preschool, how to pick a preschool

How to: Pick a Preschool

Finding the Perfect Preschool

I was at a playdate today and I ended up ranting and raving about my frustrations with my cooperative preschool.  Don’t get me wrong, my child is having a wonderful experience, but a cooperative preschool is an entire family experience and my piece of it, a.k.a. “administrative position” has been rather annoying.  I could just be me.  I think that I tend to get annoyed as I exit a preschool, and this is my last year of preschool…EVER!  And, maybe I’m just jaded.

There is something about preschool that makes you feel a little like a hostage because you are handing off your very small child into the great unknown.  This feeling is especially acute if you have to peel your crying child off your leg every morning and their favorite part of school is pick up.  So, I readily admit that I am a Jaded Preschool Parent.  Maybe that explains why I went through 4 preschools over the past  10 years.

If you are getting ready to pick a preschool for your darling, heed my advice.  Do not solely rely on word-of-mouth endorsements from moms you meet in the park or at mommy-and-me music class! Why?  Because it’s an unwritten mommy rule somewhere that everyone LOVES their preschool. I’m not sure why.  I think it’s partly based on anxiety… that this must be a great place because I’m dropping off my precious child for x many hours and I have no real idea of how it’s going because my child can’t articulate their feelings and thoughts that well yet.  Case in point, I moved my middle child because I suspected she was miserable.  It wasn’t just the difficult drop off that clued me in.  Yet the teachers and directors insisted that she was fine and happen even all day.  I did sneak around early to spy on her or peer in through a window but I just wasn’t sure.  It wasn’t until we hired an assistant teacher as an occasional babysitter who said that my daughter was COMPLETELY a different person at school versus home and not in a good way.  And yet, even a year or two later, we would drive by the old preschool and my daughter would say, “There’s my old school.  I love my old school.”  REALLY? But now, at age 7, she is able to articulate her experience and she told me the other night that she did NOT like it there and then listed all the reasons why.  It was surprising to me that it would take 4 or 5 years, like a victim of trama, to really get to the truth.

how to choose preschool

So…here’s my jaded view:

How to: Pick a Preschool

Daycare Pros:  great hours for working moms.  they will take infants.  the staff-to-child ratio can be low.

Daycare Cons:  Incredibly high staff turnover.  I experienced 50% staff turnover in my child’s classroom every 4 months!  And it was always the teacher she bonded with that left.  That was not acceptable to me so we switched to a preschool when she turned 2.9 years old  because that is when the preschool is licensed to take kids.

Nugget of Advice:  Yes, get on the waitlist early but don’t confuse a really, really long waitlist with an incredibly wonderful daycare.  And why you ask about staff turnover and the director tells you the length of time of a few of the staffers, ask about how many hires this past year. How old is the staff?  Do they have degrees in early child education?  Really young, just-out-of-college staff + low wages = high staff turnover.  Drop by unannounced to “make an appointment.”  Observe carefully before you ask for help…this is what really goes on.  Also, how soon until they notice you, a stranger, in their midst?

Preschool Pros:  The hours are more suited for what a child’s exposure to chaos should be so the day is shorter and the staff is not working incredibly long hours (ie underpaid & burnt out).  They tend to do annual contract with their staff so staff turnover is significantly lower.

Preschool Cons:  You generally have many, many options about how many days you want to attend.  This is great for spending one-on-one time with your child plus helps with the cost but you will find that your kids will not know some of the kids in their class. As in, I have no idea who you are.  I have never seen you before in my life.  This is because they might have one day of overlap.  Also, because the kids are not together on all the same days, the school can’t plan a structured academic curriculum.

Nuggest of Advice :  Ask about staff to child ratio.  Just because the school doesn’t go through a formal interviewing/rejecting process doesn’t mean you don’t have to make a good first impression!  Ask if any of the lead teachers are certified teachers for K-2.  Ask if the staff signs an annual contract.  Is there a summer program?  Do you need one?  Do you occasionally need an early drop off or late pick up? Can they accommodate that?  Have them explain their academic curriculum; there is no one right answer but understand if it’s play based or child-led or whatever the latest theory is? Is their foreign language exposure?  (Ok, maybe I am way into that but no one else cares).

