What is a high-quality preschool?

Preschoolers

Clinical evidence shows that the significance of quality early childhood education is immense. In a 2019 study that considered data from over 16,000 children across Europe, the authors concluded that early childhood education was correlated to later academic achievement – and that the impact seems to vary according to teaching style [1].

In recent years, the importance of high-quality education has even been emphasised by presidential administrations – albeit in different and sometimes controversial ways, and with varying success. The Head Start program, which originated under the Johnson administration in the 1960s, was eventually renewed by the Bush administration in 2007 – with a slate of renewed early learning goals [3]. In 2013, President Obama called upon Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool for every child in America. In December 2014, he led the Whitehouse Summit for Early Education, where he announced an investment of $1 billion into early learning initiatives [2].

The phrase “high-quality” seems to appear with regular frequency in the announcement of initiatives designed to bolster efforts at providing better early childhood education. But as a parent or caregiver, what does it mean to find a high-quality preschool?

Getting the basics right

At minimum, there’s a checklist that should followed when evaluating a preschool [4]:

  • Before registering your child, ask to see a copy of the program’s license, registration or certification
  • Make sure to review the program’s inspection history, which you can find here
  • Confirm that every employee and volunteer has had a background check
  • Ask how many children are in the classroom, per every teacher (1:10 is good)
  • Find out about every teacher’s education, credentials, training history and certification(s)
  • Confirm how long they’ve been working in the field
  • Make sure that every teacher has had training on: first aid, CPR, safe sleep, giving medication and child development
  • Ask about what curriculum is used
  • Know what types of activities are organised for children and how those activities benefit child development
  • Align your views on discipline, supervision, nutrition, child development and learning
  • Ask about whether they offer information and activities for parents
  • Get a copy of the program’s policies and contract

Childcare.gov has provided a more comprehensive check-list of what to look for to ensure your child’s overall health and wellbeing. All teachers at the preschool or program should also have the required health and safety trainings.

The quality checklist: process and structure

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research [5], preschool programs can be evaluated by process and structure.

So what’s meant by process? Process refers to the actual experiences that occur in a preschool classroom. This includes teacher-child interactions, the kinds of activities offered, the quality of learning materials available, whether good relationships with parents exist and health and safety practices. Structure refers to the size of each group of children, the adult-child ratio, and the education and training of the teachers and the staff.

Taken together, these two factors contribute to quality. In terms of process, a high-quality preschool program:

  • nurtures positive relationships between adults and children
  • has a well-equipped classroom, with stimulating materials and toys
  • fosters communication throughout the day, with mutual listening, talking/responding and encouragement
  • offers opportunities for several kinds of play
  • provides access for materials that encourage understanding and acceptance of diversity
  • encourages parents to be part of their child’s learning process and all other aspects of the program

Second, in terms of structure, a high-quality preschool program:

  • does not exceed recommended adult-child ratios (1:10 for preschool) [6]
  • prioritises small group sizes
  • employs qualified and well-compensated teachers
  • ensures staff are supervised, evaluated and can pursue opportunities for professional growth

What to do when visiting a potential preschool

Apart from doing your homework to vet a preschool’s safety and prior history, visiting the school provides an opportunity to ask questions about process and structure. Consider looking for the following five elements when you have an opportunity to tour your child’s potential preschool classroom [7]:

Classroom atmosphere and design: a well-designed classroom should feel friendly, cheerful and be divided into specific areas of focus, called centres, that each provide a variety of activities for children to partake in. You should be able to see several kinds of toys and materials, including (but not limited to): building toys; books; dress-up clothes; art supplies and children’s art adorning the walls.

Teachers: preschool teachers should help children as they begin to learn within a school setting, model exemplary behaviour and offer tools and support when strong feelings in children arise. Looking around the classroom, you should be able to see: teachers crouched at eye-level, speaking to children; teachers constantly observing children as they work and play; children looking engaged; and other signs of positive and meaningful interactions.

Discipline and social-emotional development: ages 3 to 5 is a critical period for social-emotional development in children, so it’s important that programs help children understand their own feelings and learn how to interact with their peers. Note whether the classroom has or uses: charts that help children recognise their feelings; a quiet, calming zone where children can relax; short time outs only, and no corporal punishment (!); and teachers that don’t raise their voices.

Academics: children should learn fundamental skills in literacy, numeracy and STEM. See if children are: playing with educational games and puzzles; being prompted to explore their own ideas further; being asked to predict what comes next in a story; not being asked to rote memorise information; or playing with building materials. You must also see the outcome of previous learning activities in the form of illustrations on the walls.

Safety: students shouldn’t be exposed to any kind of physical risk! Make sure that: chemicals are stored away in safety cabinets; children are kept away from open bodies of water; furniture is secured so that it doesn’t fall over; there’s a process for entering and leaving; the room appears clean; and fire safety codes are followed.

References

  • [1] Impact of Process Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care on Academic Outcomes: Longitudinal Meta-Analysis.
  • [2] Early Learning | The White House
  • [3] Head Start History
  • [4] Preschool Programs | ChildCare.gov
  • [5] High-Quality Preschool: Why We Need It and What It Looks Like
  • [6] Staff-to-Child Ratio and Class Size
  • [7] Five elements of a good preschool