Long before you’re finished changing multiple diapers, before the last bottles have been put away, even prior to saying “bye-bye” to nap time, you and your spouse will be confronted with The Next Big Thing: Preschool. In most urban and suburban parts of the country where preschool options abound, that’s no small issue for small fry and their parents.
With dozens of options to choose from, the selection can be double (or even triple) complicated for the parents of multiples. Certainly your whittling process will be limited by the availability of openings. Other areas suffer from childcare scarcity, where parents must sit out long waiting lists or even register during pregnancy to get a coveted spot in a desirable pre-school.
Whenever you begin your search, you’ll still have to find the best available school for your precious children. Because one day, you dream of them going to great universities, landing topnotch hospitality jobs or in the corporate world, and just living the life you want them to have. Rather than tackle this daunting task without a plan, or even a clue, here are 15 basic questions you should ask of preschool providers. (Of course, you’re free to add your own. We won’t tell!)
1. Is the school convenient to us? This seems like an obvious place to start, since you want to minimize driving time in two directions. And you will want to “feel close” to your little ones; separation anxiety can work both ways. Still, proximity alone shouldn’t be the major factor in picking the right preschool.
2. What is the total cost? Since different schools have different ways of structuring their fees, you may need to bring along your calculator. In addition to tuition, there may be registration and materials fees. Some schools have fundraising events that are practically mandatory. Daycare coverage for before and/or after class is usually extra, too. It adds up in a hurry — times two (or three).
3. Are the registration fees refundable? This may not be something you’d normally include on a list to qualify preschools, but it could save you some money if you don’t ask first. One unfortunate family, we’ll call the Roberts, found out the hard way when they registered their then 2-year-old triplets in two different schools, hoping for the waiting lists to open up. When neither list did, they were out $50 per child at each school! Yes, multiples cost more in more ways than one.
4. Do they offer any multiples discounts or financial aid? Speaking of cost, many schools have various plans to help parents who are stressed financially. Some discount a second or third child’s tuition. At others, even greater assistance is available. To get it, you’ll have to fill out a formal financial aid application and send it to an independent administrative organization. If so, you’ll be filling out reams of forms similar to your tax returns, and often those will need to be available as verification. The results can be worth up to 50% off, if you qualify.
5. How flexible is their scheduling? This is a very critical factor for working parents. Since everyone has different needs, it’s hard for a school to meet them all. Ask if they have a minimum class commitment, such as requiring enrollment a certain number of days or hours. If you can’t bend your work hours, then can they offer a flex schedule? Many schools offer extended daycare (before/after school) to fill in the gaps. Find out now and what those hours are.
6. Do they provide meals? Many may feed the kids snacks, while lunch is up to you. If your family has certain dietary requirements or limitations, find out if they’re honored by the school. Nowadays, there’s a heightened sensitivity to religious, cultural and health impacted diets, but you’ll need to inquire about your needs. In any case, you’ll probably find yourself searching for options to peanut butter and jam sandwiches.
7. Does the school have or require attendance in a summer program? Some consider their program year round and not going to summer school might result in the loss of your spot. On the other hand, the summer program may be more flexible, allowing you to select childcare by day or week.
8. Do they have a specific “twins policy”? Some schools may want to keep the siblings together for reassurance and convenience, while others separate them into different classes so that they’ll develop their independence and individuality. There are pros and cons for each arrangement. You know your children best, so see if the school you pick will accommodate your wishes.
9. What type of curriculum is best for our children? This is a complicated issue, one that many parents aren’t fully able to address until they and their children experience at least one form of preschool. In general, you’ll find that most schools fall into one of five basic teaching styles: traditional, progressive, Montessori, Waldorf and religious. Some schools mix and match with numerous variations. With others it’s a matter of the degree they follow their philosophy. For example, a facility that advertises itself as a Montessori preschool may or may not be AMI (American Montessori Institute) recognized, have Montessori trained and credentialed teachers or recommended teaching materials. It’s best to ask, do some up front research and check the school’s website, if they have one, to see if their curriculum appeals to you. It also helps to talk with parents whose children are already enrolled.
10. Who will be doing the teaching? By all means meet and talk with the teachers who will be given charge of your youngsters. Another family, the Schwarzes, made their first preschool choice based primarily on location — the school was across the street from their home. Now that’s hard to resist. Yet, a year later, they realized that their first-born singleton daughter was bored by the teachers, who were inexperienced and not all that creative. When it came to finding a school for their triplets, they did their homework searching for and finding a school with more capable teachers.
11. What does the school’s classroom look like? Is it neat and orderly? Or active and full of play and learning materials? In order to assess a preschool, it’s imperative to visit during a regular class day. Do the children look happy, bored, under control, engaged? Picture your multiples in the room and imagine if they’d fit in comfortably with the way the other children play.
12. What does the school’s play yard look like? Is the equipment modern and well-kept? Are there a variety of play structures? Is the yard securely fenced and safe? If your children are especially active, take a tip from the Costellos. Their fraternal sons are what they term “explorers,” who do better under close supervision (1:5 teacher-student ratio) and fences and gates that can’t be easily climbed by 3-year olds.
13. How much time will parents have to invest in the school’s activities? Most preschools operate on thin, if any, margins. They need the skills and time of the parents to help with a range of support, from providing classroom materials, snacks and in-room help to planning major events and even constructing or remodeling facilities. Cooperative schools require the most commitment, which is in lieu of their lower tuitions. Many preschools will have family days, holiday festivals and fund-raising events that are fueled on parents’ energy. In addition to helping your twin’s school, you’ll have the opportunity to make new friends. The enhanced sense of community fostered by some preschools will only contribute to your children’s overall well being.
14. Do they require children to be potty-trained? Schools that take infants obviously fit into this category, while there are those that only accept toddlers who don’t need diaper maintenance. This could be a deal-breaker, depending on the age and readiness of your children.
15. What is their drop-in visit policy? If you are considering a preschool, you should make two visits. One by appointment and one to drop by unannounced to test how they handle unplanned visits by parents. One mom got a rude greeting at a preschool when she showed up one morning without calling first. If you do and are still greeted nicely, that’s a good sign. But it works both ways, as schools evaluate prospective families as well, so it pays to always be on your best behavior.
In sum, do your homework. With twins, or triplets, that goes double. Or triple.