My little girl started her first day of preschool in March this year, at 2 years and 3 months old. Up until today, I’m still amazed at how many “U-turns” we took until we settled for a preschool that fits our requirements. We were also quite lucky that Crystabel was among the first batch of students to be enrolled in the school when it first opened, for it meant that everything in the school was brand new and spanking clean – and starting off with a small group of kids, she had the undivided attention of her teachers.
But probably the biggest perk of all is that her school is located just opposite to where we live. It makes morning drop-offs and evening pick-ups so much easier!
While I won’t go into detail on the “U-turns” that we took, I thought it’d be great to list down the things to ponder and take note of when choosing a preschool for little ones – just in case any of you mums and dads out there are embarking on this long journey for the first time. Also serves as a good reference point for me, should I need to go through it all again next time.
So, here’s the list that got us both started:
Childcare or Kindergarten
Before even checking out reviews of specific preschools in Singapore, the first – and most obvious – decision to make is whether to put your precious little one in a childcare setting or kindergarten.
From what I’ve read on forums online and by chatting with my mum friends, kinders usually run for a few hours during the first half of the morning. This setting might be perfect if you are a SAHM or WAHM, who has the flexibility of dropping the kids off in the morning and picking them up a couple of hours later – just in time for lunch. I’ve also had friends who brought their laptops with them and worked at the school’s meeting/function room while waiting for their kids’ class to be dismissed for the day.
But for most of us who are working full time, putting the little one in full-day childcare centre/preschool might be a better choice. You get to drop them off just before rushing off to work, and pick them up in the evening after work. Do make sure to reach the centre by 7pm though, as there is a penalty for late pick-ups. On the other hand, you do have a choice to opt for half-day childcare as well – especially if you have family or a helper who can help to take care of your little one for the next half of the day. This simply means that you little one won’t be joining the rest of the class for lunch and the afternoon session. Some parents may prefer this as they are worried that their kids will get overstimulated, or have difficulties eating and sleeping at the centre.
Once you are set on whether to opt for childcare or kindergarten, you then start to narrow down your choices of a few places. From here, you start making appointments to pop by for a tour of the centre. This is the perfect opportunity for you to see for yourself if the setting is suitable for your kids, and to ask the teacher/principal questions on how lesson time is being managed.
Since I had been doing preschool centre reviews as part of my job back then, I had a rough idea on what to ask when visiting the preschool(s) of my choice.
First thing to find out about the preschool is the curriculum that they incorporate in their lesson plans. Do they lean more towards the Montessori method or Reggio Emilio – or a mix of everything? What is the focus of their curriculum? Is it merely on academic, or do they believe that playtime does wonders in helping the little ones learn about the world around them?
Also find out how the curriculum offered helps to prepare your little one to integrate in the Singapore education system when he/she starts P1.
2. Teacher-child ratio
The next thing to know about the centre is the teacher-child ratio that is applied. After all, you’d want to know whether there is enough teachers to each student/class and be assured that your child’s needs and well-being will be well taken care of in school.
There is a minimum standard guideline set out regarding this by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), and this can be seen as follows:
There are some centres that offer a lower teacher-child ratio, which allows a teacher to focus her attention on a smaller group of kids.
3. Programme schedule
Make sure to ask for the daily schedule of programme to take a look at what the kids will be doing throughout the day. From what I’ve seen so far, mornings at the school is mostly dedicated to structured learning, while afternoon is open to fun activities such as arts & crafts and music & movement. Most centres also offer enrichment programmes in the afternoon, but these usually involve additional costs.
It’d also be handy to take note of the times for breakfast, lunch and snack times, as well as nap time and toilet time. If you have concerns over nap time (e.g. what if my child wakes up earlier than the allocated time?), it’d be good to raise this up during the tour. Also find out if the centre require your kids to be potty trained, or if they are OK to do diaper changers for your not-quite-potty-trained toddler.
Your little one will be taking an average of 3 meals in school: Breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. Ask to see the menu plan for the week to find out what they kids will be served in school. Do they get balanced and nutritious meals? If your little one has special dietary requirements or food allergies, ask how this will be handled.
You might also want to find out if meals are cooked on-site in the school, or catered by an external vendor. Personally, I’d prefer if the food is cooked in the school’s kitchen – as this helps to give the assurance that the food is fresh and warm when served to the kids.
