You want your child to have the best start possible in his/her education, the best fit, the best preschool. But where do you start when there are so many options — from what they teach to how they teaching it — to choose from?
With your child, of course.
"When placing your child in a preschool, you have to keep in mind the type of kid you have," said Kim O'Brien, owner of Happy Hearts Home Preschool in Pittsfield, Mass. "Parents have to follow their gut."
Kristene Erwin, of Pittsfield, experienced this firsthand when placing her children, Elizabeth, now 9, and Robert, 5, in preschools.
"We were just moving to Pittsfield when we were looking for a preschool for Elizabeth and I was pregnant with Robbie," Erwin said. "I was paranoid, stressed over making the decision. I was having hard time with the whole thing."
After getting several referrals from her husband's friends and co-workers, the Erwins decided on Lenox Children's Center for Elizabeth.
One of the deciding factors, Erwin said, was the center's full-day schedule. As a working mom, she knew she needed a preschool with hours conducive to the average workday.
"I wanted my kids to be in one place for the day," she said. "I wanted it to be a consistent environment."
For their family, this meant many preschools that only offer half-days or close by 2:30 p.m. were out of the question.
"You have to bring your child where you think they'll do best, where you feel comfortable," said O'Brien. She operates a preschool for ages 3 to 5 out of her home. The licensed program serves six children, with two part-time slots, according to O'Brien. She opened the center two years ago.
In addition to the practical factors — like time and location — Darlene Bombard, a co-director and teacher at Bennington Early Childhood Center in Vermont, said it's important to look at the actual space.
"A preschool should have a good amount of open play time," she said. "There should be a considerable amount of things to choose from, where whatever is at the child's eye level is open and available for them to play with."
Bombard, who teaches the center's 2-year-olds, said there should also be a good range of play activities, including a dramatic play area (such as a toy kitchen), readily available art materials, and books that aren't just within reach of the teachers but that are accessible to little hands too.
"There should be table activities that offer tactile experiences — a sand table or a water table, for example," Bombard said. "For a lot of children, having tactile experience is very important. It can be calming or a challenge for some and it's good for them to work on becoming more comfortable with tactile experiences."
At Bennington Early Childhood Center, which serves children ages 2 to 5, they also use open-ended materials, such as blocks, instead of prefabricated playsets to encourage children to use their imaginations, Bombard said.
When it came to selecting a preschool for her son, it was the setting at St. Agnes Academy's preschool program in Dalton, Mass., that won Erwin over. While Lenox Children's Center was perfect for her daughter Elizabeth, Erwin said Robert's situation was different.
Robert had speech delays and went to a part-time public school program to help, according to Erwin. But after a school year of being bussed back and forth from the program to day care, Erwin said she knew the setup wasn't working for her son.
"Robbie had transition issues," she said.
Although Robert loved going to his day care provider's house every day, he hated the stress of getting there, his mom said.
"It was awful to know he was crying on the bus every day," Erwin said.
At St. Agnes, Erwin found the smaller teacher-to-child ratio she was looking for and a "super loving environment that is like a home away from home" for her son.
"They reinforce things that are important to me, such as manners, compassion, teaching kids to be polite and to have ownership for actions," she said. "It's been super for Robbie. He needs that structure, more so than Elizabeth did."
Understanding the kind of structure your child thrives in is important in your decision-making, according to O'Brien.
"Some kids need more attention," she said. "As a home preschool, I can be very flexible with the kids. I can base the day on their needs."
But there is still a basic structure and routine to the day, O'Brien said. She suggests looking at the preschool's curriculum and finding out if the teachers are certified.
In Vermont, Bombard recommends checking with the state's Step Ahead Recognition System, or STARS, program run by the Department for Children and Families. According to the state's website, "STARS is Vermont's quality recognition system for child care, preschool, and afterschool programs. Programs that participate in STARS are stepping ahead — going above and beyond state regulations to provide professional services that meet the needs of children and families." (For more information, visit http://dcf.vermont.gov/childcare/providers/stars.)
Bombard encourages parents to visit prospective preschools to get a feel for the environment.
"There should be children's art on the walls, and smiles on everybody's faces," she said.
While making the final selections was stressful, Erwin said she wouldn't have changed anything about where her children ended up attending preschool.
"I feel like I'm blessed by having two very different kids and two different environments where both fell right into the swing of things," she said.
Contact Lindsey Hollenbaugh at 413-496-6211.