An Expert’s Guide to Recognizing a Great Preschool

So, your toddler is growing up, and it’s time to look for a preschool. You may have several options in your area and wonder how you’ll decide which one is best for you and your family. How will you know if the preschool will provide an excellent education for your child — academically, socially, and emotionally? Does it really matter?

While preschool may only be a part of your child’s life for a year or two, a strong program can set her up for school success for the next 12 grades and beyond. Research by Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal and her colleagues has shown that for low-income children in particular, such care is related to a steep decrease in behavior problems during middle childhood between the ages of 7–11 years old. Furthermore, outstanding early childhood care and education can also virtually eliminate the achievement gap for a child entering kindergarten.

What characterizes great preschools?

But what is high-quality care? In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a detailed review of research on preschool quality and found that there are several features that set excellent preschools apart from others. Although no single factor in itself is predictive of such quality, together they are consistently found across the nation’s best preschools.

As you begin your search, there are a few things to look out for on those ever-important preschool visits.

Program Ratings

Many states have rating systems to determine the quality of child care providers and preschools. These seals of approval can tell you, at a glance, whether or not the school meets the state’s criteria for quality. Excelerate Illinois, for example, assigns rankings that range from “licensed” (meets minimum standards of quality) to “gold.” “Gold circle” programs “have met the highest quality standards in three areas: learning environment and teaching quality; administrative standards; and staff training and education.” Michigan’s Great Start to Quality similarly assigns star rankings based on five categories of comprehensive quality ratings. Moreover, if your preschool is ranked by a state quality index, it will probably publicize this fact as a point of pride.

To learn about your local options, check out the Noodle state-by-state guide to preschool. You can also refer to a 2012 directory of each state’s participation in the Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS).

Structural Features

One of the first things you’ll notice when visiting a preschool is what researchers call “structural features” of quality. These markers are ones that can be easily controlled by standards and regulations, like the size of the class and the ratio of students to teachers. Such features are often the first indicators of quality and can help you distinguish an acceptable program from an exceptional one.

Group Size

A smaller class size is correlated (but only slightly) with greater cognitive development and additional social play with peers. Class size, especially as it is affected by the quality of the teaching, can lead to greater numbers of interactions among peers and between student and teacher. These experiences allow for increased social competence and social orientation. While this is not always the case, as you may expect, a smaller class size can confer benefits, especially for a shy or needy child.

Child-to-Adult Ratio

The child-to-adult ratio is an even greater predictor of high-quality. Several studies contained in the HHS research review have shown that a low child-to-adult ratio is correlated with higher math, vocabulary, and pre-literacy scores, as well as fewer behavior problems and more social play.

Caregiver Education and Training

One large longitudinal study by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that higher educational attainment on the part of the caregiver or teacher in the preschool classroom was consistently related to the child’s achievement in math and reading (particularly vocabulary and pre-literacy skills). When a teacher has advanced or specialized training in early childhood education, she is more likely to lead children in complex play with peers and objects.

As you visit preschools, you may want to ask about the educational backgrounds of the teachers, since standards vary tremendously from center to center and state to state. Some teachers may hold an associate’s degree with only one or two years of early childhood coursework, while others have master’s degrees with much more advanced training.

That said, teacher education should not be the only criterion you examine. While such courses of study are important, experience and on-the-job training are also critical. Some centers may not be able to afford to pay highly trained teachers a competitive wage, and yet they are staffed by early childhood educators whose expertise was gained through years working in these settings.

Process Features

It is critical to remember that the structural features of a preschool or early childhood center are not, on their own, predictive of outcomes. In fact, even when all the most desired structural features are in place, for them to confer a modicum of benefits they must be mediated by what researchers call “process features.”

Process describes the way that teachers interact with children to facilitate growth and learning. These aspects of quality can be present in classrooms with a large class size, high student-to-teacher ratio, or led by a teacher who has minimal advanced early childhood training. Even in the perfect setting, moreover, a preschool that lacks such interactions is unlikely to yield outstanding results. Structural features and process features together give your child the best chance for positive outcomes in preschool.

Language Stimulation

While many classrooms will have lots of books on the shelves, these are relatively useless to young children unless someone is there to engage in reading and conversation with them. How a teacher talks to a child and encourages her vocabulary is predictive of the child’s own language development.

To get a sense of how stimulating a program is, ask to sit in on a class. Does the teacher mostly use language to give direction and correct or control behavior? Or does she engage in imaginative conversations with students, encouraging them to think of words to describe their feelings and actions? In particular, listen for open-ended questions that stimulate children’s own thought processes. A teacher who consciously (or unconsciously) encourages children to talk and explain their ideas will have greater success in developing pre-literacy skills.

Supportive Relationships

One of the most salient features of any preschool is the way you feel when you’re there. As you visit classrooms, be attuned to your own emotional reactions. Does the environment feel warm? Do children seem happy and engaged in activities? Or, by contrast, are there dismissive, sarcastic, or belittling comments being made?

The classroom climate, and in particular the emotional support a teacher provides to children, can greatly facilitate their academic and social-emotional learning. Watch to see how a teacher and other children react when one child is hurt or upset; do other preschoolers offer to get an ice pack or to hug her? Does the teacher provide comfort? Do the children know that she is there to help them feel better? Or does she simply tell them to stop crying?

Frequent positive interactions with teachers help children to feel secure at school and enable them to persist through challenging learning activities. Such exchanges also facilitate children's positive attitude towards school (which, in turn, eases the transition from preschool to kindergarten). Of course, this particular process feature is both affected by and benefits from the structural feature of a smaller student-to-teacher ratio — ideally, the program you’re looking at offers both.

What else is there to consider?

At this point, you’ve spent time in a class and learned that the program has the right structural features. You’ve also observed the teacher interacting positively with each child, encouraging language development, and creating a stimulating learning environment. So, have you found the one? Maybe — but maybe not.

Sometimes the ideal preschool isn’t always a good fit for you and your family. While parents want to do what’s best for their children, family lives are complicated; it’s also important to think about the impact a particular preschool will have on your lifestyle. For example, is the school conveniently located? If it’s not, will you feel significant stress getting your child there (and yourself to work!) and picking her up on time each day? Is it easy to contact the preschool in case of an emergency? If the program is tuition-based, does it fit within your budget?

Your decision whether or not a particular preschool is right for your family has to take into account these practical matters as well. The characteristics of high-quality preschools are important to consider — but so are your family’s needs and resources. This experience should be satisfying and enriching for all of you.

Use Noodle to explore local preschools and find additional advice about finding a preschool.

Sources:

Allhusen, V., & Belsky, J., et al. (2003). Does quality of child care affect child outcomes at age 4 1/2? Developmental Psychology, 451-469.

Child care structure - process - outcome: Direct and indirect effects of child care quality on young children's development. (2002). Psychological Science, 199-206.

Howes, C. (1997). Children’s experiences in center-based child care as a function of teacher background and adult:child ratio. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 43(3), 404-425.

Mitchell, A. (2012, April 1). Quality rating and improvement systems: A state by state sisting of QRIS websites. Retrieved August 15, 2015, from QRIS Network.

Votruba-Drzal, E., Coley, R., et al. (2010, September 1). Child care and the development of behavior problems among economically disadvantaged children in middle childhood. Retrieved August 15, 2015, from U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Zaslow, M., Anderson, R., & Redd, Z., et al. (2010, August 1). Quality dosage, thresholds, and features in early childhood settings: A review of the literature. Retrieved August 15, 2015, from Administration for Family and Children Services.