Montesori Pros:  Now I confess that I have never attended Montessori so I am speaking for my many friends who have.  Generally, they all LOVE Montessori.  The families also tend to be more international.  The curriculum IS impressive.  Your darling will generally learn to read at age 3 and get exposure to a foreign language, typically Spanish.

Montessori Cons:  Tends to be expensive.  High staff to child ratio because of their education model.  Not a lot of interaction with kids of their own age and sex…maybe 2-3 in their class.  Must go every day at 8:30 a.m.; are you really ready for this schedule at age 2???  There are years ahead of you when you will have to do this.  Preschool of choice for high-powered moms…do you really need that kind of stress in your life?

Nugget of Advice:  If your child can not sit still on a very small square of carpet for at least 15 minutes at a stretch, then Montessori is not for you!  Don’t take the rejection personally “that the school regrets there is no space for your child.”  And also don’t read false hope in that message also!

Cooperative Preschool Pros:   You know exactly what happens every second of your child’s school day.  If you are not the parent helper, then your mom friend is.  You know who they play with, who cried, and who will likes what for snack.  The teachers are tip top…they have to be as they are supervised by the most critical of bosses (i.e. moms) during their work day.

Cooperative Preschool Cons:  You will volunteer umpteen hours to the school.  Your administrative job might not match your skills or worse the parent in charge of your committee  has no business being in charge…literally, no prior business experience being in charge but now they are.  Not always a good thing!  After several years of this, you will realize why Socialism was doomed to fail.  You will feel sucked dry.

Nugget of Advice:  In the beginning you will LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your school.  Do not think that your child’s wonderful experience is commensurate with the amount of time you volunteer.  It’s a long ride and YOU MUST PACE YOURSELF!  Do not undertake too much responsibility.  Under that kumbaya exterior lies the same snarky, sharky politics as any other organization.  Don’t drink too much of the Kool-Aide!

My final piece of advice is remembering my work friend, Diligent Mom, who LOVED, LOVED, LOVED her preschool.  She actually visited 22 of them.  I am sure there are 22 preschool options in my neck of the woods within a 20 minute commute, but I didn’t visit even half that– a 5 minute commute and good parking were items on my must-have list.  Well…that is why she LOVED, LOVED, LOVED her preschools and I do not.


By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Risa

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I considered Singapore, but the DVD component of Math U See is what won us over. It also introduces algebra from day 1, which was a feature I particularly liked. As a former math teacher myself, I know that if a kid truly understands that 3 + 5 = 8, then he also knows what x must be in 3 + x = 8. I have no idea whatsoever why this needs to wait 6-8 years to be introduced in school!

    I liked looking at your dino books too. My two are CRAZY for them! (And I think we’ve read all but 1 of the titles you listed. Many faves there.)

    • You sound like you have lots of great tips for getting kids to learn math! Thank you for sharing your expertise. What dino books are your sons’ favorites? I’d love to add to the list!

  2. Jeanne-Marie

    Thank you so much for the preschool advice! I hope to send my son to a cooperative preschool, and I am definitely the type of person who will need to remember to pace herself when making commitments to the school!

    • Thank you so much for stopping by. Parents tell me that the cooperatives are a great experience but that they are burnt out by the end so I’m glad you are pacing yourself. I didn’t do that so I was in the burnt out stage by the end!

  3. You give the parents lots of great questions to ask the school and things to consider what is best for their child. Parents need to have a very good idea what they are looking for in a preschool or day care. Day care centers, traditional preschools, co-ops and Montessori programs are VERY different with completely different approaches.

  4. Mark

    Great to find these helpful pointers in choosing where to bring my kids. Deciding on where I should actually enroll my child to is not a very easy task at all. I have a lot of things to consider like would she be able to like her classmates or will her teacher be friendly and caring enough to have patience to these little kids.

    • Hi Mark,
      My post is a bit snarky so apologies for that. There are many, many great choices. Just do a lot of visits and you’ll start to see differences and find one that feels right to you. I think it’s all about fit.

