It can be hard to know where – and even when – to start looking for a high-quality preschool or childcare setting for your child. In some areas, the options seem endless while, in others, a good preschool that fits your family’s schedule, philosophy and budget can be hard to find.
But experts stress the importance of quality early childhood education, the effects of which can be seen long after – from higher high school graduation and college attendance rates to lower involvement with the criminal justice system.
Mia Pritts has spent two decades in the early education field, from preschool teacher to regional director for a network of employer-sponsored childcare centers, including those at Google and Pixar. She is now the head of early care and education at Wonderschool, a San Francisco-based startup that helps people open and sustain quality childcare programs, mostly in their homes. The company provides services, mentoring, training and more for more than 100 childcare providers, as well as a website where parents can search for quality care.
Pritts also has the personal experience of being a working mother, with one child in preschool and another on the way. She shared with Bay Area Parent her
Preschool Quality Indicator Checklist, a list of 10 quality indicators parents should look for during their search.
For more information on Wonderschool and its member sites, visit wonderschool.com.
1. License Check. Only consider options that are licensed by the state regulatory agency for all center-based programs and family childcare homes.
Anyone who cares for more than one child other than their own is required to be licensed by the state of California, meaning they meet health and safety standards and adhere to certain adult-child ratios based on the type of setting and children’s ages. You can check a preschool or childcare’s licensing through your local Childcare Coordinating Council. The California Department of Social Services has a searchable online database at cdss.ca.gov/inforesources/Community-Care-Licensing/Facility-Search-Welcome.
2. The Basics. Ask about hours, educational philosophy and curriculum, teacher credentials, teacher turnover rates, costs and guidance strategies such as how the school deals with behaviors such as hitting or biting, as well as how the school communicates with parents about issues and daily routines, from naps to meals.
"Turnover is really high in the industry in general, so low turnover can be an indicator of a stable program," says Pritts.
3. Visitor Policy. View the school calendar, and learn about family activities, volunteer opportunities and visitor policy. The program should have an open visitor policy for parents.
"A parent should feel comfortable they’re welcome at any time," Pritts says. "I won’t show up at my daughter’s preschool program without a reason – but I’d like to know I can. … It shows everything is on the up and up."
This can be especially important for parents whose work is close to the school or for nursing mothers.
4. Daily Schedule. The program should follow the individual schedule of each baby, so that he or she eats when hungry, sleeps when tired and isn’t trapped in a bouncy seat the entire day. For toddlers and preschoolers, a more structured day with a predictable schedule and routine is best.
"We know children thrive with predictable routines, regardless of (the school’s) philosophy. It doesn’t mean regimenting their day – ‘From 9-9:15, you do blocks’ – but there should be a structure: ‘We come in, have circle time,’" she says. "You don’t want to have chaos every day."
5. Outdoor Time. How often do they take the children outside? Ideally, they go outside daily – even multiple times per day. Even when Wonderschool works with providers in apartment settings, they insist on finding a nearby park or play space for children. Childcare centers are required to have defined areas for different age groups.
"It’s that important, and everyone is able to do it," Pritts explains. "Kids need to be free, they need fresh air and to be able to jump and run and play and take risks. … There’s a lot of learning that happens outside – cause and effect happen on the playground; physical development is helped when your body is swinging."
6. Quality Check. Ask about any quality assessments or ratings completed by the program. This can easily help indicate a high-quality environment. Wonderschool providers go through a quality assessment they can show interested parents. Other schools can opt to seek accreditation by the National Association of Education for Young Children or the National Association for Family Child Care. Because such accreditations take time and money to earn, Pritts says parents should not necessarily reject schools without them, but accreditation "is an indication of resources and commitment."
7. Teacher Ratios. What are the teacher/student ratios? Compare to your state regulations. Lower ratios are another indicator of a high-quality program.
Ratios differ by setting type and children’s ages. For instance, in California, one teacher is required for every four infants, six toddlers or 12 preschool-age children in a childcare center. But many schools surpass the requirements. Different maximums are set for small and large family childcares. Visit the website of the state Community Care Licensing Division website at cdss.gov for more information.
8. No Yelling. Are teachers engaged with the kids? Do they kneel down to their level versus talking down to them? Can you hear the sound of happy, busy children or do you hear yelling? Look for context behind any noise and activity. Regardless of a school’s philosophy – from play-based to Montessori – Pritts says there are clues parents can look for on a visit to determine that children are comfortable, engaged and learning.
Is there good natural lighting, or at least adequate lighting? For infants and toddlers, are there soft elements like fluffy pillows? Do preschoolers have defined learning areas for things like dramatic play, manipulatives and a cozy corner – and not just a room with toys thrown in the middle? Are there lots of books and children’s artwork displayed?
"There’s a lot of research that shows that kids learn best through doing and being active and being given choices," she says. "Young children (don’t learn by) doing worksheets. That’s time that can be best spent doing something else."
9. Televisions. A preschool with a TV is a big no-no – minus a few exceptions. This signals a lack of engagement and activities for children. "Parents are not paying for their kid to watch TV during the day," Pritts says. "Any TV time, in my opinion, should be saved for parents and child, not childcare provider and child." The same goes for iPads or other tablets.
The exception, she says, would be using a short video as part of a lesson, such as if a child is particularly interested in insects.
10. Mommy Gut Check. "As a mom who also works in the early childhood education industry, I recommend parents go with their gut. Check how you feel when you’ve stepped into the building," Pritts says. "Sometimes it’s overwhelmingly positive, sometimes you’re unsettled and sometimes it’s ‘I’ve got to get out of here!’"
She recommends visiting at least three preschools once you’ve narrowed your list and know what you need and what you’re looking for. "But you don’t need to look at 100 (sites). That adds to stress and a feeling of panic," she adds.
Planning ahead can also help alleviate panic. "It’s better to look early than to wait until the last minute when you’ll really feel the pressure," she says.
Most of all, Pritts says, "I think it’s important to stay calm. You’ve got this!"
Janine DeFao is editor of Childcare & Preschool Finder.
Childcare Resource and Referral Programs
Every California county has a state-funded program that provides free information on choosing childcare, referrals to childcare centers and family care homes, and information on help paying for care. Below are some of the Bay Area programs. For a more information or a different county, visit rrnetwork.org/find_child_care or call 1-800-KIDS-793.
4C’s of Alameda County. Covers Castro Valley, Fremont, Hayward, Newark, San Leandro, San Lorenzo and Union City. 4c-alameda.org.
BANANAS, Inc. Oakland. For Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Piedmont and Oakland. bananasbunch.org.
Child Care Links. Pleasanton. For Dublin, Pleasanton, Livermore and Sunol. childcarelinks.org.
Contra Costa County
Contra Costa Child Care Council. Offices in Concord, Richmond and Antioch cocokids.org.
Marin Child Care Council. San Rafael. mc3web.org.
Monterey County Child Care Resource & Referral. Salinas. maof.org/resource-referral/.
Children’s Council San Francisco. San Francisco. childrenscouncil.org.
Wu Yee Children’s Services. San Francisco. wuyee.org.
San Mateo County
Child Care Coordinating Council of San Mateo County. Redwood City. sanmateo4cs.org.
Santa Clara County
Community Child Care Council of Santa Clara County, Inc. San Jose. 4c.org.
Santa Cruz County
Child Development Resource Center. Offices in Santa Cruz and Watsonville. cdrc4info.org.