Category Archives: Early Learning / Preschool

Choosing the Best School / Preschool

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:

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 an early morning program 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!”
  • 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? Then you may not need the school to cover 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 chat 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 coops 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!

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.

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. Search online for ratings of local public 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 I’ve been involved in schools where we didn’t yet have a lot of racial diversity, and so we had the same few kids appearing over and over in several photos. I believe that we were welcoming, but when BIPOC kids came, there would 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 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”, 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. 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.

Learn more:

Can Online Preschool Work?

pexels-photo-3975663

Lots of early childhood programs are moving online for fall of 2020. When parents hear that toddler classes or preschools are meeting online, they may have questions about whether it could be an effective method for learning. It is definitely not the same as in-person learning, and we would rather be in-person, hands-on, with lots of happy children interacting in the same room. However, there are lots of great benefits still to be gained in an online preschool or toddler program.

  • Routines: having a predictable activity in your weekly schedule helps to keep them (and you) oriented to external schedules even in coronavirus haze. It provides an event to look forward to and reflect on.
  • Other Faces and Voices: seeing other children and a teacher can be delightful, your child will learn by observing their peers, class can also expose them to diversity and broaden their world, plus we know that children learn language better when they hear a wide variety of adult speakers.
  • A Listening Ear: for classes where they offer sharing time, children will have someone else to share their exciting ideas with, and will have a chance to practice their expressive language skills
  • A Chance to Practice Manners and Classroom Skills: one of the important aspects of an early childhood experience, whether that’s story time at the library, Sunday school at church, or preschool is that children get to practice sitting still, listening to someone else, participating in a group activity, and taking turns – they can practice all these things in an interactive call on Zoom.
  • Learning New Things: whatever the content of the class – music, stories, dance, art, or science, your child can easily learn new ideas from an online teacher, and if you’re listening in, you can reinforce the learning much more effectively than you could have reinforced what they were taught at a drop-off preschool.
  • New Inspiration: your child will get new ideas and you will get new ideas for things to try out at home and explore and learn from – you don’t have to feel responsible for coming up with all the learning ideas on your own.

Here is a handout where I offer lots of tips on help child succeed on Zoom and get the most benefit from an online program.

Child-Directed Play: Floortime

floortime

Child-directed play is an intentional practice where you sit and play with a child, allowing them to guide the play, as  you follow along. The Greenspan Floortime approach describes this as:

  • Follow your child’s lead, i.e. enter the child’s world and join in their emotional flow;
  • Challenge her to be creative and spontaneous; and
  • Expand the action and interaction to include all or most of her senses and motor skills as well as different emotions

Floortime was created by Dr. Stanley Greenspan for children on the autism spectrum and those with developmental delays. It can also be used with typically developing children. It is helpful for any parent or caregiver who wants new ways to interact and have fun with a child, wants to feel more engaged with and connected to a child, and wants to know how best to interact with a child to foster communication skills, social-emotional development and cognitive learning.

How Floortime works:

Set the Stage

  • Find a time when you can focus on play, when you and your child are both well-rested and fed.
  • Be present – set aside your mobile devices and other distractions, relax, and stay focused on the interaction.
  • Gather items that interest your child and have them available, but not so many that it’s overwhelming.
  • Your position is important. Be in front of them – that’s better for connecting than it is to be side by side or for you to be behind them. Get down to their level – typically on the floor. Your physical nearness, affectionate touch, and eye contact help them to stay engaged.

Follow their Lead

  • Let them choose the activity. Offer toys that they love. It doesn’t matter what you play, it matters how you play.
  • Join in their play. Match their level of play – if they’re low key, you are too. If they’re very energetic, match that (without escalating up to wild.)
  • Don’t feel like you have to teach them. Just let them explore and discover. Copy the way that they play. If they signal that they want your help doing something, then help them, but don’t just jump in and do things they haven’t asked for.
  • Measuring intent. Watch their gaze, expressions and body language. Where is their attention? Let them know it’s OK to take initiative and start an activity.
  • If they are motivated, don’t change the activity. It’s OK to do the same thing over and over again.
  • Be playful! Find joy in your interaction. Their current interest may not be inherently interesting to you. But tune into how it gives them joy.
  • Look for the gleam in their eye. That’s a great sign that it’s working.

If it’s not working: Are you trying to control the play too much – do you need to step back? Are you being too passive and aimlessly following them around – how can you join them in interactive play? (Learn more about following their lead.)

Narration

If you feel tempted to ask a lot of questions, or do a lot of teaching, or you’re just over-talking, try observing silently, or responding to their play with simple reactions “uh oh!”, “what’s that?”, “hurray”.

If you want to talk, try narrating what they are doing. “You’re putting the toys in the basket. You noticed there’s only one toy left on the floor. Whoa, you dumped all the toys back on the floor so you can do it again!”

This narration tells them that you’re paying attention and that what they’re doing is important to you. You’re also building their language skills by giving them words to describe the things they do.

