Finding the right preschool: 6 essential elements of an exceptional preschool

No one knows your child like you do. You’ve logged the time and tears to learn how to make him laugh, where she tends to wander, how to soothe his fears. So, when it comes time to choose a preschool, the thought of sending your child to strangers understandably strikes fear and anguish for many parents. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s true no one will love and care for your child the way you do, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t offer a whole new style of love and care that just might enrich not only your child’s life, but yours as well. The key is finding the right preschool. There are quality preschool providers out there, so you don’t need to settle. Instead, arm yourself with an understanding of the essential elements of an exceptional preschool.

Finding the right preschool: What to look for and what to consider.


What should an exceptional preschool offer your child?

  1. Health and Safety. Above all, an exceptional preschool provider must offer your child a safe environment to grow and learn. State license requirements offer significant oversight, so be sure to ask if the provider has a state license.

Some other things to ask about:

  • What is the ratio of adult caregiver to child? According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), it should be less than 1:9 for preschoolers; 1:6 for toddlers; and 1:4 for infants.
  • How are the school’s premises kept secure?
  • What are the nutrition requirements for meals? Do they accommodate children with food allergies or specific nutritional needs?
  • How much physical activity do children get each day? The American Heart Association recommends that children ages 2 and older should get at least 60 minutes of developmentally appropriate physical activity per day.
  • Where are the smoke detectors located? Does the staff regularly participate in fire drills?
  • Is there a nurse present or on call?
  • Is staff trained in CPR and First Aid? Do they stay up-to-date on their training?
  • Does the furniture and playground equipment seem appropriate, clean, and in good condition?
  • Is there enough room indoors and outdoors for children to move freely?
  • How do teachers handle problems and conflicts?
  • What health and safety policies are in place and are those policies in writing?


  1. Social and Emotional Development. An exceptional preschool focuses on developing children’s ability to play well with others, follow directions, gain independence, and express themselves appropriately and creatively. You may already be helping your child develop these skills through Dilly’s Tree House family engagement system. But, ensure your child will hone these skills at preschool with these simple questions:
  • Do the rooms have specific areas designated for children to practice cooperation and creativity (for example, reading, art, science, dramatic play, writing, math, blocks, music)?
  • Do teachers have one-on-one conversations with children?
  • Are children offered choices of activities at multiple times throughout the day?
  • Are children talking and interacting with one another?
  • Do they seem to be sharing, taking turns, cooperating?
  • Do teachers play with the children?
  • What social and emotional milestones does the provider expect children to reach at each age and how will they measure these?
  • What activities do they have to support those milestones?
  • Do children show empathy for one another?
  • What tools are provided to help children resolve conflicts on their own?


  1. Academic Engagement. A key expectation you should have for an exceptional preschool is that your child will graduate from their institution ready for kindergarten and exhibiting a genuine love for learning.

Academic skills and intellect develop at different rates, so don’t stress if your child isn’t reading by age 5. However, today’s kindergarten classrooms are more like first-grade classrooms—with standards and a heightened focus on academics—according to research. So, do ask these questions to ensure your child is given adequate exposure to academic content in a way that engages them and sets a foundation for lifelong learning:

  • What curriculum does the school use? Ask to see a sample lesson from the beginning, middle, and end of year.
  • How does the teacher accommodate different learning styles? (for example, visual, audial, tactile)
  • Does the teacher use rich language when speaking with the children? (“The weather certainly is frigid today, isn’t it?”)
  • Does the classroom display printed labels that children can easily see?
  • What academic milestones do the teachers look for in each of the four major content areas: literacy, math, science, social studies?
  • Does the class follow a daily routine that offers a variety of activities but with a predictable schedule?
  • Does the classroom have a library with a variety of reading materials?
  • How do the teachers encourage hands-on learning?
  • Do teachers regularly work with children in small groups and/or one-on-one?
  • What certifications and/or training do the teachers have and what professional development do they receive?


What should an exceptional preschool offer YOU, the parent?

