It’s back to school time and this mama has mixed feelings. On the one hand I never expected my son, J, to start school so soon. I thought I’d keep him home with me until he was four, and then slowly ease him into preschool with crocodile tears streaming down both of our faces on that first day as he was pulled from my nurturing arms saying things along the lines of, “Mommy I love you. You’re the best. I don’t want to leave!”
On the other hand, I’m trying to have a writing career – working from home – and, of course, J’s baby sister, now four months old needs a lot of mommy’s attention. I tossed around the idea of preschool, convincing myself that it would do J and me some good. He could learn the ropes of some more structured learning while socializing with kids his own age, and I could focus more on baby R and my job.
Wanting his input, I asked J, “Honey would you like to go to preschool?” I kid you not; he ran to his room, grabbed his backpack, put his shoes on and told me he was ready to go. Ouch, son. Ouch. Apparently he was ready, and that was all the confirmation I needed. The preschool search of 2013 started.
Thin the herd
Have you flipped through the phonebook – do those even exist anymore – or searched for preschools in your area on the Internet? There are – in technical terms – a bazillion options! Full-day, half-day, five days per week, two or three days per week, traditional, Montessori, drop-in, structured, snack time, no snack time, etc. Before you even start making phone calls, you have to decide what it is you’re looking for. If you start contacting places and asking questions before you know what you and your child need, you’re going to get nowhere. For my purposes – having a 2-year-old and working part-time from home – I only wanted a part-time program. I didn’t even look at full-time programs because I knew I wasn’t ready to part with J for eight hours, five days per week.
When you’ve defined your needs, do a simple search for preschools conveniently located near you (bonus points for on the way to or from work, or right around the corner from your house).
Ask the right questions
When I began speaking with preschool directors in search of the perfect place for J, I asked friends with preschoolers for their recommendations to further narrow my search. When I had my top three schools, I made a list of questions. I completely recommend making a list. This is your child we’re talking about; you aren’t shopping for new drapes for the living room. You’re going to have big questions; to put your mind at ease, you need these questions answered and you need to feel comfortable with those answers. Here are the questions from my list in no particular order (mostly just as they popped into my head):
- Does my child need to be potty trained? Will teachers help reinforce at-home potty training?
- How are absences handled?
- What is the tuition, and how is billing handled?
- How many students would be in my child’s class? How many teachers?
- What subjects and skills are taught and reinforced?
- What classroom management techniques are used?
- Are teachers licensed? Do they have degrees?
- Are teachers CPR and first aid certified?
- What security measures are in place to protect my child?
- What can we do to prepare our child before the first day of school?
- What can we do at home to reinforce what is being taught at school?
- Is there a waiting list?
- Do you need anything before the first day of school? (immunization records, deposits, signed paperwork)
- What should my child bring on the first day of school? (change of clothes, diapers or an extra pair of underwear)
- Are drop-off and pick-up times flexible?
- What is the school year schedule? (Preschools may be year-round or follow the schedule of a local school district.)
- Is a snack or lunch offered? If my child brings a snack or lunch, are there any food restrictions?
- Is there a nap time?
- What is the school’s sick policy? When should I keep my child home? What justifies a call home (fever, vomiting, injury)?
- Is there a balance of free play, small group, whole group and one-on-one learning?
Keep safety in mind
School security is much more than number nine on my list of 20 questions. It’s everything. I can deal with my kid being hungry when I pick him up because he didn’t like his snack for the day. I can reinforce a skill that he couldn’t quite master at school. What I can’t compromise on is safety.
As a parent, I always want my child to be safe – even when I’m not around. Schools should have a clear answer when you ask about security, including classroom doors that lock from the inside, exterior doors that are locked during the day, visitor badges, employee badges and even security cameras. Outdoor play areas should be completely fenced in as well.
Plan a visit
Before you make a decision, visit prospective schools. Is the classroom clean? Is it organized? Do you feel safe there? Meet the teacher, if possible; what are your impressions? You’ll be able to tell in the first five minutes if the school is a good fit.
When that first day finally arrives, I’m sure I’ll still feel sad about letting J go. Truthfully, I may be so conflicted that I’m crying while doing the happy dance. Knowing that I’ve done my homework, my husband and I have chosen a great school for J and he is excited to head off to preschool really calms the nerves of this nervous mommy!