Use Emotional Expression and Responses to Engage

  • Expression – Use your eyes, facial expression, tone of voice and body language to connect and communicate. Your emotions (especially anticipation, surprise, and delight) help to attract their attention and keep them engaged. When you pair your words with emotional expression, it gives your child a better understanding of both the words and the emotions.
  • Observation and Response – Can you read their emotional cues? Do your expressions engage them more? If so, keep it up. If they’re seeming overwhelmed by you, back down a little – you’re following their lead.

Circles of communication

When Floortime is working well, it’s like a game of volleyball or ping pong. You know your child’s interests, so you “serve” by offering a toy. They “bounce back” to you by taking the toy. You talk to them about the toy. This back and forth interaction is where all the magic learning takes place. A young toddler, or a child with autism or delays, may only be able to go back and forth a few times before disconnecting. The older they are and the more play experience they have, the better they’ll get at this. The goal of Floortime is to build persistence – more of these circles of connection.

Once it’s working well, you settle into a flow of play – Floortime calls this “getting it cooking.”

If it’s not working: Are you waiting long enough for them to respond? Are they overwhelmed – are you talking too much or moving too fast? Are you following their interests and joining them where they are? (Watch for any expression, sound, or gesture that might invite you into their play.)

Stretch the Play

Once you’re “cooking” – you’re connected and have a nice back-and-forth pattern established, then you can work to take their play up a level.

Expand the play by adding in some new toy or new aspect of play, or offering some choices. For example, if they’ve been using blocks to make a stable for their toy horses, you can put a “roof” on one of the “stalls.” If they’ve served you the toy pizza over and over, ask for a drink to go with it. If you were playing peek a boo, drop the scarf and pretend to have a hard time finding it.

Expand just enough, but not too much. Your goal is sustained engagement – we want to keep out back-and-forth exchange going as long as we can. So, if your new extension keeps them engaged, and you’ve got that gleam, keep it up. If you lose their attention, back up a little.

If it’s not working: Some parents try to intervene too much. Some are too passive and don’t help child stretch.  Try to find the balance between following their lead and challenging them to interact, communicate, and think.

Tailoring to the Individual Child

Some children have sensory preferences – they really respond to sounds or to touch or to movement. Some children are easily overwhelmed by certain kinds of stimulation – sound or touch or smell might be too intense for them. Children may also prefer different speed of interaction – some like things to move slowly, some like fast moving play. This worksheet may be helpful if you feel like there are sensory or timing issues involved.

Benefits of Floortime

Some parents wonder – if I’m just playing the same simple game over and over, is my child actually learning anything? According to Autism Speaks, the back and forth play of Floortime “builds the foundation for shared attention, engagement and problem solving. Parents and therapists help the child maintain focus to sharpen interactions and abstract, logical thinking.” They also note these key aims: self-regulation, engagement in relationships, communication skills, and emotional learning.

Learn more

Learn more about tips for Floortime sessions, and see videos of parents and caregivers demonstrating these skills:

Teaching Math Skills

Let’s talk about math…

When we talk about which skills kids need to succeed in school or in the work world, reading and math are always at the top of the list of “most important things to know about.”

If you ask parents what they do to teach their kids to read, they will say: we do bedtime stories every night, we go to the library, we practice reading signs, menus, and labels – they have a whole list of ideas. If you ask them what they do to teach their child math, many parents draw a blank or they protest that they don’t know how to teach math, and they’re counting on preschool and school to do that.

Can we instead think about easy ways to incorporate math into everyday interactions and play just as easily as we do reading? I(‘m not talking math drills and flash cards and pushing academics here! I’m talking about playing with numbers like we “play” with words and stories.)

Here are some opportunities and resources (click on the links to learn more):

Hands-On Activities to Teach Core Math Skills

  • Counting / Number Sense
    • You can count almost anything – how many blocks in your tower, how many goldfish crackers on your plate, how many books do we get at the library
    • You can ask: who has more? Divide objects into two piles – which is bigger?
    • Set the table – each person gets one plate, one spoon, five berries, etc.
    • Count money – it’s trickier to get the different values of different coins.
  • Representation – recognizing that the numeral 5 and the word five can be used as symbols to represent how many physical objects you have
    • Play with magnetic numbers, puzzle pieces shaped like numbers, make numbers with play-dough, draw numbers in the sand,
    • Do connect the dot puzzles, do physical games where they have to jump from the paper numbered one to two to three
    • Make number cards with the numeral and word written on them. When you count physical objects, have them find the card the shows the total.
  • Shapes and Spatial Relationships
    • Play with shape sorters, puzzles, nesting cups, blocks, building toys. Make crafts.
    • Talk about (and play games with) positional words: under, next to, between…
  • Measurement
    • Cook together, using a recipe.
    • Compare things: line up in order by size.
    • Measure with standard units (8 inches) and non-standard (12 paper clips long)
  • Patterns
    • Help them notice sequence: first we do X, then Y. After ____, we always _____.
    • Sort laundry and pair the socks. Separate M&M’s by color, then make a pattern.
    • Build patterns: red bead, yellow bead, red…  Clap rhythm patterns.

