Thursday, March 11, 2010

Finding A Preschool

I reached another 'Mommy milestone' yesterday and I still haven’t decided how to feel about it.  Yesterday, I brought Noah to one of his prospective preschools to observe the classes and tour the facility.  I had mixed feelings about it, almost like I was the one attending my very first school.  I was excited and nervous and panicky and sad, thinking that this is boy is indeed 'grown' and needs to be let out into the bigger world.  Let me say though, that I was very impressed with Noah and was so proud of how behaved he was the entire time.  Prior to getting out of our car, I reminded him to just hold my hand and be quiet as I would be speaking with 'the lady' to get information about the school.  I repeatedly reminded him that he shouldn't interrupt and just listen to 'the lady'.  He did exactly just that.  The one time he had to let go of my hand since he had to take off his jacket and hat, he just stayed and hovered around me, instead of wandering off.  I was really so proud of him...still am, actually!

I kept thinking of this documentary film I saw once on HBO, “Nursery University”, which tackled the insanely competitive world of applying for certain nursery schools in NY.  Seriously, watching that film made it seem as if nursery/preschool application was almost as stressful and life-defining as applying at an Ivy league institution.  It made me feel so sorry for those children whose parents were too high-strung and had an undeniably high sense of entitlement.  I can only imagine the future pressures and unrealistic expectations that those children will be exposed to all their lives.  How can anyone not feel sorry for that? 

I know I should’ve just shut it out of my consciousness.  I kept telling myself that this is just preschool and that this is not an upscale NY community, such as what was featured in the film.  I also kept praying that parents in our town are way less neurotic than those ultra-competitive ones in the documentary.  It will be alright, Joy.  This is just preschool, you do have options and the world will not end if your son doesn’t get accepted in your first choice.  He will still grow up normal and have a shot at success in the world.

Now, I know that telling myself those things probably already put me in the neurotic category that I was so very carefully avoiding.  But I have to admit…I was slightly paranoid and probably over-thought the whole thing.  For one, I made sure I was properly dressed…not too shabby and not too intimidating either.  Just effortlessly stylish, yet comfortable.  I also made sure I put forward my friendly side, as well as putting across my ‘relaxed’ desire to get my son in the program without seeming overly eager and borderline obnoxious.  I probably put to work every bit of knowledge I have about impression management….unnecessarily.

Fortunately, I left the building realizing that it was the school that needed my approval and not the other way around.  Yes there is a lottery involved given the number of yearly applicants they have, but the bottom line is that ultimately, it is my decision as the parent that truly counts.  I think some parents lose sight of that.  It’s very important to know, REALLY know, that reputation is not enough when selecting your child’s future school.  I will not dispute that track record counts.  But track record does not say anything about the degree of fit between that school and your child’s (and your family’s) attributes.  A school even labeled as the ‘best’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best for your child and for you, your family.

I’m just now fully realizing that a preschool search is serious business.  You need to invest a lot of your time doing research.  You need to ask around, go online, make several phone calls and if the facility permits it (which ideally, they should), do unannounced visits.  A good place to start, in my opinion, is to utilize your town’s resources such as your public library.  In our case, our public library hosted a Preschool Fair early during the year where parents were allowed to meet different representatives from the preschools in the area.  A word of caution though…Be prepared for some information overload so make sure you bring a lot of paper, a reliable pen and an envelope or bag where you can stuff all the flyers and brochures that you will end up collecting by the end of the event.  It also helps to have a list of questions you need to ask or items you need clarified by the different schools, such as teacher-student ratio, policies on being toilet trained, curriculum, etc.  The most value I got from attending the said fair was that I was able to get a ‘feel’ of the different institutions even before actually going to their facility.  In my view, this is invaluable.  Never underestimate the connection you feel when you speak with the representatives.  Although you also have to make sure that they are not just well-trained sales people and that you are being gullible about the whole thing.  Keep an objective mind and trust your hunches.  In our case, I eliminated from my list those institutions whose representatives acted as if they couldn’t care less about my questions and did not really give me the time of day to even try to ‘sell’ me their school.  Arrogance is not exactly a turn-on for me.  I also felt wary towards the overly-eager and annoyingly bubbly representatives.  On the other end of the spectrum, I was equally turned off by those who seemed as if they were begging for a dose of caffeine or a ray of sunshine.  If you’re making me sleepy and bored and cannot even hold my attention, how can I expect you to be interesting to a 3year old?  To make the long story short, I believe that if I don’t like your vibe, there’s something there to be trusted.  Don’t ever disregard your hunches.
More or less, the following are the main questions that we considered important to ask in finding a preschool for our 3-year old:

·         What are the class hours?  You have to make sure it will work with your child’s daily routine. (e.g. Does it not start too early such that your child will always end up late given his waking up time in the morning?  Does it not conflict with his nap time?)