5. Overall environment
While you walk through the school, take note of the overall environment of the place. Is it bright and airy? If not air-conditioned, is the place well ventilated? Does it get too stuffy on hot days? And if it’s air-conditioned, ask if the rooms are aired every once in a while.
Also take note of the cleanliness of the school and equipment. Take a look through the toilets – is it clean, does it smell, is it wet and slippery? How often is the toilet washed? What about the toys and learning materials? How often are they cleaned and sanitised? And what about the beds/mattresses that the kids sleep on? How clean are they, and do you need to bring your own cover – or can these be purchased from the school?
While your kids are in the school, they will be in contact with their teachers throughout the day. Observe how the teachers interact with the kids during your visit. Do they look like they are enthusiastic about teaching and caring for kids? And if you are bringing along your little one during the visit, take note of how the principal tries to engage with her. From what I’ve been told, this reflects the way the teachers and principal handle the kids in school.
Also ask about the teacher’s qualification. What is the minimum requirement for teachers in the school – an early childhood diploma or degree? Do they go for regular training to update their skills and teaching methods? What is the main language spoken in school? For most schools that I’ve been to, english is the main language used – while Chinese teachers will only communicate with the kids in Mandarin. I guess this helps to “force” kids to learn the language well.
Try to also listen how well the teachers converse in English. There are parents who have raised their concerns that teachers in some centres speak English to the kids, with a dash of Singlish thrown in.
It is common for kids to fight and squabble among themselves when they are at the preschool stage. This may be caused by rough play or their unwillingness to share toys with their friends. Do find out what’s the school policy when it comes to handling fights. Do they separate the kids, explain why fighting is wrong and get them to make up? Or do they use the “naughty corner” method to resolve this issue?
Also, find out how do they handle if a fellow teacher has been found to “bully” the kids in one way or another. What is the school’s policy for handling this, and how do they resolve complicated cases like this?
With all the unfortunate series of events that have happened at various childcare centres in recent years, parents are now more concerned about their kids’ safety. The last thing we want is to have to deal with a child who is hurt because the teachers in school weren’t paying enough attention while she is actively moving about in school – or worst, seeing bruised marks as a result of being handled roughly by a frustrated teacher.
So look up at the ceiling when you are walking around the school. Do you see any CCTV installed? If not, ask the principal about it and how will she assure you that your child will be safe while in school. Also ask how would the school handle cases of abusive teachers. I’ve visited a preschool which only had a CCTV unit installed at the main reception area but not in the classrooms. When I asked the principal, she told me that they do not install cameras in all the rooms, as it was an intrusion of privacy and space. She added that they do have a system worked out among teachers, where each will look out for the others. If it seemed as though a teacher is frustrated when dealing with a difficult child, the rest around her will step in to help and resolve the situation.
Apart from surveillance in school, also ask about their policy for identifying family members and caretakers who will be picking up your child. Do they do a check before the child is being handed over? What if it is not the same person picking up the child every day – for instance, some days the helper might be the one to do pick-up or drop-off? What sort of identification do they require? And will they call you first if they are not sure if the person picking your child up is legitimate?
9. Sick kids
In most preschools and childcare centres, temperature checks are done several times a day. In Crystabel’s current preschool, it is usually once in the morning and another round at mid-day and afternoon. Parents will be alerted immediately if their kids are found to have a higher than usual temperature. The school will call the parents, who will then let the school know when their sick kids will be picked up. While waiting for the parents to arrive, the sick kids will be separated from the rest of the class and be brought to rest at the sick bay. This is to minimise the spread of germs to the rest of the kids.
Find out from the school how do they handle sick kids, and whether is it possible for them to help give your child her medication if she is in the process of recovering from her illness (e.g. mild flu and cough). Usually they will oblige to your request, but would need you to state the name of the medicine and when to give to your child – and sign the document. However, they are not allowed to give fever medication and antibiotics due to safety reasons.
Hand Foot Mouth Disease (HFMD) spreads easily from one kid to another, and it’s a seasonal outbreak that happens every year. Once a kid in a centre/school is found to be diagnosed, the entire school will need to be shut to prevent the disease from spreading. Find out from the principal if the school has ever had an episode of HFMD in that year, or the recent years – and exactly how bad was it. Get more details on the episode, like what are the likely triggers that caused the outbreak and how did they overcome it.
So there you have it, a simple list of things to ask when you go for a preschool tour. I hope this will help you along your way in choosing the right school for your child. If you have other questions that have been missed out, do feel free to share them with me in the comment box below!