In How I Chose Preschool – Part I, I talked about how preschool hunt is really a very subjective matter, and discussed some of the very important factors that influenced my choice of preschool. I will continue with the other factors in this second part of How I Chose Preschool.
The whole article will continue on to Part III where I will touch on the exact steps and method which I used in my hunt.
These are important factors also and I did consider them very carefully. However, they are not the “make it or break it” factors like the above. Most of the time, they are also not the ‘yes or no’ type of factors like the above but more subjective and harder to quantify. They are not in any particular order.
I am sure this is top most on the minds of all parents when it comes to choosing a school. There are so many different schools of thought and countless approaches to education, each having its own merits. I personally do not think that there is such thing as a ‘best’ method. What is ‘best’ is the one that works for your kid. Some methods may sound fantastic theorectically but still won’t suit every child. There is no perfect approach either, which means every method will have its disadvantages. And honestly, I sometimes think that children are highly adaptable and they will adapt to whatever method is used on them. The more important thing is to keep them happy with learning.
For me, as long as the school is not overly worksheet based, not too hot housing, I am fine with it. It does not have to be a brand name school. In fact, I think more importantly, the teachers must be good, which I will elaborate next.
I won’t go into all the various schools of thought in education (e.g. Montessori, Waldorf, etc). You can easily find information on this from the internet.
Here are the qualities I look for in the teachers : first and foremost, they must be compassionate and patient. It is not easy dealing with so many preschoolers the whole day. I know how my son can drive me up the wall. Multiply that by the number of similar kids in a class of say, 10 – 15 kids. The teachers must really have the compassion and patience to deal with them!
Secondly, I would like to see some ‘try a little harder’ (vs ‘couldn’t be bothered’) attitude. During my visit to a ‘brand name’ school, I witnessed a Nursery level class (ie. 3 to 4 year olds) in action. The children were sitting in front of a white board looking at the teacher teaching them how to sort shapes. On their tables were worksheets on same subject. The teacher basically drew what was in the worksheet (candy jars and candies) on the white board and using many lines to join the candies to the right jars. What a tedious way to illustrate! I suppose the kids were supposed to go back to their worksheets and complete the exercise after listening to such instructions.
In my opinion, a ‘try a little harder’ teacher would have used manipulatives or actual objects to teach sorting. E.g. Sorting manipulatives of different shapes or using buttons. It would have made the illustration clearer and much more interesting for the children, especially considering they were such young children whom every education expert would agree that they learn best through play.
Needless to say, my opinion of that brand name school went down quite a bit. On top of that, I saw children of every level working on worksheets, which I felt was a bit too ‘worksheet based’ for my liking.
Another example of a ‘couldn’t be bothered’ teacher. I was told that a teacher from a brand name school went for an interview in another school. It didn’t work out between the hiring school and the teacher because the school required its teachers to do their own lesson plans whereas this teacher was used to simply teaching whatever was handed to her. The school that she came from was a franchise and the curriculum was centrally prepared by the franchiser. All that the teachers needed to do was to follow the syllabus. That particular teacher was put off by the requirement imposed by the hiring school. She simply didn’t want to do lesson plans. I wonder : will such teachers actually pay attention to the capabilities and needs of individual students since they didn’t have to put any thoughts into the crafting of the lessons?
Thirdly, of course, is competency. You may be surprised but it seems to me that it does not take a lot of qualification to become a childcare teacher. I once knew someone who basically took up some childcare courses through the assistance scheme for the jobless, run by the CDAC (Chinese Development Assistance Council). She confessed to me that she had never taken care of her own children. Her mother basically brought up her kids for her. She was not the most thrilled by the prospect of taking care of young children and only took up the course because she was jobless and it was probably the only option she had then. At the time when I knew her, she just completed her course and would have become a childcare teacher if not because she found another job. Looking at her, I wonder how many childcare teachers out there are in the job not because they love children or enjoy teaching preschoolers, but because they need an income and being a childcare teacher is their only option?
Another person that I once knew was a childcare teacher for quite a number of years before she finally changed job. When I spoke to her, she could hardly hold a conversation properly in English. She spoke broken English that was thick in local accent. I couldn’t imagine how she could be a childcare teacher. Don’t be surprised if you visit a school and hear such accented broken English. Apparently, I am not the only one who have encountered childcare teachers of such calibre.
