Choosing the right early childhood education (ECE) center for your child can be a daunting task. If you live in a more rural area, your options are probably limited. But for those of us living in and around urban centers, the number of options can seem overwhelming. Over the past decade I have worked as a Montessori teacher (or teacher’s assistant) in privately owned, corporate run, and nonprofit schools. And although I am by no means an expert, my experience at these different schools has given me a unique perspective as to what I would look for when choosing the right ECE center for my own son.
Now I can think of three factors that will more than likely dominant any parents’ decision making process when it comes to ECE – location, cost, and hours of operation. Most parents will choose a school that is either close to home or close to work. School hours are also important as parents want to ensure that they will align with their work schedules. And unless you are in the 1%, tuition prices can definitely impact your ultimate decision because, let’s face it, it is expensive.
But what else should you think about? What other questions should you ask? While this list is by no means all inclusive, below are a variety of factors I would consider when choosing the right ECE for my own son:
Educational Philosophy/Curriculum. While these terms are not exactly synonymous, for the purpose of this discussion I will lump them together. What pedagogy does the school follow – Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, Highscope, Creative Curriculum? And how closely do they uphold it’s tenants? Just because a school calls them self a Montessori School doesn’t mean they are a true Montessori school. Don’t let the Pink Cubes you saw on the shelf during your tour fool you. Whatever educational philosophy or curriculum the school claims to follow, make sure their teachers and director are certified to do so. Better yet, check to see if the school it self is accredited (i.e. a Montessori school may be accredited by the American Montessori Society). You’ll have to decide for yourself what philosophy aligns with your own beliefs as a parent, but once you know what that is, make sure the school you choose actually reflexes that choice.
Private, Public, or Nonprofit. Is the school owned by a sole-proprietor or a corporation? Is it run by a school district or a nonprofit? Each scenario has it’s pluses and minuses. If it is privately owned, ideally the owner is the director and they have an ECE degree. If it is run by a corporation you can guarantee that, like any corporation, there is consistency within the franchise. Each school will run the same using the same curriculum and business model so if you move to a new area and liked your old daycare you can rest assure that the one near your new home will look and feel the same. If the ECE center is run by the local school district the lead teachers will be state certified teachers with ECE endorsements. And if the school is a nonprofit, it will be run by a board of directors, ideally made up of current parents that are passionate about the school’s mission. The day to day operations will be run by a director hired by the board. Again, each scenario has it’s pros and cons, but it’s good to know what category the school your looking at falls into.
Teachers/Director. Do the lead teachers at the school have the proper credentials? They should at least have an Associates in Early Childhood Education (i.e. CDA). But some may have their Bachelors or even Masters degrees in ECE. Also, do they have the appropriate certification for the given curriculum or educational approcah being used. For example, Montessori teachers should be certified by either the American Montessori Society (AMS) or the Association Montessori International (AMI). Also, it’s good to ask how long the lead teachers and teacher assistants have been working at the school. People change jobs for all sorts of reason, but if the majority of school staff have been around for a while, that’s generally a good sign.
Special Classes. Does the school have any teachers come in to teach special classes? Music and Movement is a part of the daily routine in any ECE center, but what about a special Music class? Do they bring in anyone to teach a foreign language? Or Yoga? And do they go on any field trips (i.e. apple orchard, puppet theater, etc.). Sure having special classes and activities means tuition will probably be higher, but if you can afford it, it’s worth the price.
Parent Communication. I always sent home monthly newsletters at the beginning of the month so my students’ parents knew what was going on because, let’s face it, if you ask your three year old what they did at school today there response will probably be “eat and play”. I also communicated with my parents via email when school policy allowed it. When children are younger (under 3) parents generally receive daily communication sheets so they at least know how their son or daughter ate and slept and to make sure their diaper output was normal. But for children over 3, weekly and at least monthly communication from the teachers or director is ideal. This way parents can be up to speed on any special events or activities that are happening and can stay in the loop as to what the children are learning about in the classroom.
Extended Care. Does the ECE center offer before and after care? Some ECE centers are run more like a daycare and it doesn’t really matter when you drop your child off or when you pick them up. There is a daily schedule, but it’s not abnormal for children to come at various times. And in this case the tuition price is usually a flat rate. However, some ECE centers are run more like a school with school-like hours. Before care and after care are generally run by teacher assistants or designated before/after care staff. The kids eat and play and sometimes do special activities during these times. School hours are when the curriculum is implemented by the lead teacher with the help of at least one teacher assistant, depending on student:teacher ratio. In this case, they may charge a flat rate for families that use extended care vs. those who don’t. Or they may charge families that use extended care by the hour in addition to the regular tuition rate.
Flexibility of Schedule. Most centers offer full or half day options, but what about part-time. Some families may only need/want to put their child in school two or three days a week. Ask the Director if they offer flexible schedules at a prorated rate if you fall into this category.
Gross Motor Space. Do they have a playground? Does it offer age appropriate activities and structures for your child? For example, some ECE centers have playscapes for preschool-age children but don’t really have much for toddlers to do other than maybe a sandbox. Does it have plenty of green space for the kids to play in filled with grass and trees or is it all plastic and covered in mulch? Do they have an indoor gross motor room or gym? Unless the ECE center is located in an elementary school building or a church, they probably don’t have a gym. I do know of a few daycares that have small gyms, but they are few and far between. Most all ECE centers, however, have a playground or outdoor play space of some sort. And if they don’t, they are often located near a local park that the kids walk to everyday. My daycare as a kid was like this. I have vague memories of holding on to the little rope by the loops with my friends as we walked to the park down the street. And the first Montessori school I worked at was also like this where we walked the kids to the park around the corner everyday, weather permitting. But, I digress. Either way, the children will probably have at least one recess a day, but multiple is ideal especially if it’s outside.
Food. All ECE centers offer a morning and afternoon snack for a full day program. Sometimes the school provides the snack and sometimes the parents take turns buying snack for their child’s class. Lunch is either provided by the school or the parents. Some schools even provide breakfast if they are open early enough. Now, it is obviously hella convenient for the school to provide all of the meals. That’s one less thing to worry about as a parent during the week. But you obviously will have a harder time regulating what your child eats during the week in this case. And just because the school provides “organic food” doesn’t mean that it’s healthy, just healthier. Ask the director where they order their food from and who is responsible for preparing it. Is there a school cook that prepares everything or does it get delivered daily ready to serve?
Again, this list is by no means all-inclusive, but hopefully it gives you a few ideas of questions to ask and things to look for as you search for the right ECE center for your child(ren). If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know….