10 Warning Signs of a Bad Preschool
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. Sadly, as I visit dozens of preschools each year, I think this now needs to be adopted in early childhood education as well. That's because the youngsters I observe would often be better off with no formal education at all than the one they're getting. Developmentally appropriate practices, once the hallmark of early learning, have been largely abandoned. Unfortunately, academic preparation for kindergarten is in vogue, crushing kids' imaginations, stifling their curiosity, and turning 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 youngsters to feel stressed out, killing their imaginations, and making them sit still and listen at a time when their brains are wired to explore. Tragically, 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 warning signs of a bad preschool.
1. A Teacher Without a Degree or Units in Early Childhood Education
There's a terrible trend in early childhood education today of elementary school teachers getting hired to work at preschools. Some parents see this as beneficial, thinking these educators are better-equipped to prepare youngsters 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 studied how young children learn best through play, hands-on exploration, social interaction, and sensory experiences. They know how to provide activities that engage preschoolers in fun, age-appropriate ways without pushing them to do things that cause stress, frustration, and self-doubt. A preschool teacher without a degree or units in early childhood education is a warning sign of a bad preschool and should surely not be viewed as a positive.
Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.— Jean Piaget
2. An Academic Focus
The current obsession with preparing kids academically for kindergarten ignores the vast majority of research in early childhood education that shows it's detrimental. The acclaimed Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, observed how youngsters learned and saw that it was very different from how adults acquire information. He saw that kids gain knowledge through their experiences rather than having it spoon-fed to them by an adult.
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. Teachers who act as the source of knowledge are a warning sign of a bad preschool that should definitely trouble parents.
3. No Philosophy
A school-wide philosophy shapes the culture of a preschool. It puts everyone—teachers, parents, and kids—on the same page. It guides every decision made on matters such as curriculum, discipline, field trips, and nutrition.
My son attended a co-op preschool with the philosophy that children learn best through play. Its motto was together we're better because moms and dads were required to volunteer in the classroom on a regular basis. Parents also attended monthly meetings conducted by the director who spoke to us about childhood development and parenting. A shared philosophy created a strong community of like-minded individuals who were wholly committed to play-based learning.
Having no philosophy is a warning sign of a bad preschool that should certainly give parents pause. A director or teacher who can't articulate the school's philosophy is another red flag. Saying simply that they "seek to prepare students for kindergarten" is not a philosophy at all and indicates an adult-centered experience, not a child-centered one.
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 indicates they're not familiar with the research that shows 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, irresponsible, and a warning sign of a bad preschool with neon lights flashing!
5. Workbooks, Worksheets, and Paper-Pencil Tasks
Writing activities at preschool put the cart before the horse. Rather than doing 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. Children doing workbooks is a warning sign of a bad preschool and exposes teachers who should know better.
6. A High Student-to-Teacher Ratio
For optimal learning (as well as safety concerns), 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 Syndrome, ADHD, physical, mental, and emotional issues), another teacher should be added. If this doesn't occur, all the youngsters will suffer and the high turnover rate among teachers in early childhood education will continue. Exceeding the student-to-teacher ratio is a significant warning sign of a bad preschool and of a director who's okay with cutting corners.
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. When a director puts profits before people, this is a warning sign of a bad preschool and a bad environment for teachers and kids.
The greatest sign of success for a teacher...is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist."— Maria Montessori
8. Long Circle Times
Over many years of visiting preschools, I've seen circle times get longer and longer, stretching to 45 minutes and even an hour. The sad truth, though, is that children's attention spans haven't changed at all, staying steady at approximately 15 minutes. When circle time first 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 a platform 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. Long, unwieldy circle times are a warning sign of a bad preschool that, sadly, has become all too common.
9. A Small Classroom
When it comes to early childhood education, size counts. 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.
Play is the highest kind of research.— Albert Einstein
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 especially commendable today when it's easier to just surrender to parental demands for academics. Not celebrating children's imaginations with multiple dramatic play areas is a warning sign of a bad preschool that should cause us all great distress.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 McKenna Meyers