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6 Ideas for Choosing a Good-Fit Preschool

As a therapist I regularly visit and observe children at preschools. By and large, I am encouraged by teachers’ efforts to educate and care for their young students. Of course, I sometimes also see environments where young children are not thriving in the way that parents would hope.


What makes the difference?


At the risk of oversimplifying an inherently complicated question, I think the answer is relationships. Most children I see doing well in their preschools feel safe with and emotionally connected to at least one of their teachers (and some of their peers). Using nerdier language, we could say that these children are securely attached to their teachers.


How do parents find these relationships? Read on for some ideas.

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1. Look at the school’s student-teacher ratio


One of the factors that distinguishes between high- and low-quality preschools is the student-teacher ratio. Put simply, the more students the teacher has to care for, the harder it is to guide them well. When there are not enough adult eyes on the children, then many of the most troubling behaviors may surge:


  • Aggression between peers
  • Isolation of sensitive children
  • Reduced bonding between students and with teachers
  • Less focus and time learning


As a point of reference, the National Association for the Education of Young Children makes the following recommendations:



Maximum Number of Children

Minimum Number of Teachers











An ideal situation involves some 1-on-1 time between your child and the teacher(s), some supervised play with peers, and group time with the teacher(s). This setup helps your child to form an individual relationship with the teacher(s) and practice having to share him or her as well.


2. Inquire about staff turnover and training


Turnover is high in preschools, in part, because teachers don’t get compensated well. Make no mistake about it, early childhood education is a low-wage industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median preschool teacher salary is less than $30,000 per year, compared to nearly twice that amount for elementary school teachers in the same year (2016).


I recommend dealing with the turnover issue directly and inquiring about any anticipated teacher departures, compensation (compared with that of other local preschools), and experience. Although there is no established causal link between experience and turnover, some studies have found that more seasoned teachers stay in their positions longer compared with less experienced ones. One specific question you might ask is if the teachers have training or education in child development. Having knowledge of child development improves the chances that the teacher’s expectations match your child’s given abilities.


3. Find out the school’s philosophy/curriculum


More academically-oriented preschools favor children who can sustain their focus, follow frequent directions, wait, and sit still for extended periods. If you child is a mover and a shaker, then this environment may be a challenge for him/her. If your child does well exploring things independently, then a child-led program like Montessori or Reggio Emilia may be a good fit.


No matter who your child is, play will be an important part of any curriculum. Be sure to look at the daily schedule to see if there is enough free play for your particular child. It is also useful to ask what the role of play is at the school.


4. Visit the site


This is kind of a no-brainer. You get to feel the place out and begin to find out who these people are. It’s situations like this when intuition comes in handy. Did you like talking with the teachers and/or director? Do they seem to be a temperamental fit for your child? How was the interaction between the teacher and the children inside the classroom and outside on the playground?


Choosing a preschool is like choosing teams for a competition:  Winning has a lot to do with selecting the best players as your teammates. Think about who you want on your (and your child’s) team.


5. Ask about their approach to social-emotional skills


Being a psychologist, I am clearly biased; I think social emotional skills should be the heavily emphasized in preschool. We know that children with stronger social and emotional abilities tend to do better in school. Having adults who value and support the child’s development of these skills can help prepare your child for elementary school and beyond.


Be sure to ask how they handle conflict between kids and promote friendships. See how they respond when you give them a few scenarios, like when two toddlers want the same toy, or when one child is going through a hitting/biting phase. You might also ask them how they would handle one of your child’s challenging behaviors (e.g., refuses to use the toilet).


6. Discuss how staff communicates with parents


Aaah yes, communication. It’s not just for couples counseling. Having an idea of when you can have important conversations or even brief check-ins with teachers is vital. Most teachers don’t have the time to do daily updates with parents, but often parents do want to know about their children’s day beyond the "Fine" responses that they might get at home. Some preschools have addressed this need by providing all-day video streaming of the classroom.


I don’t think that’s needed, though. It seems a little intrusive for the teachers and doesn’t necessarily strengthen the dialogue between teachers and parents. An alternative that I have seen work well is to have a whiteboard in the classroom where teachers write some of the highlights of the day. This gives parents a starting point for talking about the day’s highs and lows with their kids and teachers when possible.


It goes without saying that there are other important variables to consider when choosing a preschool for your child. Location and cost readily come to mind. But (surprise, surprise!) I recommend reflecting on the emotional/relational aspects of the preschool search. It’s useful to remember that you’re starting relationships, too. You should be nervous looking for a preschool. Some of these teachers, parents, and staff may become friends of yours and your children’s. Use these 6 tips to help find the relationships that work best for you and, especially, your child.