When my son turned two-and-half, I started looking at preschools. I had a great experience in preschool, which I credit with igniting my love of learning, so naturally, I wanted to share that love with my son. I thought, I had found the perfect preschool. The school was small. It seemed nice, and friends recommended it.
But ultimately, when I went looking for preschool, I was just fumbling in the dark. What makes a good preschool? I didn’t know. I looked up a little bit of advice, but none of it seemed particularly helpful.
I certainly didn’t know what the research said.
Luckily for us, the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and the Brookings Institute just published a promising new report about the nature of preschool in the US. Their over all main conclusion – public preschool helps provide children a boost for kindergarten (read more about a summary and policy suggestions on NPR).
But it is one area within the report that intrigued me the most and that was: The Characteristics in Pre-Kindergarten Programs that Drive Positive Outcomes. This doesn’t necessarily equate “good” in terms of preschools, but I suspect that most of us want positive outcomes for our children.
So, if you are looking for positive outcomes in preschool, what should you look for?
Small Class Size
Many of the current policies related to preschool education are informed by research from the seventies about teacher to student ratios and teacher education. First, they found that group size was more important than teacher/student ratios in terms of success (although this is assuming and already reasonably low ratio). Although one might expect teacher education and experience would play a huge role in student outcomes, they did not, with the exception of specific training in early childhood development.
Things, like where the bathrooms are located and what the gross-motor play areas (aka playgrounds), are important for preschools because they directly impact student behaviors and needs. I never thought about the locations of bathrooms as something so important, but now that the report points it out, I realize how people with little bladders might have trouble long distances traveling in larger schools.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, classroom interactions are an important thing for preschool success. Students did best in a classroom setting that used a mixture of free and structured play and learning. Furthermore, teachers who use more complex words and who actually listen to children are more likely to encourage success. I never thought of listening to children as being so important, but the research shows that the more teachers listen to kids, the better they learn. Imagine that!
More important than any specific curriculum, students did better when there were interesting the activities. The more fun the activity, the more likely the students were going to be engaged and also keep the skills they learned.
Warm Classroom Environment
This should come as no surprise, but it did to me, the positive nature of the classroom is one of the most important aspects of preschool education. Students who received more affirmation and warmth and fewer negative experiences in regards to behavior did much better. Of course, this is sometimes hard to see on a classroom visit, but if your child starts experiencing negative associations and stress related to school, you might want to reconsider the situation.
This last part speaks to me directly, because, as I have mentioned before, my own son had a bad experience with preschool. He had a very negative relationship with the head teacher, which in turn colored his whole experience. By the end, not only was he not learning anything, but stress was wracking his whole little body. So, I can now speak to the importance of a warm and accepting environment for every student, not just the easy ones.
Much of the research, as the scholars note, is limited both in scope and scale. Specifically, in this report they are looking at public preschools and shaping public preschool policy (ppp!). Still, the research should hold the same for private preschools too. From class size to an inviting environment, it is essential for us, as parents, to know what to look for in finding a good preschool for our children, because these things can have reverberations for their whole lives.