From cleanliness to plain vibes. To put it simply, assessing the school environment is a bit like buying a house. The house may seem a bit run down and old but you feel the positive vibes the moment you step in. Another house may be newer and better but you just don’t have the peace when you are in the house.
There are, of course, obvious things that you should look out for, e.g. the cleanliness of the place, the space, what kind of areas they have (e.g learning corners, messy art zones), whether the school has good outdoor environment,etc.
4.Tools of the Trade and Programmes/System
You can tell a lot by the teaching aids that are used in the school. If the school has mostly toys, the standard puzzles and little of things like manipulatives, you probably can guess that teaching is done mainly via pen and paper method and less of the interactive sort.
On the other hand, if the school has lots of manipulatives, and not only have them but actually made them accessible to the children for free play, and things like costumes for role playing, and good toys, good books, then you probably can deduce that there are a lot of intereactive, learn-while-playing going on.
The other thing to look out for is the work displayed in the school. Most schools will display the works (usually art and craft work) of the children. Pay attention to them to see what kind of work is done. Is it mainly the usual boring colouring work, or things that are more creative? Does the work on display consist of mainly worksheets? The kind of work that you see is quite tell-tale.
When you call up a school, some of the things you may want to ask them would be the kind of phonics programme they use (e.g. Zoo Phonics, Letterland, etc), whether they use any graded reader programme (e.g. Sails Literacy), or other literacy programme.
5.The Food and General Care
Ask for the menu and see what the kids are eating. It may be a good idea to drop in on mealtimes to see what is actually being served. I have heard of ‘fish’ being only fishcake.
Other general care include bathtime, sleep time, etc. Do they bathe the children one at a time? Do they blow dry the children’s hair, especially the girls? Do they ensure the children drink enough water? Also, if your child is not toilet trained, or cannot feed himself, how does the school usually deal with such children to encourage them to pick up these essential self-help skill?
Last but not least, what kind of reward and punishment system does the school use? Is it in line with your own disciplining philosophy?
I know some parents are quite strict about this and will frown at schools that actually allow the children to watch tv. A lot of schools do have a bit of tv time, usually during the time when the children are waiting for their parents to pick them up at the end of the day.
You should ask for a copy of the lesson plan and even ask to see some portfolios of the children attending the school. Take note of how detail the lesson plans are and whether the you are satisfied with how the subject is covered. The school should be sending lesson plans to the parents regularly to update them on what their children are learning in school.
Nowadays, schools generally keep in touch with parents via emails instead of the traditional ‘communication book’. Other than emails, there is also SMS. Of course, there is the phone. I prefer to have close communication with the teachers. I think most parent think likewise. By close communication, I also mean easy access to the teachers.
Apart from these, there is also the formal ‘Parent Teacher Meeting’. You need to ask about the frequency. Most of the time, it would be twice a year. Some schools hold it more often, some less. This is the time where the teachers go through what your child has learned over the past assessment period, and his/her general development and whether there are any problem areas.
I like to know what Dominic does in school hour by hour. Hence, I would frequently ask for the latest copy of their Daily Schedule. I would like to know how much time he is spending on outdoor activities, for example, or what time he has his lunch. I ask frequently because sometimes, the schedule changes and the school many not inform the parents.
A lot of childcare centres conduct optional courses in the afternoon. Some are not so optional because if the child attends full day school, he will naturally be included in the courses. It is more ‘optional’ for the half day kids and some schools do allow the parents of half day kids to cherry pick the kind of optional courses to attend. E.g. Dominic attends a dance class once a week in school. On that day, he stays for the afternoon as well.
Some schools boast of all sorts of unusual optional courses, e.g. French. But when it comes down to the basics – ie getting the children ready for formal primary school education, and taking care of their overall development – they aren’t any good at it. Do not let such frills cloud your judgement of the schools. Ultimately, it does not matter if your child cannot speak French or German if he is not ready for formal education.
I like a school to have frequent and regular field trips. I would like my child to have learning experiences that are not restricted to the classroom.
Some schools have a lot of other ‘hidden costs’. When you call them to ask them about their fees, they will typically tell you their monthly fee, the required deposit, insurance charge, uniform charge, etc. But they won’t volunteer information such as the need to purchase a whole set of graded reader when your child reaches K1, or the fact that the fees of optional courses in the afternoon are not included in the fees they quote you, or their field trips typically cost $20 per trip (where typically field trip costs about $4-8), or some other material costs that they will charge you somewhere down the road, or the costume fee you have to pay for every Year End Concert, or the ‘ticket charge’ you have to pay to see your child perform in the Year End Concert, or that you are not allowed to take pictures during the concert but have to pay a bomb to order photos from the school instead. The list goes on.
