10 Things to Look For in a Pre-School: Advice from a Mother-Educator

What should I look for in a pre-school?…How do I choose a good Mother’s Day Out Program?…What style of teaching will suit my child best?…Which pre-school will help my baby get into Harvard?”

As a parenting speaker, I am often asked this question. When I was teaching “Mommy and Me” baby and tot Kindermusik classes, I was asked this question by anxious parents almost weekly, even about their newborns. It is an important question, and as a parent and pre-school teacher, I LOVE to share my advice on the subject. BOTTOM LINE: if your child is happy and loved, and if you find a program that is convenient and affordable for you, then the rest doesn’t really matter that much! 

But I know…When you are in the midst of making the “pre-school” decision it can feel overwhelming!  I’ve been there. With my changing work schedule and circumstances over the years, I have had to make this decision several times for my children. Seems like every January, I’m thinking about it for the next fall. Of course, it’s ideal if you can find and keep your child in a place that everyone is happy with for several years, but children are quite resilient, and can certainly handle changes if you offer your loving guidance through transitions. When you’re researching all the choices (and there are a LOT in Dallas), it can feel like your choice might make or break your child’s chances at a successful future. Take a deep breath, and be assured that it won’t. Your child will most likely happily learn and grow no matter what.

But do keep in mind that research shows that a child’s first school experience MUST be a GOOD experience. This is when they form the lasting impression of whether they are “good” in school, whether they are “liked” by teachers in school, and this impression sticks with them and shapes their entire academic career. If your child is unhappy in a school situation, seriously consider making a change.

Lowry Manders Music & Chapel Teacher

The best music teacher in town is at CCDC!

Now, before I give you my list, let me invite you to come check out the fabulous pre-school in Dallas where I am the music and chapel teacher for babies through 6-year-olds (in a great “Bridge K” program)…CCDC or “Christian Childhood Development Center” at Lake Highlands UMC…Registration is next week for new families! Here’s a pic of some of the great minions (I mean teachers) that I work with!


When you visit a school, here are 10 key things to look for: 

  1. Do the teachers’ eyes light up? Unfortunately, too many teachers forget to do this when students arrive, but it is key to a successful day for the class and a successful path for the child. (Look for a loving, kind, supportive environment – period. Nothing else matters as much.) At CCDC, we welcome the parents and children at the door with smiles and hugs, and helping hands (especially for the moms or dad toting tots and babies, nap-mats and lunch boxes). CCDC families often find me at the front door with some special surprise –  playing the ukulele, holding the stuffed bird that we will sing songs about that day, or some puppet singing greetings as they enter…And in the hall, they will see the director herself greeting children by name and ready to hold a baby while big brother gets dropped off…)
  2. Look at the kids – are they HAPPY to be there? Are the children smiling? laughing? having fun? engaged? focused? Being silly? I remember visiting a pre-school where I didn’t see any kids or teachers having fun, and that just didn’t feel right to me. Are the students and teachers you observe happy to be there? Is there a positive energy as you pass them in the halls or are the children forced to walk silently with hands behind backs instead of marching in a parade or hopping like bunny rabbits?
  3. Is the learning PLAY-based and multi-sensory? A lot of pre-schools now are focusing on “kindergarten readiness” in the WRONG way developmentally for children: that is, they are teaching letters, sight words, numbers, counting, even reading, etc… The correct understanding of “kindergarten readiness” is that a child’s brain is wired and ready to learn. That happens by playing with dirt! Literally, those proper connections/ pathways are made in a child’s brain when he/ she has plenty of time for free play that engages all of their senses – time for sand boxes, dress-up and pretend play, blocks, coloring, play-do, water play, etc. If the reading and writing is incorporated in that and secondary to that play, then your child will have fun learning the 3 R’s, as well.
  4. Speaking of dirt, Look for outdoor play-time: Do they get 2 recess times? AWESOME! This is not a waste of time for pre0schoolers, but where much of their learning takes place. Do they get in some form of outdoor play even on cold or rainy days?  An umbrella walk, a winter walk around the school? Too many kids today are deprived of “nature”, and pre-school is one place that they should not be. Are their signs of nature inside the school: leaves, flowers, animals, rocks, science centers, etc.?
  5. Do they have Music/ movement  class? I know I’m biased, but of all the “specials”/ “fine arts”, this one is the most important and natural one for learning and development in young kids. And research has proven SO many benefits of early childhood music educational experiences. Better yet, the classroom teachers themselves should be singing and dancing throughout the day! CCDC also has a great special called “KidFit” in which the kids get to do lots of fun gross motor activities, run and play, do team games, get an introduction to a variety of sports, AND do the “Hokey-Pokey”. (Isn’t that really “what it’s all about?”)
  6. LOTS of Reading – Ask about story-time. I think all pre-schools should have not only read-aloud time (when the teacher reads), but silent reading time when the kids “read” to themselves, but most don’t…so look for access to books.
  7. Do they make Down-time/ Rest time a priority? If you have a younger child,  a good long nap-time is crucial, and this is when a longer day is good. (A school day that ends at 2:00 only gives enough time for a minimal nap. If this is the case, consider picking up your child to bring home for a longer nap. I have done this at a couple of schools because I know how important sleep is to little brains and to better evening behavior!) If you have an older child, the down-time/ quiet time is still crucial for brain development. A child’s brain actually needs more down-time than stimulation to process everything and make lasting brain connections. Make sure the school “schedules” in this kind of time for older kids…lights off for quiet reading or coloring, breathing and relaxation. (I often include a little of this in my music classes at CCDC.) If the school doesn’t have it, then you need to provide it at home after school.
  8. How do they handle discipline? Do they use it as an opportunity to teach and not to punish or shame? Do they give the children necessary tools for working out problems on their own? Do they offer viable positive solutions in guiding the children, teaching them the words to say and a chance to practice skills like team-work, peacemaking, forgiveness, kindness and helpfulness? No long time outs.
  9. What is the curriculum? Does it follow a theme? letter? seasons? No right answer, just find out if they have a plan, and if it leaves enough room for play and exploration. And then, it’s always fun to expand the learning at home when you know what is happening…
  10. On that note, How do they communicate with parents about what is happening in the classroom? Do parents walk kids to door, newsletters? When can parents talk with teachers? e-mail, etc? I personally prefer the system of parents delivering and picking up children at the classroom instead of through carpool like we do at CCDC. It might be less convenient for you, but it provides more connection with the teacher, the other families, and gives you more of an insight into what is happening at the school.

