Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Looking for New Preschool? 8 Questions You Should Ask..

Friends around have been on the look up for new preschool for their little ones, and I have been repeating same advises numerous times. Hence I thought it would be beneficial to write this down as a sharing with other new parents who may need some pointers when searching for new preschool.

Before deciding to enroll my elder into his existing preschool, and subsequently my younger one 2 years later, we had first identified our preferred area, search for the list of schools within the vicinity through website and on site visitation (practically drive around on weekends). We collected phone numbers, spoken to the principals / administrators to understand some basic information, and finally zero in to the top 3 preschools of our choice before making appointment to visit.

Is it worth all the hassle? I would say definitely YES!

Preschool teachers have the direct influence on the toddlers in their early character development. A good teacher will be able to provide positive support and collaborate with the parents to bring up a toddler who is passionate in learning, confident, caring for others and most importantly, happy. Comparing to education in later stage, early education is the most crucial that will influence them in the later part of life.

Here is 8 Questions That You Should Ask..

What is the background and experience of the teachers?
Find out from the principals the background of the teachers, are they well trained, certified or fresh school leavers? It is also worth spending some time to observe how the teachers interact with the preschoolers and if possible, speak with them to find out for yourself if they are well trained and passionate as an educator. Remember they are the one who will be interacting with your little ones most of the time so having a loving and caring teacher is really important.

What is the teachers-to-student ratio in each class?
No matter how good a teacher is, there is a limit on how many students  she can attend to at one time and to be able to provide the adequate attention. For younger toddler below 3 years old, ratio of 1:4 would be ideal (that would mean higher fee), or up to a maximum of 1:12 with presence of an adequately trained assistant.  

What type of meals and snacks provided?
Most preschools do provide snack and/or lunch, do find out what types of food and drinks are served and you may request to view the menu. They shall be fresh cooked food and not sugary snacks. Besides if your kids have known allergic history, do check if the preschool can provide special meal on request. 

What are the play activities provided?
Dynamic, interactive plays are important and effective way for learning. The preschools should have daily routine of play times. Some schools offer role play, show and tell etc which allow the kids to learn to speak up (build self confidence) and be imaginative through the pretended play.

Besides, at toddler stage it's important to train their gross motor skill through simple play like stringing beads, moving small objects, arranging large puzzles, playing building blocks etc. These are essential skills to prepare them for kindergarten at a later stage.

Forget about writing or home work at preschools age; at such tender years learning through play is most important and not to equate learning to burden.

What is the discipline policy?
Kids are kids, they may misbehave at times and there may be fights or argument. Do find out how the teachers handle should conflicts arise among the preschoolers. Ideally there shall be a positive way of handling such situation without hurting the little ones' feeling and physical punishment shall be a big no-no. 

For example, from what I've observed the teacher will try to resolve the conflict there and then by diverting their attention with other activities, and if the child get aggressive or  continue to throw tantrum, the assistant will bring him/her aside till cool down, so the class can proceed without being interrupted. For any incidents that happened at school, the teacher will always kept us informed when we pick up the little one.

What is the policy on handling unwell kids?
I believe none of us like our preschooler to fall sick frequently. Some preschool have quarantine corner where an isolated corner/room will be provided for the unwell child to avoid any bugs be passed around in the preschool. 

Any additional expenses that I shall be aware of?
A friend of mine have a nasty surprise after signing up her daughter. While it is a practice that most preschool will charge additional on stationery, her chosen preschool charges stationery fee by term which was not informed upfront (this means 4 times a year), which makes the initially-rather-cheap school fee, not so cheap anymore.

What is the Education Philosophy?
This is an important question that you shall know before making the decision - what is the fundamental principles subscribed to by the preschool, and how is it translated into their teaching methods? Among some of the popular ones are :

• Montessori methods.  Innovative classroom practices and ideas that were founded on the belief that children should be free to succeed and learn without restriction or criticism. Montessori method encourages learning through fun and stimulating play activities in a child friendly environment, it focuses on 6 core area do learning: practical life, sensory, language, mathematics, culture and creative activities.

"The Montessori approach is holistic and aims to develop the whole child. Fundamental to the approach is the belief that a child's early years from birth to six are the period when they have the greatest capacity to learn."

• Waldorf Steiner methods. An early education system started from Europe with the philosophy to develop free, morally responsible and integrated individuals equipped with a high degree of social competence. The early years education (under 7yo) focuses on providing practical, hands-on activities and environments that encourage creative play,  such as baking, gardening, imaginative play in a classroom environment that is homelike.

"The priority of the Steiner ethos is to provide an unhurried and creative learning environment where children can find the joy in learning and experience the richness of childhood rather than early specialisation or academic hot-housing. "

• FunGates. Started by a Malaysian, FunGates philosophy is to ensure fun, challenging learning that maximizes academic performance with minimal pressure. It covers foundation in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese, Math, and Science, as well as character building.

