It’s autumn, which means parents only have a few more months before they must make a decision about what kind of school their tiny humans will be in next year. By late winter, most preschools, magnate schools, private kinders, and daycare centers will commence their fall enrollment for 2020. Can you believe it? With the holidays smack in the middle, it’s all going to be here faster than you might imagine!
Although every city (or town) is a little different it seems that, on the whole, the daycare/preschool search is so ridiculously competitive. I was wholly unprepared for this reality when Tiny was born… and it’s bit me in the butt more than once.
Before Tiny was born we had a nanny lined up for my return to work and it never occurred to me that I ought to have a backup plan. I did, after all, have my first choice all buttoned up. That was until her husband was offered an incredible job opportunity in a different city. I suddenly found myself two months postpartum and scrambling to find a new solution. After I returned to work to find some disagreeable personnel changes I was actually grateful that not having an ideal childcare situation provided me a much-needed excuse to resign and stay home while I worked on my graduate school applications. I did not realize that my search for graduate schools, however, came after the deadlines for nearly every decent preschool, daycare, or mother’s day out program nearby. I did get Tiny into a program just in the nick of time but I was decidedly less than thrilled with the teachers once she moved from the infant room. Unfortunately I did not have the bandwidth (or the help I needed from Hubbin) to start the process again. Feeling completely stuck because I was in graduate school, I just stuck it out until graduation. Tiny was doing well and seemed to be happy and that had to be enough until I finished school… but I was definitely counting down the days. It turned out that my misgivings (and all the letters of complaint I sent) were justified because, three weeks after graduation, the school was forced to close by the state governing agencies.
Unfortunately, once again, I was left scrambling to find a childcare program again but was much wiser this time around, if not totally frazzled and fried from grad school. And now it’s time to start considering Kindergarten choices – regardless of whether she attends our neighborhood school, a private school, a charter, or one of our districts’ many magnates, we have to finish the application process by the end of January… so now is the time to tour and ask questions.
All-in-all I’ve had to find childcare four times in Tiny’s four-year existence. I’ve learned a lot in each of those processes and feel much more equipped to tackle the Kinder process than I’ve felt in any previous search. Here is what I’ve identified as the five ‘musts’ in any school or childcare search.
Start early by identifying your resources… and be patient
Regardless of what stage of education you are in, start early. Don’t wait, like I did, until you’ve already started your new job or graduate program. Start investigating your options so that you are prepared if/when you have to make a decision (or find a backup). Start looking out for resources to help you find more information. Remember there are many online resources available, many of which I have linked below. You can also utilize simple Google searches, chat with other moms, find a neighborhood Facebook or NextDoor group on the topic, and drive around looking for schools and centers near you. I want to focus on one often-unknown resource, though, in this section.
Many employers have EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) that are designed to confidentially help employees deal with work-life stressors including mental health, financial planning, and family concerns (including finding a daycare or getting some counseling to help you manage the stress). These programs are often under-utilized. While not necessarily required by law, non-discrimination laws do implicate the need for these and, in my opinion, any employer worth their salt will have one of these. Find out if your company has one – and investigate your husband’s company on your own because anecdotal evidence suggests most men will balk at asking HR if this exists.
Once you’ve identified your resources and started your research, be patient. You will likely have to make some hard decisions and compromises, you will encounter wait lists and disappointments, and you will find that things don’t always move at the speed you desire. Decide at the beginning to be patient and keep your blood pressure down.
Identify your top 5 needs and your top 5 wants
Start by asking yourself a few questions about your expectations. Do you want your childcare to be close to home or close to your office? Do you want it to be a home-based operation or a facility? Or would you prefer a nanny? Do you need full time or part time care? Do you have a specific budget? Do you want a play-based or learning-based childcare situation? Do you believe that your child should come home dirty (ie covered in dirt or paint) each day? Do you want your child’s day to be filled with more structured activities? Do you want your child immersed in a particular focus, such as arts, music, or a foreign language? There are lots of options and there may be a school that fits your child exactly, but you might have to pick and choose among your priorities.
For us, play-based learning was the key, with secondary school focuses on music, language, and/or arts. We ultimately found a preschool for Tiny that stated right up front during the tour: “We believe that if your children come home as clean as they arrived, we haven’t done our job.” The activities and lessons for each day/week were themed with multiple opportunties for play-based activities to continue the lesson. Each day has a time for student-led play with teachers who circulate and interact with meaningful, thought-provoking questions, making it the right choice for us. And the addition of three ‘specials’ a week, incuding Spanish, art, and physicals (more intensive, movement-and-coordination-based activities), I knew that this was the right fit for Tiny.
Regardless of what your priorities, make sure you know the difference between your needs and your wants.
Pay attention to what other parents are saying
Utilize your network as a living referral guide. This might include the other mamas in your life and online groups. Whether you’re asking about the reputation of a specific childcare center or about something more general, moms are a great resource. Ask the moms in your personal circle and those in your place of work about their experiences, research, preferences, and their decision-making process. Often talking to other moms with experience can help you feel less alone. Learn from them (and, of course, be open-minded enough to return the favor someday). Don’t forget to turn to the internet and the blogosphere, either. Look at reviews on Facebook and Google. Look at neighborhood chat groups like NextDoor. You can find a lot about a facility’s reputation this way. And don’t be afraid to post your own questions if you don’t find the answers you need.