A few things you DON’T want in a pre-school!

  • One that takes itself and “school” too seriously with waiting lists that start at birth, with letters of recommendation for 2-year-olds, with “tardy” forms for 4-year-olds. It’s just pre-school after all. They will face the pressures of “big kid school” soon enough and for the rest of their lives. Let them enjoy pre-school, stress-free! We’ve all heard horror stories. One friend I have was in tears when her pre-school teachers said they could not recommend her daughter for a prestigious private school because she had been late to class several times…too many pancake breakfasts with Daddy. Another mom I know had a teacher tell her that “it just wasn’t working out” with her 4-year-old son on the 2nd day of class because “he was too wiggly”, and couldn’t sit still. A GREAT pre-school lets kids be kids, and accepts and celebrates children where they are! Its teachers expect accidents, misbehavior, potty humor and sounds, pushing and shoving, meltdowns…all of the above. They’ve seen it all, and they know how to handle it with grace and  kindness,  with wisdom and love.
  • A “computer/ technology” class – kids get enough of this, and it comes as second nature to them – they don’t need to be taught – they should be playing in the dirt! Also, make sure they do NOT show the children TV/ movies on a regular basis. School is not a babysitter. Save the “screen time” for home when you need it!
  • Homework like worksheets and flash cards. WHAT?!? Seriously, it’s pre-school. Now, they love “homework” like bringing something red for “RED” Day’s Show and Tell or bringing back a leaf that they find in their backyard. But don’t make them grow up too fast.

Finally, remember that NO school is PERFECT, just like none of us are perfect parents. If you see something you don’t like, offer some friendly feedback, but also remember that you can fill in some of the blanks at home. YOU are your child’s first and best teacher.  AND tell them you know the most fabulous speaker who does training sessions/ continuing ed for pre-school teachers, and hook me up. I’ll do an inspiring, research-based presentation for them that will help improve their program for your children! info on my “Teach with Intention” seminars

Good luck with your school choices, and aren’t we blessed to have them!  Please let me know if you have any questions or comments!



  1. Gary Minton says:

    Great info, Sweetheart.

  2. Melanie says:

    Great photo, too!