On a regular basis, I see posts on social media from parents asking for advice on choosing “the best” preschool, or the best private school in the area, or asking which is the best public school as they plan a move. (And, of course, parents of older children agonize over what is the best college.)
There truly is not a “best” school. There are LOTS of great schools, and some mediocre ones, and a very few bad ones. What’s best is the school that best meets your family’s unique needs and goals, and best suits your child’s unique learning style.
Here are some steps to take to figuring out YOUR best option. (Note: you may also want to check out my post on public school vs. private schools.)
Step 1 – Needs Assessment
Before you bother researching all the options, and before you fall in love with an option that won’t meet your needs, let’s start with the pure nitty gritty essentials:
- Schedule: Are you looking for full-time or part-time, or are you flexible? If the regular school day isn’t long enough, do they offer extended day care? What days do you need? What wouldn’t work?
- What times could work for you and what just doesn’t work? (e.g. if you’re not a morning person, choosing a program that starts really early may not be a realistic bet)
- Location: really think through the commute and whether it will work – I can’t tell you how many parents have chosen what they thought was a great school, but by October were miserable about having a cranky kid in the car in never-ending traffic)
- Cost: there is a wide range in costs – be realistic about what’s affordable for you. If you stretch your budget, then it can make any little frustration with the school really stressful as you think – “I can’t believe we’re paying this much and this is happening!”
- For children under age 5 are you looking for drop-off or stay? For younger children, there are often parent-child options where you always stay, or co-ops that are drop off some days and have you work in the classroom on other days. These are generally cheaper than drop-off programs and also allow you to be closely involved in your child’s education.
Step 2 – Goal Setting
What do you hope your child will get out of the experience? Are you hoping for academic development? Social-emotional skill building? Art? Music? Physical education? Science? Religious education?
Are there things that you know you could do a great job of teaching your kids? If so, then it may not matter whether the school covers that well. Is there something you think you won’t be good at teaching? Choose a school that does it well.
Do you prefer a very structured teacher-led program? Or more of a play-based or inquiry-based program where the teacher works the lesson plans around the children’s interests? How do you feel about homework – are you happy to guide practice time at home for them to improve on their skills? Or would you like out of school time to be free choice for your family?
Is the school’s approach to learning compatible with yours? When our oldest was little, we looked at one school which discouraged use of technology and screens, and actually discouraged reading before age 7, instead focusing on things like oral story-telling. This did not work for our tech-heavy family and also didn’t make sense because my kids all learn to read by age 3 or 4. (Not because we drill them… but because we love books so much in our family that they couldn’t wait to read themselves.) We looked at another school where there were only non-fiction books on the shelf in the kindergarten classroom, and I asked “where are the story books?” They disdainfully said “they have plenty of time for that sort of reading at home…” I knew that wasn’t the school for us!
Take a good look at your child’s temperament and learning style. I had a very social chatty child, and we looked at one school where the children were expected to work quietly and independently and not talk with each other. Not a good match for that child. I had a high energy child who tended to get overstimulated in indoor classrooms, but stayed calm and happy outdoors, so we sent him to outdoor preschool. You want to choose a school where your child will feel competent and valued, not one where they never fit in.
During goal setting, it’s also worth asking: What do you hope to get out of their school experience? Some preschools and schools offer parent education and support. Some actively work to encourage community building amongst families. Cooperative preschools and home school co-ops are the ultimate example of involving parents in school in meaningful ways. On the other hand, some parents may prefer to outsource school, and have a pretty hands-off approach, and there are certainly schools that will also support that.
Step 3 – Learn about Your Options
OK, now it’s time to turn to the internet and social media.
In Facebook groups for parents, you probably don’t even need to ask a question – you can typically search the archives for preschool or school, because probably 50 people before you have asked “what’s the best school” and you can just read through all those answers! Once you have really specific questions about a program, these groups can help connect you with parents who know that answer.
You can look at Yelp and Google reviews and such – but, as always with reviews, you’ll see a lot of 5 stars and a lot of 1 stars and nothing in between. People only bother to write reviews when they’re really happy or really mad. So, reviews never tell the whole story. But, they can give you some hints of what to watch for. For elementary schools, you may be able to find school rankings, which compare them and purport to rate the best ones highest. Always be aware of what criteria they use in their ratings and decide whether it is relevant to you. And if their primary criteria is standardized test scores, please know that high test scores are tightly correlated to high income parents who may fund enrichment classes and private tutors for their child and those scores may not indicate the quality of the school itself.
Look for directories, and look for school fairs and preschool fairs, or special issues of local parenting magazines. For example, in the Seattle area, for preschools, you’ll find the directory for the ParentMap preschool fair and the preschool night at Lake WA Toddler Group. For private schools, here is the directory for NW Association of Independent Schools and Puget Sound Independent Schools.