I personally spoke to several women, some of whom chose childcare near home and others who chose centers very close to their offices; both decisions were valid and asking about the factors that led to those decisions helped me ultimately decide what was most important to me (and Hubbin, of course). We decided, since our workplaces weren’t close to home (or to each other), we should pick something close to home in order to make it most accessible. Next I asked moms in my OhBaby Stroller Workout group to utilize their neighborhood chat groups to look into references, reputations, and reviews of the preschools and mother’s day out programs near us. Based on the lists of top five choices I was able to formulate my own list of schools to tour and investigate. None of that would have happened if I had not tapped into my network of women.
Take a lot of tours, ask questions, and take notes
In my experience, tours can be one of the hardest aspects of finding a school or daycare center.
- Some schools have waiting lists so long you have to wait a year to even tour the facility – and some even want a non-refundable deposit BEFORE you can get your name on the tour list. I’ve found that, although there is probably a good reason for such a long list, it’s not worth the headache… at least not for me personally. If your needs and wants are met, though, get on the list ASAP and be patient (see suggestions #1). You will probably need to have a backup plan; I know many parents who enrolled their kids in their second or third choice school and waited for a spot to open in their first choice school. But if a program wants a non-refundable deposit BEFORE you even see the facility, it is my opinion that you should run the other way.
- Tours are often very comprehensive, which means they can be very long. I went on one that included a 45-minute talk and an exhausting hour of walking… I was also carrying Tiny the whole time. I also went on a tour that was only 15 minutes long. Unfortunately you never know which kind of tour you are going to get. You can ask, though, what they plan to show you and request that they leave out certain parts. I often requested, since Tiny wasn’t going to be in an infant room, if we could skip to her age-group and go from there. While that request couldn’t (or wouldn’t) always be accommodated, it was worth it to ask. Regardless, just buckle in and plan for for multiple scenarios.
- Tours are designed for parents to leave their kids behind. Since I don’t have family nearby and all my sitters are in school during school-tour hours, I had to take Tiny with me. I learned the hard way that sometimes tours are too long for this. I was upfront that my kid was coming with me and that I expected tours and classroom visits to kept short enough to not wear me and crawler out. I also brought my Boba 4G carrier so I didn’t have to carry her the whole time (once was enough, thank you) and so I could nurse her as needed during the tour.
- Tours can feel and be incredibly staged and artificial. Honestly, I found (and have been advised by friends who teach preschool) that a drop-in request for a tour give you a far better sense of the school. While I definitely understand and respect the need for safety at a daycare center, if a child care facility absolutely will not allow any sort of drop in I am of the opinion that they have something to hide. I tried to do both a drop-in and a scheduled tour of each facility, which was exhausting but definitely worth it in the end.
Taking notes is essential, too. I always got ALL the literature the daycare centers had to offer. I kept a notebook with me during each tour and took notes (no small feat when wearing a baby). And as soon as I got in the car I wrote down all of my impressions and thoughts, from cleanliness to policy enforcement and even just my gut feeling. When all was said and done, I was really glad to be able to refer to my notes because they were the most helpful in making a final decision.
Trust your gut
In the end you need to trust what your intuition is telling you. You know what is best for your child and your family.
One of the places I toured felt dirty to me. The building was run-down and it felt dim and dingy inside. I was not thrilled with their curriculum or other standards, either. I knew it wasn’t going to be a good fit almost instantly. It was the first place I toured and I left in tears, afraid of what I was going to find on other tours. When I used my personal network to find out what other moms were saying, I found that it did not have a great reputation and most enrolled families were only there until they topped a waiting list somewhere else.
In another instance, I toured a Montessori magnate with a PreK. I was enthusiastic about what I’d read online. I was not, however, thrilled with what I found when I toured the facility. Most of the teachers were NOT trained in Montessori theory nor were they encouraged to pursue that training. In theory the school was a good idea but in practice it seemed lacking in significant ways. I decided not to pursue that option pretty much on the spot. I was glad that I followed my intuition because, after talking to some other moms, I began to hear horror stories of how they had treated children, especially those with special needs. I was glad I followed my intuition and left that school behind.
You know what is best for your kids and what works best for your family. Rely on your intuition. Really.
The bottom line…. be an informed consumer. Look at all your options, weigh them carefully, and make the best decision you can with all the information you’ve gathered.
I’ll share more in a couple days on this topic, providing valuable feedback from few of my friends with degrees, licenses, and years of experience in early childhood development. In the meantime, here are a few other resource links for you.
If you are curious about some of the competing philosophies of childcare, here are some good reads.
- National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) – “Academics vs. Play: The False Dilemma“
- PBS – “Comparing Preschool Philosophies“
- Stay at Home Educator – “Academics vs Play-based in Early Childhood Learning“
And here is a list of other resources and articles on choosing a childcare center or preschool for you.
- New York Times
- Harvard Graduate School of Education
- What to Expect
- Bright Horizons
Thanks for reading today.
All my best,