When It Comes To Picking An LA Preschool, Focus On Feelings And Language

Two children playing in a Santa Monica preschool classroom. (Priska Neely/LAist)

WE'RE ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS ABOUT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA THAT KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT. IF YOU HAVE ONE, ASK IT HERE.


The first list of preschools I ever looked at for my then-not-even-one-year-old son included 87 institutions, and that was in Northeast Los Angeles alone. The organizations ranged from formal to informal to co-ops to play-based to Montessori to STEM to all manner of hybrids. Some were tightly aligned with teaching or development philosophies. Some used words I'd never heard before.

Needless to say, I slammed my computer shut and mentally shelved the issue until such time as I felt emotionally strong enough to revisit it, which was at least two months later. But I wasn't alone in my brief panic — for people with very young children, deciding whether and where to send them to preschool can be daunting.

To that end, an anonymous reader sent us this timeless question:

"How do I navigate finding a preschool in L.A.? There are so many options and I don't know how to wade through them or pick the right one! Should I really even be worried about this? As long as he is safe, does it really matter all that much?"

The good news is that parents needn't quit their day jobs in order to conduct a county-wide search. Instead, choosing the right environment for your lil' nug requires making some thoughtful decisions based on your family's financial and logistical needs, your child as an individual and several simple, science-backed factors.

"We know that quality childcare can be really beneficial," Kate Zinsser, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told us. "We also know that being in a negative space can be harmful."

Here's how to pick a preschool —

START WITH THE BASICS...

It can be tempting to start ye ol' preschool search by learning everything there is to know about the differences between Montessori and language immersion and Reggio Emilia and Waldorf and so on and so forth down the list. But that dark rabbit hole, according to the experts with whom we spoke, isn't as important as other factors.

Blakely Bundy, a co-director of the national nonprofit Defending the Early Years, suggests starting the search by asking some straightforward questions.

"What's available and what's affordable?" she said. "Does it need to be in your home neighborhood, your work neighborhood, or is that not important?"

Zinsser suggests that parents also avoid getting caught up in where their friends are enrolling, or which preschool has the most sterling reputation.

"Just because preschool is quote-unquote ideal, or your neighbors say it's the best one ... if going to the perfect preschool is going to mean that it's hard to afford your mortgage, that means it's not the perfect preschool," she said.

...AND CONTINUE WITH THE BASICS

The next step is to take some time to think about your own child. For the most part, says Bundy, in a good preschool, "there should be room for all children."

But if you happen to have a child who is particularly affected by, say, loud environments, maybe you'd want to focus on Montessori, where work is done in a quieter setting and is more individual-based than group-based. Alternately, if your child is unusually high-energy and loves to run around, perhaps you'd focus your search on schools that have a larger outdoor area and more outside play time.

Once you've answered these questions and narrowed down your search to the single digits, parents can search the California Department of Social Services to ensure that their options are all licensed, meaning that they meet the basic requirements set out by the state of California.

And then, it's time to get into the minutiae.

TRUST YOUR GUT

There's one tried-and-true way to examine the minutiae of a preschool, and that is taking a tour.

"We recommend that parents inquire or come on a tour maybe a year, year-and-a-half at the most before they want their child to start preschool," said Julie Baczewski, the director of preschool programs at Palisades Presbyterian Preschool.

Parents should aim to spend at least an hour at each school in which they're interested — without their child present, if possible, so they can focus on their surroundings — and keep an eye out for a range of teacher and child behavior.

The first factor to be aware of while on a tour might not be the answer that Type A parents want to hear, but nearly every expert with whom LAist spoke reiterated it: The most important thing a parent can look for in a preschool is their initial gut reaction to it.

"How do you feel when you walk into the place?" said Jade Jenkins, an assistant professor at the school of education at the University of California, Irvine. "This isn't very scientific. It's a very je ne sais quoi thing, but a feeling of welcome, warmth, responsiveness, and also cleanliness and smell — those kinds of things."

