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Tips for parents: Is this high-quality preschool really working? To find out, ask school leaders about these unseen issues

Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones | September 23, 2019

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For many families, searching for a high-quality early education program can be a challenge. Aside from very real issues of cost and convenience, parents must consider a wide range of factors that will impact their children’s learning and development. And there is a catch — many of the key factors are not ones that families can see.

As parents embark on their search for high-quality care, many think about the everyday things their children need, like engaging learning activities, good materials (e.g., toys, craft supplies, furniture) and opportunities for structured play and fresh air. That all makes good sense; these are important indicators. In reality, however, the key ingredients of quality actually underlie the indicators that parents tend to focus on. These ingredients, which might be hard to gauge during a quick visit to a busy center, are the working conditions and professional supports for the adults that enable them to give their best each day.

It is the adults, after all, who create the conditions that support warm, responsive and stimulating learning experiences and environments that ensure all children can grow and thrive. If the adults aren’t supported and thriving, it’s unlikely that all children will be.

What families can look for in an early education program is actually more about what they can ask about — teachers’ professional supports, working conditions, turnover rates, classroom management strategies and routines, and approaches to promoting children’s social-emotional development. Here, we break these down by category and make suggestions about questions that parents can and should be asking on their tours.

Professional supports and working conditions

To do their work well, teachers must engage in the daily, physical, mental and emotional labor associated with creating a stimulating and responsive environment for young children. This work isn’t easy, especially given that young children are only just beginning to develop their skills around managing impulses, emotions and behavior — all while developing their language and cognitive skills. Good teaching requires and deserves strong professional supports, which can come in the form of high-quality professional learning, coaching and/or opportunities to engage in planning and reflection with peers and in teams. When teachers receive adequate professional support, they are more likely to be effective in their daily work and respond appropriately to the unpredictable and challenging situations that will inevitably arise most days.

Key questions to ask:

  • How are teachers supported professionally?
  • What kinds of opportunities do teachers have to work together?
  • Does this collaborative time take place during their break or children’s rest time? Or is time set aside for this important work?

Turnover and continuity of care

Children thrive in settings characterized by a high degree of consistency. One key driver of consistency in an early education program is continuity of care — the consistent presence of one or more caring adults in a child’s classroom each day. High turnover among staff members or program leadership can be a sign that the adults aren’t getting adequate professional resources or support.

Sometimes, turnover can also show up day to day — not a teacher leaving the program, but actually in the form of teacher absences. Frequent absences often reflect working conditions and job satisfaction. And, as part of a negative cycle, too often, early learning settings address staffing changes or shortages with an on-the-fly or real-time approach that results in moving children or teachers between classrooms to maintain mandated educator-to-student ratios. When this happens fairly regularly — and/or when educators or other staff leave a program suddenly — children miss out on the kinds of consistent and stable relationships that are key to their healthy development. High-quality programs take a proactive approach to staff retention, including strategies for planned time off, and, at the same time, when addressing turnover and/or absences, prioritize consistency and stability for children.

Key questions to ask:

  • How often and why do teachers leave the program?
  • What are the turnover rates over the last couple of years?
  • What supports are in place to ensure children experience consistency even when teachers are sick or unable to come to work?
  • What are the program’s strategies for retaining high-quality teachers?

Classroom management strategies and approaches to children’s social and emotional development

Effective classroom management is key to a teacher’s ability to facilitate productive, engaging and meaningful learning experiences for children every day. These practices and strategies are also crucial when it comes to young children’s sometimes turbulent or unpredictable emotions and behaviors. Because children are just beginning to develop their ability to manage these, educators have to be prepared and supported to respond appropriately to a range of behaviors, including some that are challenging.

Teachers’ strategies may not be immediately obvious, but educators should be able to talk about the ways that they are helping children manage strong emotions and interact in positive ways with other children. They should also be able to talk about the space and tools they are providing for children to use when they feel sad, angry, disappointed or overwhelmed. Professional support is key to teachers’ abilities to effectively manage their classroom, respond to challenging behaviors and build children’s social and emotional skills. When teachers feel supported to plan and implement effective practices and strategies, and when they have access to a coach or mentor who can help, they are more likely to create a classroom environment that is safe and engaging for all.

Key questions to ask:

  • What strategies do teachers use to respond to challenging behaviors?
  • What strategies do teachers use to help children build their social-emotional skills?
  • What supports are available to teachers to foster their skills in classroom and behavior management?
  • Is the center’s leadership keeping track of the ways that challenging behaviors are managed and addressed to be sure they are positive and equitable, especially across gender lines?

Adults are the cornerstone of the high-quality preschool setting. Families who are searching for a good program have many factors to consider, and many of the most important are not easily seen. So, while family tours should focus on some of the practical things children need, parents should also ask about the professional resources, strategies and supports that enable teachers to be at their best.

This analysis was produced in partnership with; Nonie Lesaux is academic dean and Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson professor of education and society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where Stephanie Jones also serves as a professor of education. Together, they co-direct the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative, which promotes the knowledge, professional learning and collective action necessary to cultivate optimal early learning environments and experiences.

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