For lots more hands-on ideas, just search pinterest for preschool math activities! Or go to http://articles.extension.org/pages/25598/young-childrens-developing-math-skills

Sing Counting Songs and Read Counting Books

  • Math Songs. Counting songs like 5 Little Monkeys jumping on a bed, or 10 Little Indians, or 5 Little Ducks are all great teaching tools, especially if you have props. A bath-time game with 5 rubber ducks can teach one-to-one correspondence plus the concept of zero (no little ducks came back…) You can find a huge collection of math songs for all ages at www.songsforteaching.com/numberscounting.htm

Turn (almost) any conversation into a math conversation: Check out the blog http://talkingmathwithkids.com/ It has examples of math concepts into conversations with kids in an engaging way. More ideas: https://bstockus.wordpress.com/talking-math-with-kids/ and http://prek-math-te.stanford.edu/overview/math-thinking-conversations.

Bedtime Math: Every night, before or after the bedtime story, add in a math story problem.

You could make up your own. They could be based on your day (“Today at dinner, there were 8 slices of pizza. You ate two, and I ate three. How many did Dad eat?”). They could be based on the book you just read. (“The Cat in the Hat is holding a book, an umbrella and a fish bowl. How many things is that?” “How many pieces of fruit did the Very Hungry Caterpillar eat?”

Or, you can download the Bedtime Math app (it’s free!) or buy a Bedtime Math book if you prefer a screen free option. They offer a new kid-friendly story problem every day, with questions appropriate for three different levels of math skills, for kids age 3 – 9.

Sports are a fabulous way to practice math skills. For younger kids, keep the score simple – one basket equals one point. For older kids, make the scoring more challenging: “if you can sink the sock in the laundry basket from here, it’s 1 point, but if you can do it from this line, it’s 3 points.” When watching sports in person or on TV, have your child keep a written score tally.

Restaurant Games: When waiting for your food, try these games. Hide 2 – 5 sugar packets behind your menu. Lift the menu to briefly show them the items, put it back down, and ask how many they saw. Tap on the table 1 – 6 times, and have them set out that many packets. “There are four blackberry jams, two strawberries, and a marmalade – how many total?”

Board games are my favorite math skill builder. They’re so much fun that kids don’t notice their learning math. Research shows that the more board games that a kid played and the more different settings he played games in, the better his performance in four math tasks.

Let them see you using math. Point out to your child when you use math – to calculate a tip, compare the cost of two items, figure out how long it will take to drive somewhere, or to help them decide what to buy with their allowance. (For a discussion of financial literacy for kids and how to handle allowance: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/02/09/financial-literacy/)

What Not to Do:

  • Don’t feel like you need to get flash cards, math apps and workbooks and drill basic math facts over and over. Let math be fun at home, not a terrible bore.
  • Don’t try to push kids along faster – push them deeper – rather than moving on to the next step on the math skills checklist as fast as you can, make sure you’ve really explored each step in depth first. For example, some parents want to toddler to count to 20, so they push them fast. It takes a long time for a toddler to really truly understand the difference between one and more than one. And then to understand the difference between one and two, and more than two. Let them stay there till they really get it, and then they’ll be able to master more complicated ideas in the future. But rush this one, and everything is confusing from there on out!

My other blog, Inventors Of Tomorrow, is about teaching STEM skills to kids. I have more details there. Start with the post on developmental stages of math learning.

Preschool Choice Time

choiceThe holidays are over. You’re ready to sit back and relax.

Then suddenly you start seeing ads for preschool fairs, and lectures on choosing a preschool, your parent educator tells you the discussion topic is preschool, friends ask you if you’ve decided what you’re doing next year, and other parents tell you that you need to think about it NOW before all the best places fill up.

It can be very stressful!

Let’s take a deep breath, and take a few moments to reflect on this decision-making process.

If your child will be 3 or older on September 1, then it could be a good year for you to start preschool. (But you don’t necessarily have to.) And January and February are prime time for preschool open houses, and for enrollment to begin, so now is a good time to think about it. (Though, truly, if you don’t think about it till August, you’ll still have good options.)

If your child will still be younger than 3 this September, you don’t have to make any decisions yet about their future preschool. But now is a good time to check out some of those preschool fairs, just to get some sense of what options are available in your area, when  there’s no pressure to make any firm decisions.

Check out these posts for things to think about:

First decide: Is preschool necessary? Is it something you want for your child?

If you decide you’re looking, the first thing to think about is logistics: What do you need in a preschool in terms of location, schedule, cost, and so on. What are your goals for preschool?

Then, research your options. Have you considered cooperative preschool? outdoor preschool? specialty preschools (e.g. bilingual or religious)? academic preschool or play-based learning? multi-age programs?

Then visit, or attend an open house, and ask these questions to learn more.

After you’ve done all the research with your head, narrowing it down to the list of the best three options, then listen to your heart. Which school feels best to you? Where will your child be happiest? From the science of brain development, we know that we all learn best when we feel safe and happy – our brains have a high degree of neuroplasticity and we can absorb all the teacher has to teach. In the end, it’s that happiness and preserving the love of learning that will serve our child’s educational future the best.

photo credit: JoshSchulz via photopin cc