What do you want your child to get out of their early childhood school experience? A good foundation of knowledge? A love of learning and exploration? Social skills, leadership skills, and confidence? Whatever educational benefits you seek for your child, it’s vital you pick the right school to give them what they need to succeed.
A fantastic early childhood school experience sets up your child for a lifetime of scholastic excellence. So how do you find the best preschool program that is capable of giving your student the environment and tools they need to set them on the right path? Here are 14 qualities of a great early childhood school that you should look for when choosing a school for your young student.
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1. Warm Relationships with Teachers
Perhaps a century ago, teachers were strict disciplinarians whose only purpose was to drill students on their letters and numbers and enforce order. Today, however, we understand the benefits of having a personal connection with students in the classroom, and teachers are encouraged to build relationships with their charges.
Students learn best when they are comfortable with their teachers. They will not learn from someone they feel doesn’t know them or even like them. They need to know they are seen as a unique individuals and that they can trust their teacher to help them accomplish goals and overcome challenges. Teachers who build good relationships with students are more adept at recognizing individual student’s strengths and weaknesses and helping them work on both so the child is successful.
Smaller classes, high staff to student ratios, and friendly staff are obvious signs that a school emphasizes good teacher-student relationships. You can also ask teachers about their student recognition program, how much communication you should expect about your child’s progress, and how much one-on-one time they spend with students. Listen for answers that would require paying close attention to individual students and that allow students to express themselves in the classroom.
2. Balance of Academic Learning and Social and Emotional Development
School is about more than learning your 123’s and ABC’s. It should also be a social environment where students can learn to relate to and interact with peers and develop good emotional skills. The best schools balance a rigorous academic curriculum with social activities that allow students to learn both individually and as a group while developing good life skills.
Young students learn better when their school day is filled with a variety of age-appropriate learning activities and methods. A bored or unchallenged child cannot learn. A high quality school will use compelling activities to encourage learning and discovery so that students are eager to master even the most daunting subjects. A balance of different teaching methods ensures every child’s learning preferences are accommodated.
Crating a social learning environment also encourages students to tackle challenges as they work with their peers. Children learn from one another every day, picking up positive social skills from their peers— with proper guidance from teachers, of course. This enhances the learning experience, helping them remember vital lessons better. In a group setting, they not only learn academic lessons but how to recognize and manage emotions, allowing them to focus on academics while building healthy relationships.
Look for a school that uses a national standard-based curriculum that is developmentally appropriate and balances individualized learning with social learning. This means the curriculum should cover appropriate topics with learning activities that are engaging and varied enough to be accessible to your student’s age group. Ask how teachers use group time for learning and how they encourage students to work through interpersonal conflicts and manage emotions.
3. Individualized Learning Goals
As important as group learning is, students deserve to be assessed according to their individual accomplishments and strengths. This means they need their own personal learning goals.
Children achieve more when they have something to work towards, whether that’s mastering a skill, earning a high grade, or improving a behavior. When teachers help students identify a goal and the steps required to meet their goal, they teach students how to be accountable and motivated. These skills are vital for future successes in school and the world.
When choosing a school, ask how teachers recognize where there’s room for improvement and what process they use to help individual students make those improvements. They should be able to explain how each student has an individualized plan where they assess students’ progress and track changes in performance.
4. Teacher Credentials and Experience
It’s no secret that teachers must be licensed to hold a teaching job, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some discrepancies between teaching credentials and experience at different schools. You want to know your child’s teacher is capable of providing the highest quality education.
Unfortunately, some early childhood educators believe their job is little more than glorified babysitting. This simply isn’t true. Children of all ages need teachers who are knowledgeable about pertinent subjects and in proven teaching methods. A child’s education is only as good as the person providing the education. The best teachers are up-to-date on curriculum standards, teaching techniques, and disciplinary practices so they can provide effective lessons for all of their students.
Hiring licensed, certified teachers is a school’s first step in ensuring their staff knows what they’re doing. However, experience, additional certifications or degrees, and proven teaching achievements are better indications of a passionate, successful teacher. Parents should ask about the qualifications of the staff at any school they are considering and pay particular attention to the average years of experience amongst the teachers and observe how engaged their classes are.
5. Passion for Teaching and Learning
You can tell when someone doesn’t like what they are doing and kids can tell too. That’s the last attitude you want from your child’s teacher. Every student deserves a teacher who is passionate about their work and helps their class join in their enthusiasm.
