Child development experts have repeatedly emphasized how important a child's early educational experiences are to his long-term cognitive and social development. A child's early learning environment can have a profound impact on his ability to adapt to different situations and meet various life challenges later on. So needless to say, choosing the right preschool for our kids is one of the most important decisions we will make as parents.
We often consider proximity and cost when we look for a preschool, and it is unavoidable, given our budget and this country's traffic. But just keep in mind that while proximity is an important factor (dropping off and picking up your preschooler will impact already established routines), it shouldn't be at the top of the list. As for cost, expensive tuition fee does not necessarily mean high-quality education.
Speaking from my experiences as a mom of two and an educator in the field of educational psychology, here are some of the factors you might want to look at as you select a preschool for your child:
1. The physical environment offers no distractions. Does the school have a safe and comfortable environment that allows your child to focus his energies on learning? Check the indoor and outdoor spaces. Are they designed in such a way that will help sustain your child’s attention and engage him in the activities at hand?
For indoor spaces, check the room temperature. Is it comfortable? Is there sufficient ventilation and lighting? Are there loud, distracting sounds coming from outside?
Does the school provide furnishings that are appropriate for your child's size? Are they made of durable and safe material, and are they used according to their proper function?
Are there cozy areas where your child can relax and rest? Constant activity and interaction can be tiring for anyone, not just to an introverted child. Is there a cozy little corner where your child can curl up with a good book and recharge?
For outdoor spaces, is there sufficient space to play and run around? And have precautionary measures been taken to prevent slips, trips and falls? Of course, minor accidents can still happen on any accident-proofed playground, so look closely at the equipment and flooring to gauge whether your child is safe from serious injuries.
2. Your child will feel safe. Aside from physical safety and comfort, pay close attention if the general atmosphere is one of what we call "psychological safety." This is when children feel safe enough to explore, and they are protected from feelings of undue fear or anxiety. To gauge this, you may need to spend time interacting with teachers and staff, and observing actual class sessions.
One way to create psychological safety is by establishing set schedules and consistent routines for activities such as greeting, departing, eating meals, and toilet training/diapering. Experiencing familiar routines day in and day out lessens a child's anxiety, and as he masters the behaviors expected of him in each routine, he develops a sense of competency.
The way that teachers and staff communicate with children is also crucial for creating a psychologically safe atmosphere. Listen very carefully to their choice of words, and obviously, this goes way beyond gauging whether their English grammar is correct. Through their words and body language, will your child feel safe enough to ask questions and act on his curiosity? Do teachers and staff talk to children in a respectful manner, avoiding language that will make them feel ridiculed or belittled? Equally important, do teachers and staff members handle peer teasing and bullying promptly and resolutely? Or do they brush off reported incidents, leaving a child feeling vulnerable and left to his own devices?
Don't get me started on teachers and staff members who resort to threats to get children to obey ("Ayan, kukunin ka na ni manong guard!") or are too quick to put labels on children ("Naku, si Lorenzo? Makulit yan.") That, for me, is a big no-no.
3. See how the preschool teaches self-regulation to kids. Try to observe how well and how much effort teachers place on helping children develop their capacity to self-regulate. Very broadly stated, self-regulation is the capacity to regulate (or to control) how one responds to a given situation. Showing respect for a child does not mean giving the child unlimited freedom to do as he pleases. I believe that children still need to be given boundaries and to be gently corrected for undesirable behaviors, because an important goal in early education is to help children self-regulate.
When the situation calls for a reasonable amount of sitting down and listening quietly to a story, is the child able to control his impulses and sustain his attention? When a situation causes overwhelming emotions, is the child able to manage his impulsivity, soothe himself, and control his subsequent reactions?
All too often, children are expected to sit quietly at their desks and work independently on academic tasks that involve numbers, letters, computations, and writing. Teachers reason that students must learn to sit still and finish their work if they are to survive Grade 1 in a "big school." Granted, but, in my opinion, a preschool that focuses on this kind of training alone is doing the child a great disservice. Teachers can create real opportunities for children to work, play and interact with each other, opportunities that may open the door for minor conflicts, but nonetheless provide students a chance to practice conflict resolution and self-regulation skills.
4. There is a deliberate effort to teach thinking and communication skills. I know this is what school is supposedly all about, but the key word here is deliberate. Look for a preschool that deliberately teaches students HOW to think and HOW to communicate. I've encountered too many teachers who are only concerned about teaching content and procedures, who believe that the thinking and communication skills will somehow follow.
Observe several sessions in the preschool you are considering. If a typical session consists of a teacher "throwing content" at the students, then gauging how much of the content they "caught" by asking them to answer worksheets, I'd be a bit wary. Even if the teacher uses a variety of audio-visual materials to deliver content, observe if their instruction is mostly teacher-centered and focused on separate facts and figures.
I really appreciate teachers who skillfully craft learning opportunities to get students to think critically and to meaningfully connect new information with what they already know. I also appreciate teachers who provide opportunities for students to articulate what's going on in their heads, teachers who recognize the value of peer interaction and exchange. You can recognize these teachers by the questions they ask. They pose effective questions that get students to think about their own thought process, even when accomplishing the simplest of tasks.
I remember observing my son's preschool teacher as they were hanging paper maché from the ceiling. As the students handed her their crafts, she asked, "Do I hang it here (pointing to a solid beam) or here (pointing to a less stable panel)? Why here?" This resulted in a brief but meaningful debate on immovable beams versus unstable panels versus gravity.
When a student gives a correct answer in class, does the teacher merely respond, "Correct!" while immediately moving on to the next idea? Or does she sometimes pause to ask, "Are you sure about your answer? Tell us how you got your answer." Asking a student to explain his answer before confirming whether he is correct practices his capacity to reason out, form an argument, and take a logical stand -- skills that are definitely needed for lifelong learning. Likewise, the teacher can also ask others to reflect on their answers by asking questions like, "How many agree with his answer?" Observe as well how teachers deal with errors and mistakes. Are they quick to reply, "No, that's wrong. Who knows the correct answer?" This kind of response may lead some students to feel ashamed and fear making mistakes.
I love teachers who deal with it by saying things like, "Amanda, that's an interesting answer. Tell me how you got your answer," or, "Class, let's think about Amanda's answer" while walking through the process and giving Amanda a chance to correct herself.
If the teachers regularly ask questions such below, I'd take it as a good sign:
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"How are these the same? How are they different?"
"What do you think will happen next? Why do you think so?"
"If we do this, what do you think will happen?"
"Is there another way to do this?"
"What does this remind you of? Explain why."
"Is there another way to describe this?"
"Is there another way to say it?"
"How can we tell other people about what we just learned?"
I also love it when teachers get students to come up with their own questions. Asking relevant questions -- and knowing when questions should be asked -- are definitely important skills for lifelong learning.
These are just a few of the factors I feel are essential in the early learning environment, and the order in which I've described them do not imply weight or importance. Like I said earlier, choosing the best preschool is not a decision that should be made lightly, but it also does not have to be an overwhelming task. What's important is that you go into that decision informed and well aware of what you value the most in your child's development and education.
Mom to a 17-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, Angela Abaya-Garcia earned her master’s degree in Psychology from the Ateneo de Manila University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Psychology at De La Salle University (Manila), where she also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on child development, research methods, learning and teaching.