·         What is the curriculum like?  How are the days broken up into different activities?  What are the main goals (academic, social/behavioral) to be achieved at the end of the school year? (e.g. to learn all the letters, numbers, shapes, colors, days of the week, name recognition, writing ones name, etc.)

·         Is it truly a preschool or more of a daycare?  How much structure is there during class hours?  (We found that some of the organizations that were present during the preschool fair were actually more like daycare centers where they mainly babysit your child, and provide ‘some form of structured learning’.)

·         What are the costs?  What are the fees like?  Is there a payment schedule or are you expected to pay in full?  Are there discounts provided for residents of the area?

·         What is the teacher-to-student ratio?  Most preschools adhere to the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) recommendation of 1:8 (for 3yr olds) or 1:10 (for 4yr olds).  Policies may vary per state.

·         What are the credentials of the teachers?  Do they at least hold an Associate’s Degree in education or a related field?  Are they CPR trained and certified?

·         What are the school’s health and safety policies?  How strict are they about monitoring who picks up the children at the end of the day?  Is the building safe and not too open to the public such that anyone can just enter?  What are their policies for food/snacks?  Is it a peanut-free environment (for those with allergies)?  Are snacks required to be ‘healthy’ / nutritious, or is junk food allowed?

·         What are the toilet-training requirements?  Most if not all preschools would require your child to be ‘fully toilet-trained’.  What is their definition of this?  Is it just a matter of knowing when to go, or the child being able to clean up himself?  How do they address ‘accidents’?  Do they have a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ policy?  How flexible are they?  This information will definitely help you prepare and train your preschooler before starting school, if you still have the time.

·         Are the administrators and teachers open to the idea of unannounced visits prior to registration?  I would definitely stay away from schools that don’t encourage this.  It just makes me ask myself if they are hiding something.  It’s very important that you, as parent/guardian, get a feel of how the ‘natural’ environment is like and observe the teachers and students in action.  This will further help you determine the degree of fit between your child’s nature (abilities and temperament) and the school.

·         How far is the school from your home?  Is it a distance you are willing to travel or is it too inconvenient?

·         When you visit and observe, ask yourself how the children are.  Do they seem happy and content?  Or are they bored, stressed out or unchallenged?  Is everybody busy with something or are some of the children left idle and just left wandering around?  Can you happily and contently picture your own child in that same environment?

·         Does the school allow ‘active’ time for the children per session?  Children need to be active and need to burn energy.  They need to be given even just a few minutes everyday / every school session to play around and move about freely.

·         Finally, ask yourself what your own priorities and objectives are given this developmental stage of your child.  Do they coincide with the school’s philosophy?  Are the things you wish for your child to learn taught by the school, whether formally or informally?

In the end, the age-old adage "the more you know, the less you understand" applies.  You can research all you want but let me assure you that you will get overwhelmed at some point and more confused.  Stick to the basics. What are the things most important to you?  There is probably no perfect preschool out there.  One will be too messy, the other too suspiciously clean and organized.  Some teachers would seem too uncomfortably bubbly for your taste, while some would scare you a bit.  One would be too far for your driving comfort on a daily basis, while the closer one might be too expensive. You will never run out of reasons not to take the plunge.  So I say, just stick to what is most important.....healthy social interaction / informal socialization, health and safety, well-being, basic learnings that are age-appropriate, and affordability.  To me, it's those things. For now, it's those things.  Let kindergarten and concerns about Noah's SAT or ACT scores, and worries of whether or not he will be adequately prepared for entrance to the University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale or the London School of Economics be for another time.  

Right now, he is an only child who needs more exposure to a diverse group of children his age, needs a bit of a simulation of kindergarten or the formal, more structured institution of education and of course SOME academic preparation (translate: letters, shapes, colors, and numbers, which I can also very well teach him / expose him to). Those are my criteria...for now.....

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