A good preschool can give your child a boost. Research shows that children who attend a quality preschool make gains in their cognitive and social development. But in the U.S., preschool — a broad term used to describe curriculum-based early childhood education programs — can vary widely: Some children attend one year of partial-day preschool before entering kindergarten; others enroll in full-day school beginning at age 3; some don’t attend preschool at all.

In addition to deciding whether a child should attend preschool, at what age and for how many hours a day, parents must consider different educational philosophies, mom and dad’s work obligations, the availability of nannies and sitters, and in some cases, waiting lists and hefty tuition price tags. For parents, figuring out what’s best for your little one can be daunting. Here are four factors to consider as you begin to navigate the preschool process.

The Readiness Factor

It’s common for young children who are entering preschool to be at very different stages of development. Keep in mind, a child who has a birthday late in the academic year will be in a very different developmental stage than a child with a September birthday, but rest assured, preschool programs expect that kids will display a range of developmentally appropriate behaviors and skills.

The bottom line: If your child has been hitting his developmental milestones, you probably don’t need to spend too much time worrying about preschool readiness even if he will be among the youngest in the class. But, if you want a second opinion, discuss your child’s readiness with the preschool’s administrators, have a teacher observe your child play or bring it up at the next appointment with your pediatrician. These professionals will give you honest opinions and peace of mind about your choice to either enroll in or hold off on preschool.

The Convenience Factor

All parents want the best for their little ones, but it’s totally OK to consider the needs of the entire family — not just the child — when you make your preschool plans. For many families with two working parents, preschool programs can be eliminated based on how long a center is open, the availability of child care before and after school, or the resources to hire a nanny or sitter to take care of kids when school isn’t in session. Another consideration? Cost. Expensive programs may boast some additional activities or organic meals, but quality education doesn’t need to include these extras. Choosing a program that doesn’t meet your family’s needs will only cause undue stress and headaches throughout the year.

The Potty-Training Factor

It can sometimes seem like the only thing that matters when it comes to enrolling your child in preschool is whether or not she’s potty trained. And while some programs mean business when it comes to only accepting children who can use the bathroom on their own, others are less rigid with their requirements and aren’t too concerned with the occasional accident. Some programs will even assist with training. The degree to which potty training matters also depends on the age your child is entering preschool. Programs that start at age 3 typically want your child to be trained, but if the program starts at 2, it’s not something the school will be looking for. If you’re concerned — or your child is staging a protest against the potty — ask the teachers about expectations and rules.

The Philosophy Factor

Waldorf, play-based, unschooling, Montessori, religious education…as you begin your search for the perfect preschool, you’re likely to encounter many of these educational philosophies. But for a child as young as 2, figuring out which one is right can seem like an impossible task.

Currently, a common and popular preschool philosophy is play-based. In a play-based program, the preschool classroom includes toys and areas that encourage children to use their imaginations and engage in various types of play. Positive outcomes in these programs are well-documented — while it may seem like kids are “just playing,” they are actually learning to problem solve, sharpening early math and literacy skills, and developing social relationships.

Most educational programs at the preschool-level include play as a central part of their curriculum, but may also incorporate other philosophies. When considering a preschool, parents should take time to read the program’s mission statement. This will not only explain the school’s philosophy, it will also provide insight into how the teachers will be interacting with the kids, how they will manage behavior issues, what the expectations for your child’s development will be, and how the days will be structured. Ultimately, it’s best to trust your instinct about preschool. Fancy terminology and educational philosophies aside, if you feel good about the program’s teachers and staff and the school seems like the right fit for your child, it probably is.

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