Hence, it will be a good idea to ask your friends what kind of money they pay for their children’s preschool education, including all these extra costs. Then you can ask the propective schools what their charges are for these items when you go and view the school. Ask them upfront all the costs that you will have to bear for the next few years. You may also want to check on things like whether the fees will increase over the years, or will stay the same for the entire duration your child is in the school, and whether siblings enjoy any discount.
13.Health Checks & Hygiene
With SARS and HFMD (Hand Foot Mouth Disease), a lot of schools are quite stringent with their health check. Typically, it would be temperature taking and checking the hands, feet and mouth of the children. You may wish to take note of the school’s practice in this area.
What other activities do the children engage in, apart from the usual learning of ABC and 123? Remember that child development is more than academic learning. Do the school have regular water play? Games and exercises? Messy art? Gardening? Cooking? Music and Movement?…….
Preschools that are run by religious organisations will have some forms of religious activity and teaching. Sometimes, going by the name of the preschool alone, you won’t be able to tell whether it is affiliated to any religious organisation. Hence, you should ask about this. You have to be prepared that your child will be included in all the religious activities. So if, for example, you are not keen on having your children taught Bible lessons, pray or sing Christian songs, then you should not enrol your child in a school that is run by a church.
16.Lease & Permit
This, unfortunately, happened to us the first time round. The first school that we sent Dominic to lost the lease to the building that they were using right before Dominic started school and we were only notified of it on Dominic’s very first day in school. They had to move to another location, which is even further away from our house, and from a bungalow to a few units within a commercial building. This meant a lot of changes, e.g., no more outdoor time and constant exposure to bad air circulating within the building’s air-condition system.
We were, of course, extremely unhappy with the school for not informing us about the possibility of moving before we signed up. A school in a commercial building was exactly what we didn’t want, plus the fact that travelling time was going to be longer.
This was why we had to change school, and why I had to do a intensive course in Preschool Hunt within one month. Because of this, I made sure I asked about the outstanding lease and permit of all the schools I checked out.
If the school you are interested in is operation from a landed property within an estate, if it is possible, try to find out about the school’s relationship with the neighbours. A lot of people are totally against having a preschool right where they live due to the noise and parking issues. If the scomplain enough, the school might just lose its permit to operate from that location.
17.Student-teach ratio and vacancies
No point picking a dream school if that school has no more vacancies!! Some popular schools have a long wait list. So if you are in a hurry and can’t afford to be put on the wait list, you will have to find somewhere else.
The other thing is to ask about the student-teacher ratio, as well as the number of students currently in the class. The ratio is stipulated by MOE/MCDS and I believe it could be different for different centres (as in enrichment centres vs childcare centres). Check out the Ministries’ website for more information on this. As for the number of students in the class, it is important to know because the school may fulfill the student-teacher ratio but still have a large class. E.g. 15 kids to 2 teachers could be the stipulated maximum, but there is nothing stopping the centres from having 30 kids and 4 teachers all in one room!
Yet another thing you may want to take note of is the current enrolment of the school. The fact is that a lot of childcare centres cease operation or change hands. If the school enrolment is very low, I will have this nagging fear that it will not be sustainable, which means sooner or later, the school may close or go through a change of management. I don’t mean that a low enrolment school will definitely fold or change hands. The enrolment may pick up later on. But this is just one possibility that you may want to take into account, especially if you are not exactly keen on too much uncetainty and changes happening while your child is in the school. When there is a change of management, be prepared for at least 6 months of chaos. You may also find all the teachers changed – which could be quite a rude shock for your child – and the teaching methods and philosophy changed too.
18.Availability of trial class or trial period
Most schools will have trial class or trial period for a new child to try out the school. Some charge for trial class while others don’t. Most of them will waive the fee for trial class if you eventually sign up with them. However, there are some schools that do not have trial period. This means that you will have to actually sign up at the class, buy all the uniform and such, and when you finally decide that the school is not the right one for you, you need to submit one month’s notice of withdrawal. This is troublesome and a waste of money.