There’s plenty of research indicating that early childhood education is more than a way for children to play and learn in a structured environment. It’s an introduction to formal education that, when done well, can have a dramatic impact on a child’s future success — academically and in life and career. Parents often wonder how to choose a preschool that’s best for their child and family.
Holly DePalma, preschool director for Sacred Heart Schools, a Chicago-based Catholic, independent PK-8 school for students of all faiths, says there are several key elements that parents should look for when choosing a preschool for their child.
“Children learn by doing,” DePalma says. “A good preschool environment will give children opportunities to play with a lot of materials of different types and the chance to learn with peers.”
Families are looking for different qualities in a preschool, and no single environment is a “perfect fit” for every child. Here, DePalma offers some questions parents can ask to help them guide their choices to find just the right preschool.
What is the school’s educational philosophy?
Parents who are just looking into preschools will quickly learn that there are several educational philosophies at the early childhood education level. Some are more academic, while others focus strictly on social-emotional skills.
“Parents will speak about Montessori Method or Reggio Emilia or Waldorf, which are all philosophical approaches, and they all have incredible benefits that help develop children at the preschool level,” DePalma explains. “At Sacred Heart, we have a blended play-based and cognitive-based approach that encompasses these philosophies and gives teachers the flexibility to meet each child’s needs.”
A blended approach helps Sacred Heart’s preschool teachers customize the curriculum to give children exposure to all of these philosophies, she says. It also helps individualize instruction for each child.
“Differentiated instruction helps us challenge the child in junior kindergarten who is reading as well as those who are mastering the development of fine motor skills,” DePalma says. “This is where we tweak lessons and figure out how to provide what each child needs.”
No matter what, your chosen school should follow the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards, says DePalma. “It’s important that the team knows all of these standards and are aware of how their lessons focus on these standards,” she says.
At Sacred Heart, children work in small groups on various activities that promote early literacy, math, science, art and other topics, both independently and guided by a teacher, to allow immersive experiences with the curriculum.
“Children are not always grouped by the same academic level, but they might be mixed so peers can share their knowledge. We have “peer chats” which allow students to talk with each other about what they learned. The teacher oversees their discussions and determines what they need to work on to help the child master the needed skills,” DePalma says.
Learn about the school’s mission and goals
Preschools, if they have a mission, might focus on preparing students for their educational journeys. Be sure to find out the school’s mission statement to see if it aligns with your own values and expectations for your child’s early education.
Embedded in the education of every Sacred Heart School around the world are five Goals and Criteria, which guide and support the educational life of each student. “We change the language of these Goals and Criteria slightly for young children. They include Love God, Love to Learn, Help Those Who Need Me, Be a Friend to All and Make Wise Choices,” DePalma explains.
By vocalizing the Goals and Criteria each morning as a prayer, children can recognize throughout the day how these play out.
When teachers are planning their lessons, they always consider what is in the best interest of the child and theSacred Heart Goals and Criteria are always approached with intention, she says.
“For the Goal of Helping Those Who Need Me, we make sure our preschool students can participate in service projects such as food drives and coat drives. They might make a sign, bring in items for the drive, and help carry food to the van in the parking lot which delivers to families in need.”
What about safety?
The pandemic has created a situation where families have to think more about what constitutes a safe environment. How does the preschool respond to safety concerns for students, teachers and parents?
“Parents should make sure the school is clean and safe. Find out how they follow health and safety rules related to COVID,” DePalma suggests. “Do they have the resources they need, especially in the areas of security, housekeeping and a school nurse?”
When children spend time outside, do they wear neon safety vests, especially in urban and busy suburban surroundings? How else does the school keep its students safe and secure?
Is outdoor play part of the curriculum?
Nature interactions are an important part of learning for preschoolers, says DePalma. A preschool should allow adequate outdoor play time and also have a large motor skills room where children can run, jump and tumble when the weather is unfriendly.
“We have a park adjacent to our parking lot and our children have outdoor play time every day, weather permitting,” DePalma says. “We also have a large motor skills area in an oversized gym, as well as a sensory exploration room with materials that focus on building sensory and self-regulation skills. The children really love these spaces.”
Is the school a welcoming place?
When children feel comfortable and safe in their preschool environment, they are more successful learners, so it’s important to learn how the school establishes and nurtures that level of comfort — and how they adjust it when needed.
“Children need to know they are in a learning environment that is welcoming, even from the moment they walk in the door,” DePalma says. “At Sacred Heart, it’s even part of our Goals and Criteria that children are known and loved.”
When children enter Sacred Heart, they are greeted with a smile and an elbow bump (a handshake, in pre-pandemic times). Their teacher greets them at eye level and welcomes them into the building. “In this way, each child gets the sense that they are in their home away from home, and parents are comfortable trusting the place where they drop their child off,” DePalma says.
Because preschool focuses on social-emotional learning, teachers at Sacred Heart work to transition children from home to school smoothly and also help them build social skills throughout the day. “Teachers are supervising and guiding the students to build social skills, and if they notice something that is disrespectful, they recognize that children are still learning and use those teachable moments for discussions about appropriate behavior,” she says. “We talk about making wise choices.”
What can the school offer beyond preschool?
If a preschool is part of a larger educational community, parents can get a good sense of what the elementary and middle schools are like. Do they follow the same educational framework and philosophies as the preschool, and is it a place you might consider enrolling your child in kindergarten?
Sacred Heart’s preschool program begins at age 3. Four-year-old students attend junior kindergarten, and 5-year-olds are in the senior kindergarten program, which is housed on the nearby SK-8 campus. Separating age groups allows Sacred Heart teachers to focus on the developmental needs of each age group while still providing individualized and differentiated instruction.
“Sacred Heart is a private, independent Catholic school, and 40% of our students are not Catholic. We embrace all faiths and children learn about all faiths,” DePalma says. “We develop strong leaders, even at age 3. Early on, children are encouraged to present materials before a group and that continues throughout Sacred Heart’s education, all the way up through grade eight.”
When parents and their children join the Sacred Heart community, especially from the preschool years, they quickly become connected to the nurturing and welcoming environment, DePalma says.
“They become invested in the school community and connected to the school and discover that this is what they want for their child’s elementary school experience, all the way up to eighth grade,” she says. “All families want to find the very best place for their child, and it’s important that their values and beliefs align with the program, even from their child’s earliest school experiences.”