It can be challenging to select your first center or preschool, as you entrust strangers with your most precious and incredible child. Visiting the child care center is essential, but when touring, most of us feel unprepared to assess the quality of education and care provided to children--especially if we’re first-time parents.

We all want a center that compliments and even enhances what we teach children at home; we want individualized love and attention, a clean, safe place, a home away from home. We want to be sure that caretakers are professional, and the center provides families with knowledge about raising children and how to fill our days with growing experiences.

As an educator, and a mother of three boys, I have had the opportunity to be a parent, teacher and Director at many centers. Here is what I’d ask when visiting an infant/toddler center or preschool:

Embrace the Mission—Does the center share my family’s vision of children and educational values?

The most important aspect in selecting a center is finding a place that shares your family’s educational outlook, a place where you feel at home philosophically. Do you believe that play and friendship are central to learning? Do you think it is important to do worksheets and learn to read before three? The school’s mission determines how children spend their days and what they learn. Make sure you embrace the mission before you sign your contract.

On your tour ask the following question:

What is the school’s mission and how does it impact what the children do everyday?

Professional Background—Are teachers prepared to work with children of this age?

Teacher preparation is the single greatest indicator of a professional educational environment, one that is safe, nurturing and sets appropriate goals for students. Teachers must understand child development and have an understanding of best practices. They must have experience taking care of very young children and be able to love and relate to them no matter what the mood or need of the children.

On your tour ask the following question:

Do Head Teachers have a Master’s in Early Childhood Education?

Accessibility—Are Administrators and Teachers available to me?

As a parent, you will have many questions, concerns, and hopefully compliments to give at the center. You must be sure that when you need to talk to someone, the staff is available either in person, by phone, via email or able to make an appointment within 24 hours.

Before you sign your contract, meet the director and make sure you feel comfortable with his or her expertise and ability to support your family. If you call the center and you routinely reach an answering machine, find another center.

On your tour ask the following question:

If I have a concern, who do I speak to first and how do I reach them?

Intention—Teachers should work with a plan, set goals and have a mindful approach to all of their interactions with children and materials.

There are several ways you can determine if the school has a culture of intentionality. When visiting the classrooms, does every object seem to have its own place? Are materials presented to children in an orderly, relaxed manner? Do teachers seem to be thinking with the children, considering what they do and say? Are they listening and observing as they work?

On your tour ask the following questions:

1-Do teachers keep a plan book? What is recorded there?

2-Do the teaching teams meet weekly with administrators? What do they discuss?

3-Do teachers document the children’s work? Are there artifacts that keep track of children’s work and growth over time?

Tone—Do adults in the center listen to children and speak with respect at all times?

When visiting the center, take note of how teachers listen and how they speak to children. Children need to hear their own thoughts, to process what is going on around them and have time to contemplate. There should be a mix of engagement and auditory space throughout the day.

When teachers speak to children, they should use a natural voice. They shouldn’t speak too fast, loud, in angry tones or silly voices. Young children should be treated like they have important ideas to share and are competent, creative people with greatness inside them.

Teachers and administrators should speak to each other with respect, as children are impacted by emotions of adults around them.

On your tour ask the following question:

What is your approach to listening to children? Can you describe how teachers should talk to children?

Ask as many questions as you can, call the director and reconnect until you are comfortable. The educational environment should teach and support the whole family and elevate the learning for everyone.

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