Children mimic adults. If students sense that their teacher is apathetic or averse to teaching, they will bring that approach to learning. These attitudes destroy student curiosity and will fundamentally disrupt their academic progress and learning.
On the other hand, some teachers are passionate about their work in general, but may not have an adequate grasp on subject matter and how to teach it. Poor teaching is frustrating for young students. They don’t understand that it’s not their fault they aren’t being taught effectively; they internalize their failure to learn and become discouraged.
When observing a potential school, note the teachers’ enthusiasm in teaching and interacting with students. Listen for a depth of knowledge and pay attention to how engaged students are in lessons.
6. Fun and Intentional Learning Environment
School isn’t just about work. There’s plenty of room for fun, especially for the youngest students for whom fun is a vital factor in successful learning. The best schools recognize this, striving to create environments that support fun and creative learning.
Where students learn has much to do with how well they learn. Young children get bored easily, so a bright, dynamic classroom speaks to their senses and fosters curiosity and discovery during the learning process. Interactive learning activities should be designed to keep their attention and create the necessary connections for learning in their minds. Students love learning and will do so eagerly when they are in a pleasant environment with activities planned with their interests in mind.
During school tours, note how classrooms are decorated and arranged. Are they attractive to children or bland and boring? Is there a variety of age-appropriate learning supplies and activities? Are there learning stations that encourage exploration or are students stuck in chairs all day?
7. A Mix of Small Group and Direct Instruction
We’ve touched on this before, but students learn best when the school day is balanced between different types of learning. For instance, switching between learning as a whole class and in smaller groups or one-on-one is very beneficial.
When learning in groups, students benefit from hearing each other’s answers and insights or collaborating to discover new things. Some students may be too shy to speak up though or have trouble focusing in groups. To balance the pros and cons of group learning, good teachers find ways to teach small groups where students can still learn from each other but receive more attention and participate more closely. This allows them to focus better on the lesson or skill they are learning.
There are benefits of learning one-on-one too. If a student is truly struggling with something, it’s best for the teacher to pay them some personal attention and understand why they are struggling and what needs to happen to help that individual child succeed.
You can observe and ask about how teachers utilize groups in teaching when touring schools. Ask about how much time teachers spend instructing the class as a whole and what opportunities they take to break the class into smaller groups. You can also ask how teachers plan to help an individual student who needs a little more time working by themselves.
8. Opportunities for Exploration, Problem Solving, and Critical Thinking
Children are naturally curious about the world around them. From an early age, they need ample opportunity to explore and confront problems to develop their critical thinking skills. This is just as true at school.
Teachers can allow students to explore and learn with how they teach. Letting students try new things and do experiments to see what happens are fun ways to encourage them to explore.
Teachers can encourage problem-solving and critical thinking in how they ask questions during lessons. Asking open-ended questions or inviting students to share their own ideas or opinions on things lets them use their minds more than asking simple one answer questions. Teachers may also ask students to guess what will happen next in a story or look for patterns during lessons.
Children quickly learn to depend on adults for all the answers if they aren’t given the freedom to work out problems and think on their own. If exploration and problem solving are encouraged, however, eventually they’ll be able to apply this critical thinking to their schoolwork and real-world problems as they mature.
On school tours, observe what kinds of questions teachers ask students during lessons and if discussions are focused on student dialogue or if the teacher is simply lecturing.
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9. Independent Learning
To be academically successful, students must develop the ability to learn independently without constant guidance from a teacher. While this is more important to older students, even the youngest ones can begin developing this skill if given the opportunity.
Some people might think schools need to be strictly controlled and regimented environments, but that simply isn’t ideal for good childhood development. While students do require a degree of disciplined learning by way of planned lessons and activities, they also learn a lot from independent play and learning. Schools should have learning materials available for students to explore on their own at appropriate times. This promotes curiosity and discovery that translates into seeking more knowledge and learning opportunities as a child grows.
Independent learning develops a child’s self-motivation. Lack of motivation is a major pitfall in learning and progress in general. When a teacher is not guiding a child, the child must learn to self-guide their learning and will go on to develop good study habits. This leads to better academic performance and confidence.
Look for a school where classrooms are set up for independent learning. This means having independent learning materials and stations available and scheduled time for students to use these materials.
10. Integrated Studies Program
Every school covers basic subjects like math and language arts, but children need supplementary enrichment classes to balance out the basics. These classes may include music, foreign languages, art, physical education, STEM, humanities, and more.
