parents looking for the right preschool.
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© 2018 McKenna Meyers