No Preschool Is Perfect: How to Find the Almost-Perfect Situation That’s Right for Your Family

Suzanne Podhurst

How much milk did she drink today? Did he take a nap? Did the kids play outside?

Preschool parents crave information. And many send their toddlers to preschools that issue reports detailing the minutiae of the day, from number of diaper changes to stickers earned for sharing. Of those lucky enough to receive reports, however, many find them wanting more. One parent who gets a daily report complained recently that it lists her son’s nap duration as exactly 1.5 hours every single day. In other words: It’s probably not true. What’s more, a great many preschools don’t issue daily reports at all. Some families send their children to preschools whose staff treat the goings-on of the day as (gasp!) trivialities. These preschools may take great care of the children, if less-great care of their information-seeking parents.

This is all to say: In the preschool search, sometimes what you think you want isn’t what you get, and sometimes what you think you need turns out not to be that important. The specific thing-that-you-wish-were-different-but-you-can-live-with-anyway varies for every parent. Some are willing to forego the daily reports. Others are willing to reconfigure their work schedules to send their children to preschools with limited hours.

You may not need daily reports. If you have a high level of trust in your provider (something you’d probably want anyway), and if your child comes home cared-for and happy, you may be able to forego reports. Then again, if your child has a medical condition or requires special care, or if you would be more comfortable with detailed information each day, then you’ll need a preschool that issues these.

The people are usually more important than the philosophy. Different preschools often have different philosophies: There are Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf schools, to name just a few. You’ll want to ensure that a preschool’s teaching philosophy matches your child’s temperament and interests. But more important than the what and how is the who: The people with whom your child spends each day should care for and have a rapport with your little one. Just because you align philosophically doesn’t necessarily mean that your family will be a perfect fit for a preschool (and vice versa).

The director may have very little interaction with your child. The preschool director — or whoever gives you the initial tour — may (or may not) have much interaction with your child. It is important to ask who will be caring for your little one most of the time — and to meet that person. Your impression of the person giving the tour (for better or for worse) may have little bearing on what your child’s day-to-day experience will be like.

Other kids will have lots of interaction with your child. Consider whether a preschool offers mixed-age classes or single-age groupings — and whether a single teacher will stay with the same class throughout preschool. These organizational arrangements are likely to have a significant impact on your child’s day-to-day experiences. Consider how each preschool’s classroom divisions — for instance, whether kids move from room to room, and how and with whom they establish relationships — fit with your child’s personality.

Not all violations are (necessarily) deal-breakers. During the preschool search, many parents consult violations histories, which may vary dramatically, from nonexistent to severe. Some note floors and walls “covered in a toxic finish,” a caretaker “involved in an act detrimental to health and safety,” or a facility “in disrepair.” Others, by contrast, describe less imminently-dangerous infractions — a failure to comply with “required signage,” a failure to “conduct and document monthly fire drills,” or a diaper-changing area not “adjacent to a hand wash sink.” For some parents, a relatively minor violation may be OK, while for others, it may potentially signify other hazards. Parents should be able to decide for themselves what is — and is not — acceptable.

Schedules and closing policies typically have a high impact on working families. While many preschools make annual calendars readily available, they don’t always announce their closing policies. For working families, snow days and other unexpected closings — not to mention late pick-up policies — can present serious logistical challenges. It’s good to know how closings are decided and communicated, and how lateness is treated, before you enroll.

Some preschools only just meet the required student-teacher ratios. This is fine when all of the teachers are present — but it may become a problem when there is an instructor absent due to illness, vacation, or other plans. Parents should be able to assess their comfort levels with substitute providers or potentially short-staffed facilities.

Medical record-keeping policies vary. While preschools are typically required to maintain immunization records for all children, not all facilities are judicious about this practice; and not all inspectors notice. It is not unheard of for a preschool to ask a noncompliant child to stay home when an inspection is scheduled. Don’t presume that because medical records are required, they are always provided — ask!

Other families’ experiences are important — but may not be the same as yours. It’s crucial to talk to other families whose children attend the preschools you’re considering. Ask what they wished they’d known before starting, whether they’re happy, what they like and dislike, and whether they’d make the same choice again. And then make the choice that’s best for your family.

No preschool is perfect. But if you can find a situation where your child is happy — and where you are happy — then you can rest assured that your imperfect situation is perfect enough for your family.

Looking for a preschool near you? Check out the Noodle preschool search tool. Curious about how preschool works where you live? Read a three-minute guide to preschool in your state.


This blog is part of our Smart Parents series. For more information and to buy the book, see Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning.

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Suzanne Podhurst is Editor-in-Chief at Noodle. Follow on Twitter @NoodleEducation.

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