The Preschool Process: Your Preschooler Will Survive Your Choice and So Will You

Massive cheating in school, kids at the nation’s best schools who can’t string two sentences together in an interview, helicopter parents editing (or writing entirely) papers for kids at Ivy League colleges and then asking to come to their kid’s first job performance review! As education researchers, we feel like we have seen it all during the last few years. Despite some horror stories, we are encouraged because the conversation is starting to change.

While there are still parents who start their child’s Harvard application in utero, we hear more and more from parents who know that most kids just can’t sustain the pace we are asking of them. Honestly, most adults can’t sustain the pace we are asking of our children. We want kids to be engaged in school and to learn the skills that they will need to succeed in a 21st century economy, starting from the very first day they go to school.

At Challenge Success the advice we give to parents really isn’t all that different whether your child is 2 or 22 years old: know and love the child before you; work hard to separate the fact and fiction surrounding parenting in a hyper-charged environment; and realize that most mistakes you may make can be corrected without ruining your child’s future. This may seem hard to do as you face a pile of applications to preschool for the first time, but we think if you approach this as the beginning of an educational journey and establish some ground rules early, your entire family will reap benefits from a more sane approach to child-raising. So, we suggest you try the following:

  1. When it comes to preschool, try to forget about academics. We know this is really hard to do, but the research is unequivocal: play-based preschool is appropriate, and, in fact, choosing an overly academic environment can be detrimental to your child’s development.
  2. Identify and be honest about the practical considerations and values that are important to you.There are lots of things to consider in choosing a school for your young child. Be honest with yourself about what matters to you. Educational philosophy, approach to discipline, schedule, language immersion, cost, proximity to home/work, parent participation, cultural/ethnic diversity, physical and outdoor space, student teacher ratio, class size, application procedure-all of these factors may play a role in your decision. Figure out what you really care about and then use those criteria to evaluate schools.
  3. Be educated. Educators love to throw around terms for types of instruction and behavior — Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, play-based, SEL. Spend some time to figure out what they are talking about. And then when somebody says they have a constructivist curriculum, see for yourself if that’s what they are really doing. Things can sound great on paper or on a flashy website, but what Montessori means to one person, isn’t necessarily what it means to another. Spend time in the school. Talk to current families. Know that the teachers really matter and so do the other students.
  4. Remember that your child is going to the school, not you (and remind yourself of this repeatedly when it is time to look at colleges). A school may be known as the best in town but if your active 3 year old is going to be asked to sit for hours at a time, or if your shy child is going to be placed into a room with 30 kids, maybe it is not the right school for him/her. Know your kid’s temperament and interests, and then find the school that best matches.

Know that there is not usually just one right path. The truth is that most families have options when it comes to preschool. So while it’s important to make an informed decision, if you find somewhere that feels good, don’t over think it. Trust yourself. Know that chances are your children will be happy at whatever school you put them in-and if for some reason they aren’t, you can make a change. And remember that the purpose of pre-school (or any grade really) is to teach kids the skills that are developmentally appropriate, not to prepare them for kindergarten-that just happens in the process.

Note: one of our thoughtful readers commented that the work done by Kathleen Hirsch-Pasek and Adele Diamond both point to benefits of guided-play. We consider schools using a guided play curriculum to be play-based schools.

Maureen Brown is the Executive Director of Challenge Success and Heather Descollonges is a Researcher at Challenge Success.

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