As parents, we are often guilty of neglecting our own needs in favor of our children’s. But a preschool must work as well for you as it does for your child. Consider these elements equally as important as health and safety, social and emotional development, and academic engagement.

  1. Effective Communication. Enrolling your child in preschool ranks as one of the most nerve-wracking decisions a parent will make. You are accustomed to knowing what your child is doing every second of every day. It’s normal to want consistent, specific, and informative feedback. An exceptional preschool should give you just that. Use these questions to evaluate a potential school’s communication:
  • Are parents welcome to drop in and visit classes unannounced?
  • Does the teacher provide regular written reports at least twice a month?
  • Are parent/teacher conferences offered at least twice a year?
  • What mechanisms are in place to regularly inform parents of the child’s progress?
  • Is there a visual display that shows you what activities and skills the children worked on that day?
  • Does the school offer multiple ways for parents to be involved in classroom activities?
  • Are parent communications written in plain, easy-to-understand language?
  • Do they focus on the positive achievements of children while also offering suggestions to further develop skills?
  • How open and available is the school’s director for questions and concerns?
  • Are there live videos and/or photos that show what children are doing throughout the day?


  1. Life-Compatible Logistics. There is no shame in making sure a preschool meets the needs of your lifestyle—such as your schedule, your transportation needs, and your financial situation. A preschool may be exceptional, but if it means you spend two hours in traffic or it brings additional stress to your budget, it’s not the right choice. Keep looking and make sure these questions are answered in a way that meets your needs:
  • Is the school an acceptable commuting distance from your work and home?
  • Is the tuition something you can afford? If not, ask about tuition subsidies, as many programs have these.
  • Do the operating hours work with your schedule?
  • Does the school calendar work with your schedule?
  • What are the policies for late pickup?
  • What are the policies for late payment?
  • What are the policies for inclement weather?
  • What are you expected to do when your child is sick?
  • Is the school in a neighborhood that you are familiar with and feel comfortable in?
  • What should you do if you need someone other than yourself to pick up your child?


  1. Feel-Good Feeling. More important than the actual answers to any of the questions listed above is the feeling you get from the answer. Your intuition is critical in choosing the right preschool, so make sure you note your response to the following:
  • Do you feel welcomed when you walk in the school?
  • Is the art work, décor, and furniture friendly and appealing to your child?
  • Do the teachers seem to genuinely care for the children?
  • Does the director have a vision for your child, and is he/she passionate in communicating that vision?
  • Would you want to spend a day with your child in this space?
  • Have the majority of the teachers been in the school for at least three years?
  • If you had to choose three words to describe the school after your visit, what would they be? And do those words resonate positively with you?
  • Do you feel confident that your child would be safe here?
  • Do you feel that your child would make friends here?
  • What, if anything, do you have reservations about? If you have concerns, voice them to the director and see if you feel better or worse after being heard.


Finally, take your time and trust your instincts to find the right preschool.

You’ll want to visit several schools so you have a variety of comparison points to help you choose an exceptional preschool. You’ll want to pay equal attention to your child’s needs (attends to your child’s health and safety, social and emotional development, and academic engagement) as well as your own needs (provides effective communication, work for your lifestyle, and leave you with a feeling you can live with every day).

Be informed, for sure, but don’t allow the decision to consume you. Trust your intuition, and remember that you are still the constant force in your child’s life over the years that are to come. You will still be the chief influencer in his life, no matter which preschool you choose.

Perhaps my daughter’s preschool teacher said it best. I still remember what she told me at a parent-teacher conference more than a decade ago. She listened patiently to my questions and observations and then lovingly told me, “I’ve never had a child fail at being 4.”


Terra Tarango
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Terra Tarango is a mom as well as an accomplished executive in the education industry with more than 15 years of experience in educational publishing and services. She currently serves as the Chief Education Officer at the Van Andel Education Institute (VAEI). She is an expert in instructional climate and culture and has devoted her career to helping teachers create learning experiences where curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking thrive.

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