Schooling is one of the most fascinating and vital components in a child’s life. Although the school is a social institution that is relatively slow in adapting to and meeting the demands of the changing world, it still plays a crucial role in the growth and development of individuals. As such, parents are naturally inclined to choosing a ‘good school’ for their children.
The choice for, and the selection of, a ‘good pre-school’ have become a major concern for parents who intend to provide their kids, in the early childhood years, with the best possible schooling experience. The question, “What makes a pre-school good, or not-so- good for my kid?” is common among parents. When answered realistically, parents can assure themselves of the long-term benefits of the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual growth and development of children, as a result of enrolling their kids into a good pre-school program.
The Essential Four
Parents who are successful in discovering a ‘good pre-school’ for their children are aware of, and work in accordance to, the following four factors:
- The philosophy and objectives of a pre-school
- The developmental milestone of early childhood years
- The professional and personal characteristics of teachers and other staff
- The attitude and leadership approach of administrators in relation to teachers, students, parents, and the wider community
At the heart of these four factors, is the need to ask an extremely crucial question (in a time where most schools are run for commercial purposes): “Is the pre-school run like a money-making business, or an educational-social-institution, aimed at fulfilling the needs of children in the context of their developmental characteristics and the demands of an ever-changing world?”
Early Childhood Development
During the early childhood years (approximately 2 to 6 years), an individual experiences the peak of growth and development (physical, mental, and social-emotional) like no other throughout life-span. Psychology indicates that it is a time of ‘rapid’ growth.
During this period, a child steadily increases in weight (5 pounds every year) and height (2-3 inches every year). By the age of 6, children make up almost 45% of body length. They lose their baby teeth and gain new ones. Their legs grow much faster than the rest of the body. Every part of the body, including internal organs, becomes optimized in function. Both fine and gross motor skills become fined-tuned and enhanced in utility, enabling the child to perform both smooth and coordinated physical acts. Gradually, the senses become perfected to pick up the numerous stimuli present in the surrounding to help the child make sense of the world and everything in it.
The brain increases from 70 to 90 percent of its adult weight – the neurons rapidly multiply and the dendritic-connections become ever more complex as a result of the stimulation of various senses that serve as windows to the mind. The left hemisphere of the brain becomes active and ready for the acquisition of a communication tool, namely, language, and related skills. The right hemisphere of the brain becomes active and ready for the development of spatial skills (drawing, recognizing shapes, etc.).
Children are constantly attempting to assign meaning to everything that they encounter at this stage. They engage in complex information processing by utilizing their past knowledge and connecting the same with their present learning. Children in this stage of life acquire new concepts on a daily basis. At first, these concepts are superficially understood. However, children constantly re-examine their repertoire of concepts to gain an in-depth understanding of the same. As such, learning itself is their best buddy…they learn everywhere, anywhere, from everyone, and all the time! Concepts acquired and understood are foundational to what would become the knowledge-bank of the child when he/she goes into the elementary school and is required to work on more complex tasks.
Abstract thinking is not clearly evident at this stage. Children decipher things by relating to concrete experiences and happenings. They use language to simplify, and concretely comprehend everything that they come into contact with. For example, the concept of ‘love’ may not be understood by a child as it is understood by an adult. For a child, ‘love’ is simply something as beautiful as a butterfly, or a puppy, etc. Relating ‘love’ to a butterfly or a puppy is the only way a child partially understands an abstract concept such as ‘love’.
It is not unusually for children to give ‘life’ to inanimate objects. They might engage in pretend-play with imaginary friends. They use lots of symbols in their drawings, actions, and talking. These symbols reflect the deep rooted desires, hopes, and other internal experiences.
Children start off by being primitively intuitive in understanding everything around them (e.g. the phenomenon of rain might be understood as a giant crying in the sky). Gradually, they become more and more scientific in their attempts to understand things. They formulate simple hypotheses and test them in opportune time. Children rely on their interactions with adults to be able to obtain qualitative data to test and establish their hypotheses. Thus, the rain, which was initially understood as merely the tears of a giant, is later recognized as the outcome of a series of complex process that takes place on earth and its surrounding atmosphere.
Simply put, the mind of a child is constantly working to assign meaning to everything around him/her. This is the time when most fundamentals of concept-formation and concept-attainment are set for later acquisition of knowledge, both simple and complex.
Socialization and acculturation are two other important developmental characteristics of children in this stage. Apart from using their bodies, senses, and brain to the optimal level, children also strive to achieve mastery in the area of social life. Although they start off as highly egocentric, they slowly come to realize that others are different from them and do not have to be alike to be liked and interacted with. They learn about social interaction and social mannerism from parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, and friends. They quickly become adapted to social norms and try their best to live in accordance to the requirements and demands of their social groups. Their need to belong to other humans is intense at this stage. This helps them to form a clear identify of themselves. Their identities are embedded in their immediate cultural and societal heritage and experiences.
