Picking a preschool for your young child is a big decision.

I suggest you begin by asking friends for recommendations. A happy family is a good endorsement.

You can also look online or contact a resource and referral agency, which many urban areas have. However you gather your list, it is essential that you visit to see in person what goes on at each school, to get a feel for the environment and interactions and to see if it feels like a good fit for your child and family. After all, you want your child to be in a nurturing place where she enjoys herself. The school you choose should be licensed by the city or state, and teachers need to meet educational credentials, which vary by state.

School is a child’s first step in separating from you and learning to be in a group. Socialization is the main part of preschool programs. Supporting your child’s social and emotional development sets the foundation for their ongoing learning even beyond preschool.

Unsure how to find that program? I can get you started with the 9 areas below:

1) Observe teachers interactions with children.

Teachers should be kind, responsive, engaged with the children and show genuine interest. The adults should enjoy being with the children. Just as importantly, look for children’s signs that they feel comfortable and trusting of the adults. This could be asking for help, showing them a tower they built, or turning to a teacher for comfort. Adults provide the security your child needs when they are away from you.

2) Check discipline policies.

A nurturing program will recognize that young children act out in a variety of ways and understand that aggressive behaviors or not following rules is part of this age. A child should never be scolded or shamed for their negative behaviors. Instead, teachers should talk to children respectfully, set clear limits and provide other ways for them to express their feelings.

3) Observe the children.

Are they engaged and enjoying themselves? Look for children joyfully involved in play and activities individually and in pairs or small groups. Some may be quietly playing while others are more active and loud. These contrasting styles demonstrate a program’s respect for children’s varying ways of engaging.

4) Look for inviting classrooms with a variety of clearly demarcated play areas.

Toys and materials that are accessible to the children provide opportunities for children to choose what they play with and how. Making decisions helps children build a sense of self and confidence. More of the day should be devoted to hands-on activities and playing than doing structured activities, although both will likely happen in a day.

5) Note the art and work displayed on the walls.

It should not all look the same. Instead, art should reflect the range of unique ways that children express their creativity.

6) Remember routines are key.

Children thrive on predictability. It helps them know what is going on and guides their growing independence. Routines may be posted on the wall with pictures and words. Ask how often children move from one activity to a new one, such as music time or another teacher led activity. Fewer transitions are better, especially for two’s and three’s.

7) Separation is a big emotional step for young children.

Ask if there is a gradual separation period so your child can get to know the people and build trust. This is especially true for infants and toddlers.

8) It may sound obvious, but the environment should be clean and free of safety hazards.

Ask about number of teachers. No matter how good a teacher is, he or she can’t care well for children if she has too many. Part of licensing is meeting required teacher to child ratios.

9) Finally, trust your gut feeling.

How you feel about the program and its environment will be conveyed to your child. Ask yourself if you will feel comfortable sending your child to this program and becoming part of the community. That is a personal and individual decision for each family.