  5. Choosing childcare is so personal and can be difficult. I encourage parents to do a few things. 1. tour schools/centers with their child and see how they react to being in the space. 2. ask lots of questions. Even if they seem weird, they are your questions for the benefit of your child. Ask them. 3. Look for schools with a quality security system. At Children Of America we have PIN numbers allowing parents access to their child’s center. So look around, ask lots of questions and we hope you and your family find the right fit.

  6. AA

    Great article, I was smiling, it reflects my own jaded perspective, lol. I have a few things to share – I am in the midst of the 3rd and last year at my daughter’s small half day co-op preschool. I have held volunteer executive positions the entire time. The layers of bureaucracy the school needs to adhere to is staggering and worsens every year, it sucks hours out of my week. When there are personality conflicts (because there always are) or there is the odd family who does as little as possible, it kicks the stress into another realm because it catches us (the board members) off guard – I mean, it is a co-op! it is supposed to be warm and fuzzy! a big cuddle party! where everyone endeavours to do what it takes! But sadly, it is rarely those things, most parents are willing to only do what is absolutely necessary because they are busy people who have a lot going on. And confronting people in a co-op is really hard. Tricky to make waves when we all ought to be singing kumbaya. In our small co-op, the largest stress by far has been finding, keeping and managing the expectations of the teachers.

    The division of work is grossly uneven and executive roles are thankless and overwhelming. Much gets taken on by the stay at home’s or the kind hearted people who just cannot say no because, you know, it’s a co-op and we should all just pitch in! it will even out in the end! (it doesn’t, unless you take the Buddhist view)

    Rarely mentioned is that a co-op is a corporate entity where the board is liable for all sorts of things – negligent staff, accidents, fraud… This is why co-ops carry millions of dollars in insurances and if your co-op does not have good governance practices in place, look out. And let’s be honest, a lot of co-op’s are comprised of people who have no board experience, no relevant experience at all.

    There have been pro’s – my daughter likes our school, she is developing some nice friendships. It is close to our home, a bonus since we are a 1 car family. The people at the school are down to earth people and quite nice. This is also reflected in the children who are truly the gem of the whole co-op experience.

    My advice to anyone interested in enrolling their child in a preschool co-op:
    1. Do not make the assumption that it is not stressful or that the members of the co-op are a bunch of selfless hippies – they are likely there because they like the low tuition rates. They are willing to exchange those rates for some sweat equity but will not devote their lives to the place. And if they do, they will eventually be resentful.

    2. Take a tour and get a sense of the co-op. Read through their literature and get a good idea of what they expect from you. Be very clear with what you are able to contribute as a family and if you do not like a lot of administration or dealing with conflict, avoid leadership positions. And if anyone says “oh, being the President is not really all that difficult” they are lying. The only benefit to being on the executive is that it is good practical experience and will likely look good on a resume.

    3. Last, but not least, listen to your child. If they are not happy after a few weeks, it is not worth it, just leave. If you as a parent do not like it but your kid does, that is a harder call.

    I am counting down the months to June when our time with the co-op will end. I have met many nice families but I would have preferred to get to know them under far less stressful circumstances. I loved the idea of the preschool coop but after 3 years, the reality I experienced was not at all what I thought it would be.

    • Hi AA,
      I’m so sorry to hear about your Co-op experience but this is exactly why communism failed, right?!! I found that the least experienced parents were in leadership positions which made for ineffective meetings and behind-the-scenes decision making. On the other hand, my elementary school PTO experience has been great, but the difference is that the parents on the board have extensive business leadership experience so it’s run in a professional, efficient way.

      I really appreciate your perspective. I’m sure there are many parents and families who have a great preschool co-op experience and I think the key is to go in with the right attitude. Don’t over-volunteer. Make sure your expectations are realistic. You are saving money but you pay for it in your own time so calculate that into the total cost.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…International Book Giving Day Poster Reveal! #BookGivingWednesdayMy Profile

  7. AA

    As a postscript to my previous comment, we now have our daughter at a different co-op and we are so much happier! This new co-op is definitely more in line with what we thought a preschool co-op experience would be. The vibe is the polar opposite of what the old co-op was like. Just thought I would share.

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