Positive social and cultural environment allow children to develop strong sense of trust (pre-requisite to emotional stability), independence (to act, to make choices, to initiate), and resourcefulness (putting to use creative energies). These qualities, when nurtured in the context of constructive relationships with significant and non-significant adults, help children to become confident in their abilities to initiate thinking and action to accomplish tasks that are important to them. Enhancement in the area of self-efficacy (”I believe I can do things and be a success in them”) leads to the development of positive self-image. Children who are allowed these privileges invariably take on high self-esteem.
Choosing a ‘Good’ Pre-school
In the light of the above-mentioned points, the following hints serve to guide parents to evaluate whether a pre-school is ‘good’ or ‘not so good’ for their own children:
- The pre-school is founded upon, and run based on, a strong and consistent philosophical foundation of education. The objectives, both short-term and long-term, reflect the philosophy of education. The individual and collective practices of every member of the school workforce are aimed at fulfilling these objectives.
- At the core of all educational practices, the child and his/her learning experiences constitute the number one priority of administrators, teachers, and other staff. The pre-school focuses on learning-centered education for each child, regardless of his/her entry level abilities and experiences.
- All the members of the school’s workforce are genuinely caring, understanding, and empathic under any circumstance. Children are approached in the spirit of unconditional love. Their needs are met without compromise. Their learning is personalized to fit their own physical, cognitive, and social-emotional abilities.
- Positive interaction exists between children and teachers. Teachers are passionate about their work and spend most of their time in the pre-school working with and for children. They do not spend more time chatting away with other teachers during recess or additional free time. Rather, they make use of every opportune moment to strengthen relationships and provide useful learning experiences to children.
- Children are not curbed to be themselves in any way. They are allowed, encouraged, and stimulated to express themselves through various activities (play, drawing, writing, drama, dance, music, etc.). The unfolding of their inner experiences and the development of the same are vital goals of pre-schooling.
- Multi-sensory approaches to learning are utilized, incorporating activities that will tap into all the possible intelligences possessed by children, depending on their individual preferences and strengths. This is done by creative and resourceful structuring and re-structuring of programs and learning activities that involve every part of a child – physical, mental, social, emotional, and even spiritual.
- Ample opportunities for positive, respectable, and dignified discussions between teachers and children. Discussions such as these encourage children to become strong decision-makers, critical and creative in thinking through issues, and compassionate and sensitive to the needs and experiences of others around them.
- Facilities and equipments that help children further develop their bodily and cognitive faculties are essential components of a pre-school. This includes fun and educational toys, a well-planned playground, computers with educational software, and other essentials.
- Language development is at the core of all that takes place in a pre-school. Children think and express themselves using a language. Opportunities for verbal interactions among children are provided on a daily basis. At the same time, it is important for a pre-school to celebrate the native language of a child so that he/she can use both his/her native tongue (e.g. Thai) and the school language (e.g. English) to understand things more deeply. By denying the rights to use and honor one’s own native tongue, a child might become disillusioned and confused about his/her own identity and question who he/she really is.
- In a global-village-like world, it is appropriate to have pre-school classes that are diverse in its student population. This helps children to become aware of the diversity that exists in the real-world and learn to adapt to the requirements and challenges of the same. This also exposes them to a variety of culture and lifestyles early in life, and encourages them to appreciate differences without becoming defensive or offensive.
- Safety and security is one of the most important concerns in a pre-school. Children are packed with energy and they release it by being physically active. Often, in their quest to make use of their physical energies to the maximum, they might injure themselves through accidents of different sorts. A pre-school is well-equipped with emergency measures, well-connected with clinics and hospitals, and ensures that its staff has basic knowledge of first-aid interventions. Apart from that, the pre-school compound is also vigilantly guarded to keep away from negative external forces.
- Children are not taught by teachers. Children are not required to memorize. They are allowed to learn as they would learn in the natural environment – as they would in real-life. Teachers simply serve as facilitators of events and experiences. Teachers provide enriching learning environments for children to explore and discover and make sense of knowledge by themselves (analogy: provide bricks and other necessary materials to build a house – and allow children to build their own houses – teachers do not build a house and present their houses to children, and ask them to reproduce the same). In essence, both teachers and students are learners!
- Teachers strongly believe that everything they do and say in the classroom affect children in significant ways. Thus, they are careful about what they say and do. They hold high but realistic expectation of every child and work with each one individually to maximize his/her potential. Teachers take complete responsibility for the success of every child and treat each child with respect and honor.
- Children are not treated like ‘little-adults’ – rather, they are valued for who they are and what they bring with them into the classroom. Teachers give equal importance to the learning of concepts and skills and to the emotional well-being of children. Everything is done in a conducive, trusting, respectful environment.
- The administrators treat teachers with respect and take care of their welfare. They also relate well with students and parents, and utilize open and transparent communication styles to resolve any issue or conflict. The leaders of the pre-school are willing to listen to and learn from students, teachers, and parents. They are constantly motivated to change for the better and improve in educational practices. They put students, parents, and teachers first before themselves. They are continually asking the question: “Are we doing enough to ensure the maximum development of children and the people who are helping them?”
All of the above and many other factors determine whether a pre-school is apt for children’s education or not. Ultimately, the most important characteristic I would personally look for in a pre-school is whether the school is a CARING COMMUNITY or otherwise. A school, filled with caring people, invariably falls in-line with important principles of early childhood education.