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Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Choosing a Developmentally Appropriate Preschool/ Child Care Program

What should a good program for preschoolers look like? This is a really difficult question for many parents of young children. There are a lot of different ways that a program for young children could look—it could be home-like, play-oriented, custodial (just “watching” the children), therapeutic, rule-driven and intensely instructional, or anywhere between these or among combinations of these categories.

A good many of today’s young parents went to preschools or were cared for in out-of-the-home settings when they were small children, but they may not remember the details, or ever have known some facts about the school or child care program. They may have much clearer memories of kindergarten, and of course remember a lot about grade school. When they search for a school or child care setting that “looks right”, they may do this by comparing what they see with their memories of their early school years, when there were quite a few children with each teacher and many rules about staying at your desk and following instructions.

But the school arrangements that may work well for older children are not necessarily developmentally appropriate for preschoolers aged 3 to 5 years, and are certainly not appropriate for younger children in a toddler program. Parents need to choose possible programs for their young children by considering the need for developmentally appropriate practices.

One approach to choosing a developmentally appropriate program is to look for certification by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, but as David Kirp has pointed out in an opinion piece for the New York Times (, NAEYC certification is not necessarily the magic key to a good preschool or child care center. Neither are claims to use the methods of Montessori, HighScope, Reggio Emilia, or Waldorf. As Kirp comments, “The key is how well a particular model of teaching is being carried out.”

Kirp suggests that a visit to a preschool should focus on whether certain important things are going on. These include walls full of kids’ projects, posted at a level where kids can see them. Children should look at you and say hello but then go back to what they are doing. Ignoring you suggests that they are not developing social skills. Rushing over to be with you (a stranger) suggests that they do not get much attention—not, as some young parents might assume, that they are very friendly and thus the school or center is a good place. The noise level should be low but constant, as children talk to themselves or each other or the teacher about what they are doing. And…you should not see an emphasis on teachers giving instructions, enforcing rules, standing over children, or demanding unnecessary conformity (like coloring inside the lines).

A publication of the American Psychological Association,, suggests the High Five method for identifying good preschool or child care programs. (You can download a brochure about this model from the website.) In addition to describing the High Five approach, the brochure reminds parents that their job is not finished when they have chosen a program for their child, but that questions need to be asked on a regular basis, because programs change (and of course children do, too).

Here are the five questions parents are advised to ask about any program for young children:

1.   What is happening in the classroom?
Are children engaged and enjoying what they do? Would the activities interest your child or take into account any special needs she may have? Is there flexibility, so not all children have to do the same thing at the same time? Do children have any choices?

2.      How do teachers and children get along?
Do children and teachers seem to enjoy being together? Do children treat each other with respect, and do teachers act respectfully toward other teachers? Is a warm, positive approach to others encouraged?

3.      How do teachers guide and, when needed, correct children’s behavior?
Is it clear to children what the rules are? Do teachers step in early and help children solve their problems? Do teachers appreciate and acknowledge positive behavior like helping another child or showing concern for someone?

4.      How do teachers talk with children?
Do teachers ask open-ended questions to encourage children to use language? Do they talk to children while the children are playing?  Do they talk in ways that focus on what and how the children are doing things, rather than general positive comments like “good job!” ?

5.      How do teachers communicate with parents?

Are parents welcome in the classroom? Do teachers speak to parents respectfully? Do teachers have methods for communicating to parents what a child has been doing that day? Do events regularly include children's families, and are families informed or invited?

As you can see, the questions suggested by David Kirp in his Times opinion piece and by the High Five project are somewhat different from each other, but the combined question list would be very helpful for parents choosing a preschool or child care setting—certainly more useful than making a decision just based on prior certification or on advertising of a well-known early education approach.  The High Five recommendation of continuing monitoring of any program is a good one, especially if a program goes through changes of director or other staff, or if the program is part of a for-profit franchise.


  1. Another good question would be "would it be better for my child just to be at home, instead of with strangers in a preschool?" I don't think preschool is necessary.

    1. It is probably not necessary for everybody, but it can be very helpful for kids whose adult caregivers are overworked and overtired or whose homes do not provide much opportunity for learning through play or for learning social skills.

    2. I think that 20 years ago preschool may not have been necessary, in the context of educational standards but socially I think it was beneficial even then. Now I believe preschool is absolutely necessary. In preschool they are prepared for kindergarten, the kindergarten curriculum is much different than when I was a kid 35 years ago.