By Michelle Nitka, Psy.D.
Never mind college. How do you get your kids into preschool? In many cities, choosing a preschool, and being chosen, has come to feel like a competitive sport. Several articles and news shows have fanned the flames of parental panic. Nightline aired a segment entitled “Inside the Cutthroat Preschool Wars”, the San Francisco Chronicle headlined with “Preschool Wait Puts Parents In Panic” andThe New York Times ran an article entitled “In Baby Boomlet, Preschool Derby Is the Fiercest Yet.” Even without articles and news shows like these, the process of applying to preschool is enough to push parents of hearty constitutions to the edge.
But it does not have to be this way. Despite what some overachieving parents think, admission to the “right” preschool will not set your child on the road to Harvard. What is vastly more important is to finding the preschool that fits your child and your family. Given that the preschool search often begins when a child is not even a year old many parents may well ask, “How do I know who he is yet? He can scarcely eat without drooling!” It is important therefore to pay attention not only to your child’s needs but also to your own. The following tips will hopefully start you in the right direction.
TIPS FOR APPLYING TO PRESCHOOL
1) Do you want your child in a half-day program or a full-day program? How much flexibility do you need in terms of number of days your child is in school and hours your child is in school?
2) How far do you want to drive? There are many outstanding preschool programs, and unless you have a pathological desire to listen to Barney or Elmo during long car rides, the closer the better.
3) How much do you want to spend on preschool? Don’t forget hidden costs like the annual fund drive, capital campaigns, endowment funds, galas, etc. They all have different names but add up to the same thing – you are writing checks which can add thousands of dollars to your tuition.
4) What is the educational philosophy you are most comfortable with (remembering of course that you are looking for the best fit for your child)? There are lots of choices out there, including but not limited to traditional academic, developmental, cooperative, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, and Waldorf.
5) Would you consider sending your child to a preschool affiliated with a church or a temple? Remember that just because a preschool is affiliated with a religious institution does not necessary mean it is a religious preschool. If you are interested in a preschool affiliated with a church or temple, joining the congregation can give you an advantage in the admissions process.
6) Is diversity important to you, and if so, what kind of diversity is important to you? Some schools are founded on the idea of having a diverse student body, while others are extremely homogeneous.
7) Does your child have any special needs that might affect whether a preschool is a good fit? Some preschool directors are exceptional at working with and including children with special needs, while others seem to regard it as a burden.
8) How much parent participation do you want to see in the preschool? What are the opportunities for parent involvement, and what are the expectations? There are some preschools, for example cooperative nursery schools, that by definition require a good deal of parent participation. If you have a very inflexible work schedule this may not be a good choice. On the other hand for a parent who has quit their job to be involved in their child’s early education, a school with little to no parent involvement might be quite frustrating.
9) What is the school’s policy on toilet training? Some preschools have a very strict requirement that a child must be toilet trained to start preschool while others are far more lenient and realize that peer modeling will probably accomplish the task rather rapidly.
10) After preschool do you plan to send your child to public or private school? There are some preschools where everyone will graduate and attend private elementary schools. Those directors typically help their families with this application process and are very well versed in it. On the other hand, there are many excellent preschools where no one continues on to private school.
11) Apply to the toddler program of the preschool you are interested in. Many preschools have toddler programs that start when the child is about 18 months old. Toddler programs generally meet once a week and the parent stays with the child. These programs are an excellent way of getting to know a preschool program. Although it is not a guarantee, many preschools acknowledge that attending their toddler program does afford the child an advantage in terms of admission to the preschool.
Finally, try to remember that although these first decisions regarding your child’s education are important, no preschool can ever replace you. There are no golden tickets – no preschool will guarantee success. It is far more important to be a loving, involved, present parent.
Michelle Nitka is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in children and families. She is the author of the book Coping With Preschool Panic and maintains a private practice in West Los Angeles. She is also the mother of two small children and has survived the preschool application process twice. Her Web site is PreschoolGuide.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.