"I have chosen the name FunGates because I firmly believe that learning must be fun for children, and gates are entry points to a child’s most critical and formative first six years of life."

 Q-Dees. A Malaysian based education system with its own researched syllabus, combine teaching with computer-aided  program to teach phonic and languages. Q-Dees prepares the preschooler for national or Chinese schools by building language foundation on English, Bahasa and Chinese. It has a large franchise network throughout Malaysia. 

There are also many other preschool options available which have their own practice, which can be play-based, academic-focus etc, I only mentioned the few that I have encounter with. Whichever the philosophy is, it shall be aligned to your personal belief and how you would like to bring up your little ones.
Note: you may refer to the reference URLs and list of schools at the bottom of this post.

Other Considerations You Should Not Ignore...

Apart from understanding the preschool, there are other factors that you may want to consider...

Location, Location, Location
Is it located on a busy main road or a quiet housing area? Is there sufficient space for parents to pick up the children after school or do you have to park far? If it is located in a shopping mall, is it within easy access to the parking lot? Do find out how is the general safety within that area. Personally I prefer a landed building with big compound that allows the kids to explore outdoor activities within the school compound, eg slides, see-saw, sand play, water play or having school pets shelter. A kid who is exposed to nature tends to appreciate nature better.

Transportation availability
Unless one of the parent is able to pick up the toddler everyday, if you are working parents like us you would have to ensure there are reliable transportation available, especially for preschool toddlers who are defend-less should anything every happen. Seek for transportation service from the preschool operator (some do provide school van service), otherwise do not hesitate to get help from grandparents, trust-worthy neighbor or even the school teachers.

Hygiene at the School
A little observation required here. Who prepares the food? is the kitchen clean and organised? Is the toilet kept dry, with children potty, provide proper hand washing lotion, towel and is safe?

Preschool Layout 
Big guy and were particular on safety, so we walked about to check out the school compound. If there is a swimming pool there shall be proper safety gate and fence to ensure kids are not able to access it when unattended.

Besides, pay attention to staircase safeness, toy arrangement etc, finally we settled with one that we like. It has a spacious hall to accommodate open play, ample natural lighting, child-size furniture, structured toys / materials arrangement, dedicated small library area for story time and outdoor playground with the school compound.  Overall it creates a very pleasant and child-friendly environment that we really like.

Look up for References 
It is always worth while to do some homework by getting neighbors' feedback or look up community forum for review on the selected preschool. If there is any known issues such as high teacher turnaround  or health problem, you would not want to find out only after you have enrolled your kids.

How can you help your kids to be ready?

Many parents fear the reaction of first day to school. Will my little one be ready? Will he/she throws big tantrum? Will he/she be able to make friends or get bullied? This was what I practiced and have learnt with my duo.

Encourage Emotional Readiness

Toddlers may face separation anxiety when suddenly left alone in a new environment. They may fear being abandoned or fear of the new faces. Help them adapt by bringing them to visits the preschool before the semester begin, just about 30-45 minutes a day for a week; let them choose a bagpack. And one thing that really help, is to read them illustrative books about school, let them have an idea what to expect and instead of fear, they may look forward to going to the preschool. ;)

Few books that I particularly likes are:

• The Things I love About School, a large illustration book by Trace Moroney about little bunny who loves his school.

• Spot Goes To School, an illustration book by Eric Hill with peekaboo flips that narrate the story about puppy Spot's first day at school.

There are many other books available, just pay a visit to the bookstore and start reading to your little one.

Begin Potty Training
While most preschool we visited do not imposed prerequisite to potty train the preschooler, it will be good to have them potty trained before starting preschool. Reasons? Firstly the teacher or assistant may not be able to change the diaper often, so it may not be good for the skin if wearing the soiled diaper for long hours. Secondly, potty train is one of the earlier steps in teaching them to take charge & take action, so indirectly helping them be more mentally ready to enter preschool.  

I potty trained both my kiddos when they were 18 months old, before starting the school I ensure they can clearly tell "I want to wee wee" or "I want to poo poo", so teacher can understand. However I still pack a set of changing clothes as  back up.
    Encourage Social Skill
    Most family nowadays have single child, as a result these kids may not be comfortable to mix with a large group of children (my elder son was one of them). So do try to bring them out for children playgroup, nearby playground where they get to interact with other toddlers, this may help them to feel more at ease when joining preschool.

    Instill basic Hygiene Awareness
    Teach them to wash their hands after using toilet and before taking meals, this reduces the risk of getting infected by the many germs in the school (which is common). Also, I also teach them not to share their bottles with others and not to eat any food that is dropped on the floor. Really basic knowledge but crucial to avoid unnecessary headache!

    That's about it, what a long article huh, phew! 

    Hopefully this article helps and do feel free to drop a comment or question and I shall reply them with my best knowledge. :)

    Reference URLs:

    Montessori Methods 

    Waldorf Methods 

    FunGates Education system 


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