Do teachers stick around?
Turnover in early-childhood programs is notoriously high, and it can take a toll: Research shows that kids who've had several preschool teachers have a harder time adjusting to school than children with a single teacher. Ask for and compare turnover numbers at schools you're considering. Mid-year teacher replacements should be the exception, not the rule.
What's the average class size?
Just how many kids each teacher can handle depends on the program. The National Association for the Education of Young Children issues guidelines for teacher/student ratios: 1:6 for 2-year-olds (with a maximum class size of 12 children), 1:10 for 3- to 5-year-olds (with a maximum of 20).
What's a typical day like?
Ask to see how your child's day will be structured. Though all children need some structure, a good preschool program will include enough time each day for exploration, free play, and peer interaction, says Jack Shonkoff, M.D., head of the National Academy of Sciences committee on integrating the science of early-childhood development.
How is discipline handled?
Beware the "time out" corner. While time-outs can serve a purpose in the most extreme situations, they can too easily become a crutch for teachers. "Children need to learn how to work out their problems, not be isolated from them," says Diane Trister Dodge, coauthor of Preschool for Parents and a Washington, DC-based preschool curriculum designer. The best teachers know how to deflect problems before they become conflicts. When they see a child losing self-control in the block corner, they might urge him to switch to another activity before the situation gets out of hand.
What are your instincts telling you?
You know what works for your child better than any preschool can. If your son responds to structure, he'll probably thrive in a school that lays the day out for him, complete with rules and assigned activities. If your daughter is happier playing on her own, working her way through her toy chest without constant need for guidance, she may be better suited for something less formal. "There are no quantifiable answers," Dr. Shonkoff says. "We're guided by the science, but this is still an art. Watch your child: Is he relaxed and happy? Never underestimate the importance of your own instincts."
Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the March 2002 issue of Child magazine.