If you plan to send your toddler off to preschool this fall, you're running out of time to find the right program.
Although many preschools operate year-round and enroll newcomers throughout the year, most of their openings come in September because, by then, the older children have moved on to kindergarten.
And it's important to get your name in now because many popular preschools have waiting lists. Bear in mind that some preschools close for the summer, so you must visit now to see them in session.
Preschools vary in their approach to education and activities.
Some are loosely structured, with daily lessons determined largely by students' interests. Others have a more rigid curriculum, with a fixed goal for the day's lesson such as learning names of colors or to count to 10. Most schools fall somewhere in the middle of these approaches.
Many preschools run on either a half-day or full-day schedule, and some offer the option of having your child attend two or three days a week. If you have a choice, your child may be better off starting out as a part-timer to adjust to the new experience.
Cost varies, too. You may be shocked to learn that half-day programs cost about $220 a month while full-day sessions run about $400 per month. The YMCA or church organizations sometimes offer less expensive programs.
To narrow the list of prospects, seek advice from friends, relatives and co-workers who have experience selecting a preschool. Try the Yellow Pages, too, since many schools list their philosophies and schedules in their ads.
Do some research by telephone. Call each school's director and ask how long the school has been operating, since a new school may still be in the experimental stage--and you may not want your child to be part of its experiment.
Small class size is crucial for preschoolers, so find a program that limits each teacher to five to 10 kids. (Under state law, there must be one supervising adult for every 12 children.)
Ask about the school's academic requirement for teachers. Someone can become a preschool teacher with as little as two semesters of college courses in early childhood education. But some schools also require a bachelor of arts degree in addition to at least two semesters of early childhood education.
Next, have the director list the skills that your child will be taught. Are these skills comparable to those of other schools, and are they enough?
Mention any physical or emotional conditions or special needs that your child may have, and ask how the school would accommodate them.
Then visit the school, but leave your child at home so you can speak candidly with teachers and roam freely.
Is the campus well protected? Are classrooms and playgrounds fenced in, or can strangers easily enter? Is the playground equipment safe and practical for your child's age?
Do the buildings look sturdy enough to withstand an earthquake?
Enter the classroom of every teacher your child may have. Look at the paint job, bulletin boards and furniture. Is this a cheerful place?
Consider the toys, books and other materials. Are there enough for everyone? Are they appropriate for your child's age?
Watch a class in session, noticing the general atmosphere. Are the children happy, interested and kept busy? Do they get along with each other and the teacher? Does the teacher discipline too lightly or too severely?
Sexual stereotyping may be a concern. Notice whether there are "boy" activities and "girl" activities. Could your daughter, for example, play the doctor's or firefighter's role?
And now the final test: What does your child think?
Go back to the school with your child to see how he or she uses the classroom furnishings, interacts with other children and is treated by the teacher.
Bear in mind that your child will probably be shy when plopped into the new setting amid strangers. But you can still get an idea of how he or she would eventually fit in.