Kindergarten: What to Ask

So, you made it through selecting the perfect preschool for you child. Maybe you chose a drop-off preschool, maybe you chose one with a little more parental involvement, or maybe you chose a full-on cooperative (co-op) preschool. Regardless, your child’s been attending for a year or three now, and you’re both totally comfortable with things. Suddenly, the end of the school year is coming up and you realize that your child is done with preschool and moving on to kindergarten. No! Shut up! This cannot be happening! Yeah, I feel you. But it is, and in true parenting fashion, we need to suck it up and deal so we can figure out how to get the kid out of the house during the day next school year.

One option is your neighborhood elementary school. Or you could look at your school district’s magnet schools (arts and sciences programs, language immersion programs, International Baccalaureate programs…). And don’t forget private schools. Sorry, folks: this isn’t much easier than choosing a preschool.

My husband and I have been considering school options for our daughter for a few months now. I’m in the private school camp, and he wants to send her to our local public school. We’re fortunate that our neighborhood school is an IB (International Baccalaureate) school. It’s also Title I, which has its challenges, I’m sure, but it means a smaller class size and an extra adult in the classroom, too. But my daughter makes the age cut-off for public school enrollment by seven days, so she’ll be very young relative to her peers. Currently, she’s in preschool with the same kids she’d head off to kindergarten with, and she holds her own socially. She’s a little behind some of the older kids in some of her academic skills, but developmentally on pace for her age, and she is able to keep up in the classroom environment. I’m worried, though, that an eight-hour, no-nap day and moving from her current learn-through-play-based environment into a standardized-test-bound classroom in one of the best school districts in the state is not going to continue to foster her love of learning.

A friend suggested the private school her daughter attends, so I went to check it out. Weirdly, when I contacted our neighborhood elementary school for a similar tour, I was told that I could not take one and would have to wait until kindergarten orientation several months later. I wanted to compare them before making a choice and was rather put-out that I was not able to. I’ve had the opportunity to see both now, and have learned a bit about what to ask in order to select the right kindergarten program for my daughter. And if you’re not planning on making a selection? That’s fine! It’s still helpful to ask these questions of the program your child will be attending, so that you stay in the know. Ready? Here goes:

  1. What is the student-to-teacher ratio in the classroom?
  2. How are classes formed? That is, what method is used to place my child in a particular class?
  3. Young children (some studies suggest until at least age 8!) learn best through play. How is play incorporated into the classroom and school environment?
  4. What kind of support is available for students with different learning and/or behavioral needs?
  5. What does the schedule look like on a typical day?
  6. Will my child have homework? If so, how often, what kind, and how long should I expect it to take?
  7. How often does the class go on field trips? What kinds of trips do they take?
  8. How is technology used in the classroom? How is it incorporated as a teaching/learning tool? What do the children learn to do (for example, coding)? If the school has computers or other devices available, are they PC or Apple?
  9. Has the school implemented Common Core standards? If not do they plan to, or what are they using instead?
  10. If you’re looking at a private school, do they participate in standardized testing? Common Core standards? If not, how do they ensure their students are on pace with (or exceeding) public school students’ learning standards?
  11. What features about your school are you most proud of/are the most unique? (Certified wildlife habitat, gardens cared for by students, outdoor story center, animals/insects/etc. in the classroom, and so on.)
  12. What kind of parental involvement opportunities are available? What kind involvement are parents expected to have?
  13. What kind of regular communication will I receive from the teacher? Can I expect to hear from the teacher if there is an academic, developmental, or behavioral concern about my child? How can I reach the teacher if I have questions or concerns?
  14. How are behavioral problems handled?
  15. What kind of continuing education opportunities do the teachers have for themselves?
  16. What opportunities are there for teachers to collaborate?
  17. What opportunities are available during the summer for my child to meet her peers?
  18. Depending on your family’s scheduling needs, you may want to inquire about before- and after-school activities/childcare options.

Don’t forget to observe during your tour/visit or orientation! At my child’s orientation, the kindergarten teachers read to the children and engaged them in playful learning and games in one part of the school’s library while parents listened to a presentation in another. We could hear the teacher’s enthusiasm and the children’s response. Then the teachers lead groups on a tour of the school which ended with a quick art project and circle time with games in one of the kindergarten classrooms, allowing us to observe how the teacher interacted with the children. Of course, not all teachers are the same, but it’s safe to assume that the school is hiring people who interact similarly with the children and who have similar educational philosophies. When I toured the private school, I was shown to and able to observe all the classrooms, and was able to interact with the teachers and the students in the upper-elementary rooms.

  1. Check out the technological equipment. If you see equipment out, is it modern? If you don’t, is that because it’s put away or because the school doesn’t incorporate it?
  2. Is the furniture in good repair? The playground equipment? Look around at the school in general to see if it’s well-maintained, safe, and clean.
  3. Check out the classrooms. Are they well-organized (or is there at least controlled chaos)? Do you see art on the walls? Does it look the children do their own art projects? Does it look like they receive adult help and a lot of direction (process vs. product)? Is there a mix of both?
  4. Are there rooms for specials (art, music, science, physical education)? What is the equipment in those rooms like? Is there variety? Are the items in good repair?
  5. If you’re there during the school day, do the students seem engaged? Do they appear to be having fun (as appropriate, that is—it is school after all, and not always all fun and games!)?
  6. If you observe during the school day or have a chance to observe student-teacher interactions, do the teachers seem engaged? How do the students respond to them?

Clearly, there’s a lot to know. And there are tons more questions you could ask too, that may be of particular concern to you and your family. Insider tip: I know we’re talking about kindergarten here, but as the Director of Membership at a preschool, I can tell you that there are no dumb questions. Ask away, parents! If the person you’re talking to doesn’t know the answer, they should offer to connect you with someone who does, or offer to find out the answer and get back to you. Setting your child up for academic success starts early and includes not only the educational standards to which they will be held and the information they will learn—it also includes fostering a love of learning and the development of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as confidence and curiosity. That’s a pretty tall order, so you want to make sure you have all the information you can get about your child’s future academic home.

Here’s to finding a good fit for your family!

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Christina lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, daughter, and two English Springer Spaniels. Before becoming a reluctant stay-at-home mom, she worked in a variety of customer-service-oriented jobs while dreaming of living in the lap of luxury as a housewife. Unfortunately, having a child threw a wrench in Christina's plan to do nothing but eat bonbons while lounging in the Jacuzzi reading all day. Now, she spends her time looking for fun activities and crafts for her daughter and easy-to-prepare meals for her family, while trying not to land the kid in therapy when she grows up. Christina volunteers at several different places, and her particular passion is for her role as a sexuality educator. She loves to read, and to learn about--and share--new products and resources.

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