Best preschool is one that fits your child
By Josh L. Dickey
By Josh L. Dickey
Parents, don't go crazy over getting your kids into the hottest preschool in town.
While it's common for parents to scramble and stress out over landing their children spots in the most reputable preschools, many educators say it's unnecessary.
Take it from two educators from the much-sought-after 92nd Street Y Nursery School in Manhattan, N.Y. — director Nancy Schulman and associate director Ellen Birnbaum — who are used to encountering real parental anxiety over preschool.
In hyper-competitive New York, the preschool application process is fraught with worry: Limits on application numbers; play sessions that serve as school interviews; worries that somehow, whatever happens when children are just 3 or 4 years old will make or break their chances for success in life.
A spot at the 92nd Street Y, — where teachers are considered among the best in their field and tuition runs $21,000 a year for 4- and 5-year-olds — is coveted by many, including boldface names such as Woody Allen, Michael J. Fox and some Wall Street's heaviest C-suite executives. It's sometimes called the Harvard of pre-schools.
But in their new book, "Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years," (Knopf), Schulman and Birnbaum have this advice:
Go with your gut when choosing a preschool — and don't worry much about reputation, cost or any of the scores of bewildering factors parents commonly weigh.
HERE'S THEIR BEST ADVICE:
Q: So you've narrowed it down to a few places that make sense, and it's time to make that crucial first visit. What should I be looking for?
A: Schulman: "Part of it has to do with your instincts as a parent — you know your child best. ... The very first thing that will happen is you will have a gut feeling; and that will speak volumes. Does this feel like a happy place? Does this feel like a place I would feel comfortable leaving my child? You'll know that because you'll see a clean, organized place, you'll hear a buzz of children engaged in activities, and teachers talking with them in a warm, direct way."
Birnbaum: "Every school has its own culture. It looks a certain way. It has a certain feel. And of course the people you meet along the way are critical to that. It could be the first person who answers the phone when you make an appointment. And that's so important now, because this is the time when you're going to be in most contact with the people who will be with your child more than any other time in their lives."
Q: What can be done to prepare ahead of the visit?
A: Schulman: "One of the things you will not see, and you can do a little research about, is finding a little information about their philosophy. The physical space will tell you something, but you want to find out if the school is licensed, you want to find out what the experience of the teachers are; if it's a school with a lot of teacher turnover, you want to be careful about that and find out more."
Birnbaum: "The lead teacher for most classrooms in most states should have a master's degree, and be certified in early childhood education. Certainly at least one teacher in each classroom has to have that qualification. Assistants may not all have those qualifications, and that's OK. The other thing is the ratio adults-to-children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends that for 2-year-olds, one adult for every five children; for 3-year-olds, one adult for every seven children; and for 4-year-olds, one adult for every eight children."
Q: So I've narrowed it down to two schools; one hits all those points you mentioned and then some, but the other one just feels right to me somehow. Which to choose?
A: Schulman and Birnbaum (in unison): "Go with your gut!"
Schulman: "We always advise parents to go with your gut feeling. I think parents are often looking for a certain pedigree, and that may or may not suit your child or family. A reputation is important, but it's really much more important that you send your child to a place that you walk in and feel a sense of comfort, in the tone of the place and the people and teachers who are running it. That's the No. 1 priority."
Q: What about my child's reaction to the school? Should I be reading him?
Birnbaum: "When we have children come to visit, we know that on any given day, they may or may not be the same. So I wouldn't take the child's reaction into consideration in that way at all. But to see it from your child's perspective is important; if you go to a school and it's very busy and maybe you have a child who's easily distracted or overstimulated, you might not want that school for your child. ... Knowing your child, and matching the environment to your child, is something you should definitely consider."
Q: Physically speaking, what are some good signs — things I should be looking for no matter what?
A: Birnbaum: "Clean, safe, and well-equipped; a certain level of organization. Children really need and thrive on things that are neat and in order."
Schulman: "You really want to see that there's a sense to the day, that there's a thoughtful plan for children."
Q: What's crossing the line in terms of being inquisitive? I have so many questions but don't want to come off as the obsessive parent.
A: Schulman: "Every once in a while you see a parent come in with a checklist, and frantic note-taking begins. You're going to have to worry about that parent a little bit. The thing you're going to have to figure out is what matters most to you. You don't have to know the answers to all of these things, and some of them are going to be self-evident on your first visit. A lot of this stuff will be in written materials."
Birnbaum: "It is intrusive for parents to come into classrooms if they want a lot of additional time. It's just logistically hard for most places. It's a nice and helpful thing to ask whether there are other parents in the school whom you could speak with. And if you know parents who are in the school, that's a wonderful source of information that may also be more forthcoming than asking the school themselves."
Q: In the end, how much impact does the choice I make really have? Are preschools really all that different?
A: Birnbaum: "At this stage of your child's life, parents are really the most important influence. Preschool is a phenomenal experience, but there are many many preschools that will meet the needs of your child, and they'll have a happy and productive experience."
Schulman: "There is no 'right' school. There are many wonderful schools, and a parent who feels that 'I have to get my child into school A or B because that's going to set them on a track for a life of success' ... that's a completely misunderstood concept."
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