Once you’ve got the names of schools, it’s easy to do lots of internet research on them. Check out their websites. Don’t just read the words, but also look for what’s NOT said. (For example, in my experience, if they don’t tell you the tuition up front, it’s probably high.) Look for what the pictures show, and what’s missing in the pictures. (For example, many schools try to portray diversity in their photographs to let folks know that everyone is welcome, but sometimes you’ll notice that it’s the same few kids appearing over and over in several photos. That may mean the school is welcoming of diversity, but when BIPOC kids came, there may not yet be many peers for them.)
Look at ads. But note: you may see a ton of ads for one school that make you think they’re great, but it could just be they’re a big school with a big marketing budget (and likely high tuition to support that). Some really great small schools never run ads, because they’re trying to keep costs low to increase accessibility for families. They count on word of mouth – current and alumni families who had great experiences and tell their friends and family.
So, that leads to your best source of options: word of mouth. Ask friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, parents at the park! If you ask on social media, instead of just saying “what’s a great school”, be specific. For example, say “we’re looking for a part-time, play-based, affordable preschool – what do you recommend?” Or whatever other criteria you want to state. That makes sure the recommendations you get are relevant to you.
Step 4 – Questions to Research
What do they teach? What would your child learn there?
What is the daily schedule? How is time divided between activities? Play time? Quiet time? Outdoors? Snack? Young children have short attention spans for structured activity, so it’s best in short doses, with plenty of unstructured time in between to explore and discover, and quiet time to process what they’ve learned.
How do they teach it?
A couple big picture ideas: A teacher-led curriculum means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (and may use a standardized curriculum) and sticks to them. A child-led curriculum (a.k.a. emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests and adapts to what the children want to do.
A structured class might use group time, worksheets, and formal instruction to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. A play-based class typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations, and asking questions to further the learning.
Who are the students?
- How many students? How many teachers? The number of kids matters as much as student to teacher ratio. A 8 student class with 1 teacher (8:1 ratio) feels very different from a 16 student class with 2 teachers (8:1). And a 24 kid class is really different from a 6 kid class no matter the ratios.
- What is the age range of the class? Some parents prefer that all the kids be as close as possible in age, but many programs tout the benefits of multi-age classrooms. The oldest kids have a chance to lead and mentor, and the younger ones benefit by the presence of an older role model.
- What are the cut-off dates for age? Your child will do best when they’re in the middle of the recommended age range. If your child is a fall baby (born in September or October), I do NOT recommend trying to push them ahead… if they’re the youngest child in their class, they’ll always feel small, slow, and socially behind, even if they can keep up academically. (Learn more.) Let them be the oldest – it’s a confidence booster. If they need more academic challenge than their classmates, most teachers are happy to give extra challenges to kids who can handle it.
Who are the teachers?
- Training and experience: Where and how did they learn the content that they are teaching in the class? Where did they learn about how to teach? Do they participate in continuing education?
- Longevity / turnover. As a general rule, the longer the teachers have been there the better. (Unless you get the sense that they’re burned out and only there due to inertia….)
- Do they enjoy kids? Do they sit on the floor with the kids, smile, and engage with them? Or are they standing on the edges talking to other adults, occasionally calling out instructions to a child?
- How do they handle discipline?What are their rules and how do they reinforce them?
What is the learning environment like?
- Is the environment clean? Safe?
- Is there a wide range of materials and supplies? Are materials in good condition?
- Vibe: The most important thing you’re “looking” for is something you can’t see. How does it feel? Is it warm, nurturing, full of exciting learning experiences, and full of happy children and teachers? Or is it cold, institutional, uninvolved?
What is the parent experience?
OK, now it’s time to go back to social media with specific questions: “We’re trying to decide between X School and Y School. We’d love to connect to parents who have recent experience with them – we’re especially curious about _____.”
Step 5 – Go With Your Gut
We know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they feel safe and are happy, so look for a place where they will be happy and engaged. Look for a place where you would feel great every time you drop them off to spend time there. Our family has been lucky to participate in some schools where I just felt blessed to have found that environment for my child.
So, all the steps above are logical and focus on practical evaluations. But I think this final decision point often comes down to what feels right to you? That’s the best school.
- My full post on Questions to Ask for choosing preschools includes more info about play-based learning, teacher-led vs. child-led, Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, forest kindergartens, academic preschools, and more.
- Read separate posts on: co-op preschools, outdoor preschools, academic preschools, specialty preschools, online preschool
- And just a quick plug… I teach for the Bellevue College Parent Education program – we sponsor great cooperative preschools! I teach for our parent-toddler program and I teach a Saturday STEM enrichment class. If you’re local, check us out!