Studies show that students who engage in integrated studies programs are more successful in other subjects. Some of those classes provide artistic or physical outlets that allow students to focus better once they sit down to do math or reading. Sometimes these supplementary classes can be integrated with standard lessons to help students see new connections. In general, the more subjects students are exposed to, the more well-rounded they are and the more talents and skills they develop. Exploring all of these avenues allows students to explore and develop their own interests earlier.
For the best early childhood education, seek a school that offers ample integrated studies for its students, especially ones your child already shows an interest or talent for.
11. Display of Authentic Work
Here’s something most people wouldn’t think about when picking a school: are children allowed to do their own work? You might think this is a given considering the emphasis schools put on not cheating, but sometimes it’s the teachers who keep children from doing the work themselves.
This is the most apparent in art projects, so we’ll use that as an example. Say a teacher tells the class they are going to paint flowers today, but they must all use the same colors and techniques. What is being accomplished? Every picture looks the same and all the children learned was to follow directions.
Similarly, if the teacher must give very specific guidance to help the students achieve the desired results, this is a sign that the work may not be age-appropriate and that learning has taken a backseat to the final product.
When teachers give overly stringent instructions on assignments that would benefit from creativity or guide children through every single step, it stifles the child’s natural instincts and self-expression. It keeps them from testing boundaries and experimenting. They cannot learn to think for themselves or develop self-confidence.
When touring schools, pay attention to the work on display. Does it all look the same or were students given free license to express themselves with the assignment? Does work look too advanced for the age group? If so, consider looking elsewhere.
12. Feel of the School
Your child will be spending a large amount of time at school so you want to make sure it’s a place they feel comfortable. School should be a cheerful, pleasant place for them where they feel welcome while enjoying an appropriate degree of order.
Students learn best when they are not distracted by discomfort. Discomfort can be physical, such as cold, dark rooms and hard surfaces. It can also be emotional, which would include bullying and conflict with staff and peers. Every child is best served in a clean, well-appointed environment where staff are kind and help students treat each other with kindness, too.
A school’s atmosphere is usually easy to pick up on during a tour. Consider how you feel in that environment and as you interact with staff and observe students, then consider how your more sensitive young child will respond to the atmosphere there. Does it feel like an inviting community that is proud of their school or do you sense low morale?
13. School Safety
School safety is a hot topic these days, and as a parent, your child’s safety is always one of your top concerns. Schools have a duty to provide reasonable security and disciplinary measures in place to protect students from dangers outside and inside their campus.
Students learn better when they feel safe in a controlled social situation. Immature students are easily caught up in peer drama and typical childish squabbles that prevent learning. Bullying is known to adversely affect grades. When students have proper supervision and support from teachers and staff, peer conflicts are quickly prevented or de-escalated and harmony is restored.
Good school safety is visible in several ways. There may be security measures such as metal detectors, safety drills, and school safety officers to respond to outside threats. Schools should have policies in place for what kind of behaviors they do not tolerate from students and how misbehavior is handled.
Smaller class sizes help teachers keep things under control and school counselors on staff to help mediate help keep conflicts from escalating. More progressive schools may have preventative measures such as meditation sessions or life skills lessons that help students manage negative emotions and behaviors that lead to violence.
Look for things like these to gauge how high a priority student safety is to a school.
14. Family Involvement
A family’s attitude and involvement in their child’s education is vital for successful outcomes. Schools should include families in their scholastic community as much as possible to promote every student’s wellbeing. Schools can do this by hosting family activities, inviting parents to school programs and ceremonies, asking for parent volunteers, and creating open lines of communication.
When families are involved in a child’s education, they are better equipped to support the school’s efforts outside of the classroom. Parents who are kept abreast of their child’s studies and progress can discuss lesson topics at home to better imprint that knowledge in their child’s mind.
Parents will also be more aware of any challenges their student is facing and be able to advocate for them if they need more help. The learning process is more comprehensive and complete when it is brought home and continues after school hours. School staff can also perform their jobs better when they are supported by the outside help of parents.
You can learn about a school’s willingness to involve families by asking about volunteer opportunities and family activities. Also inquire how teachers communicate with parents about their student’s progress, such as through weekly reports, phone calls or email, parent-teacher conferences, and more.
Selecting the right school for your child may feel overwhelming, but rest assured you can do it. It’s simply a matter of knowing what to look for and the questions to ask to ensure a school’s priorities align with yours and your child’s best interests. You may have other concerns you want to discuss in your search for the perfect early childhood school, but these 14 things are a great place to start for parents who simply want what’s best for their child’s future.
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