Adds Zinsser, "Is it someplace you feel like gives you the quote-unquote warm fuzzies? Is it someplace you feel good about your child spending their whole day at?"

Those initial impressions are often based on interactions or moods that a parent might register without even realizing she's doing so. Your immediate impression, said Chin Reyes, a research scientist at The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development & Social Policy at Yale University, is often based on two variables: "what the teachers do — their practice — and... the affective climate — how emotions are expressed by the children, and especially the adults."

And emotions — or social emotional development — should be a large part of the learning that occurs in preschools.

NOTHING MORE (OR LESS) THAN FEELINGS

"We create this false dichotomy between emotions and cognition, as if they are separate," said Reyes. "We really should not be thinking of them in that way, because they go hand-in-hand. We learn best cognitively when our emotions are well regulated."

To that end, preschool can play a large role in kids' development. During tours, parents will want to watch how teachers respond to children's emotions. Ideally, teachers will acknowledge a child's feelings and help them find a constructive way to work with them, said Reyes. "We often hear teachers say, 'Don't be sad, be glad!' But that is really not honoring their feelings."

If a child is sad because they miss their mother, for instance, "It's about explaining to the child, 'I understand how you are feeling, so why don't we make a picture for mommy so when she comes back you can give it to her?'" she said. "That's making the child's feelings real not just for her but for the teacher, and making an activity around it."

Interactions should be kind, warm and encouraging. Teachers getting down on the floor or to eye level with children is a good sign, as are warm and kind facial expressions. "Children need to feel safe and warm in order to explore," said Jenkins.

Zinsser adds that a cue to a good learning environment when it comes to feelings is what happens if one child gets hurt or upset.

"Is there a tendency for other kids in the classroom to automatically offer help?" she said. "Is that the culture of the classroom, or is it something that they have to prod the kids to doing, if they ask the kids to do it at all? Do kids reflexively seek out teachers to get comfort, or are children distant to providers? So, do the teachers actually help them feel better?"

ENCOURAGING LANGUAGE

Another thing to look out for during a tour is how, and if, teachers encourage children to speak and think for themselves.

"Children learn through exploration and self-led curiosity most when being interacted with, instead of being spoken to," said Erin Gabel, Deputy Director at First 5 California. "The child opting in to blocks and playing with blocks, and being supported by a teacher who knows what a child at that age can and should be doing with blocks is an incredible learning experience."

Rich language should be used all around — between teachers, between teacher and child, and, where appropriate, between children. The tone of the language should be encouraging — and, more specifically, a good sign is teachers using open-ended questions and nudging their charges to explain their own ideas.

"If a teacher says to a kid in the block corner, 'Hey, I like your tower,' versus a teacher who says, 'Tell me about what you are building,' [the latter is] inviting the child to use their own words, and inviting a conversation," said Zinsser.

WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?

A critical factor in your research should be learning about the teachers themselves. High turnover is common in early childhood education, so teacher retention says a lot about the culture.

"[It speaks to] whether the teachers feel they have been supported in their profession," said Gabel.

If possible, find out whether teachers have a bachelor's degree. While it's not necessary — and the factors mentioned earlier tend to be more important — a BA does tend to be associated with a better child outcome, says Zinsser.

During the tour, parents should also try to speak to the school's director. That conversation can provide a sense of what parent-teacher communication might look like, and whether the director is a person with whom the parent feels comfortable working.

And finally, a word about all those philosophies.

"It's nice to understand what the different ones are, but a lot of them kind of can work together very nicely," said Bundy. "I don't think it's that important to find a school that's purely one philosophy unless it's one that you feel really strongly about."

In the meantime, don't lose sight of the big picture.

"The most important part is that parents feel safe and comfortable with their child being in that space," said Zinsser, "and that they feel that the school and the program is going to be a partner with them in the raising of their children."