The 'First School' for your child - 10 Mantras to help you choose
December is here and with that parenting groups, mommies groups and school groups are loaded with questions on playschool, pre-schools, nursery, alternate schools, montessori method and all discussions pertaining to schooling and school admissions. It is in some sense a big deal because we need to start the hunt early and if we are choosy, it makes the hunt even more tedious. While embarking on this search last year, I posted my query on Fb and got some very practical suggestions on how to choose the school. Thank you to everyone who wrote on this thread a year back.
Prashant left the initial groundwork to me. So, I started the way I know best. Made an excel sheet with details about the schools that is easily available and then another set of details got over the phone. Post that we took appointments and went and met the school authorities and saw the premises.
So, here are the 10 mantras to help you choose a school.
1. The Methodology Followed
Today there are many options. The traditional playschool/nursery method, the montessori method, the Waldorf method, the Steiner method. Read up, do your groundwork and decide which method will work for your child and you. Parents today have to complement the teaching technique at school with how they also imbibe those learnings at home.
We visited the IMTC website (http://www.indianmontessoricentre.org/schools-recognized-indian-montessori-centre), did our research and felt that we would like the montessori method. A lot of schools and famous chains claim to use these methodologies but a shocker was that most of their teachers are not even trained or certified. A very famous chain of schools we visited, the centre head told us we teach multiple intelligence to the children and follow multiple methodologies. So, when I asked her what she meant, she said, you know we use play technique, stories... You wouldn't understand. Yes, we were actually told that. I was also aghast to see that the pamphlet said they teach kids existential intelligence, whereby teach them about life and death. When asked, they said we teach them through play. Seriously, teach a two year old. The chain was off our list immediately. Often they rattle off terminologies and jargon, and underestimate the preparation a parent may have made. I wish they were a tad bit more sensitive to this aspect.
2. Distance between Home and School
These days our toddlers begin schooling very early. It helps if the travel involved is not much. For them, it is a whole new routine. Waking up earlier than usual. Getting ready to go to a new environment and meet new people there. Less distance to travel is one less strain avoided. For some parents, the deciding component would be the distance from their work place to school, depending upon their arrangement to drop and pick up their baby. See what works best for you. Look at options both near home and work.
3. The Physical Space
The school should have a natural play space. Good ventilation is also essential. Added benefit if they have a ground or garden, have sand-pits and trees. Lot of schools have artificial play spaces, no trees and boast of indoor gyms. We were finicky about this aspect and many schools were struck off the list on this criteria. A word of caution would be that do not go by their photo gallery on their website or Facebook. Very deceptive to say the least. Some of them looked like they had long corridors and huge halls but later you realise they are small spaces shot smartly and distance between gate and building is few steps. Lack of ventilation is also a concern in many of these playschools. With almost 20 children crammed in a small space, it seemed nightmarish. The school doesn't have to be fancy, it has to be utility friendly for children. One important point is that they must have children friendly toilets with small pots and low level handwash basins. It is a safety requisite. Some schools also had an overboard of cartoons all over. At one place Ira went to the wall and rattled off names of some of the things she recognised- lion, apple, monkey, tree. While the parent in you feels triumphant, it is essential to understand if the sensorial element is too much, seems forced. Some plain walls would be good, you know. Let the children imagine what can cover those walls.
4. The Teaching and Support staff
As parents, we are fiercely protective when we are sending out our children into this big world. One of the ways to maintain sanity is to talk to teachers and also the support staff and see how comfortable you are. While teachers can have qualifications to show, it is essential that they come across as gentle and disciplined and open to understanding that each child is different. The support staff help the children with their toilet time and snack time and helps to talk to them too.
5. Teacher Student Ratio
This honestly is a luxury. Ideally, 10-12 kids per teacher maximum. But this we will know more by observing the space than by asking, because everyone claims to have a very beneficial ratio. One of the big schools kept telling us every class has a teacher and a help. On close observation, realised that each class has 35-40 kids. It was a big premises and close to 120 kids at any point of time with just 4-5 help and about 7-8 teachers.
6. Day care
Some of us may be also looking at the Day care option. In such a case, hygiene of the place, the support staff post the school hours and the timings is an important criteria. We were also open to the idea of day care in some time and so kept this in mind.
7. Audio visual component
Why is audio visual component a point here, you ask? Well, most of the schools had TV which they claimed they used for edu-infotainment sessions. This meant they showed things that were educational, informational and entertaining. Honestly, we didn't see why a school needs that. We are outliers in the fact that we don't have a TV at home for years and Ira has only recently been introduced to the concept of YouTube and Rhymes or stories online. Unfortunately, two of the places we visited had chota bheem and some other cartoon running loudly and kids sitting very close to the TV. On probing a bit, a help told us that they put TV during day care time. Exposure to electronic gadgets and TV is a personal choice that parents make and this while was a criteria for us, may not be a big deal for many.
8. Food /Snack provisions
Some highend playschool provide a curated meal to the children. While doing your search, also see if this is a criteria for you. We were not particular about this facility. But what we were on the lookout was what type of food or snacks is allowed by the school. Most schools these days do not allow junk of any kind and prefer home cooked meals. This is surely a good thing we see.
9. How they see your Child?
This while an important criteria, may be difficult to gauge in a single visit. It is interesting to see that behavior ranges from over friendliness to hard selling. Some places make the effort to let the child be, while guiding them to the play area or an interaction space during the first meet. Also, some schools make us fill a basic form while others ask a lot of questions about the child, their preferences, social interactions etc. While a detailed form may seem a tedious thing to fill, I surely appreciate the effort taken by the school.
10. Let your Child decide
This is the trickiest point in my opinion. How do we know? What could appeal to a toddler? You will be surprised at how your child reacts to the environment. You will be taken aback at the first things they go and touch at the school - could be a pebble in the garden, a colour set or some wooden blocks. Look for their comfort level, how they are able to move around in that space and how they fit in. How they interact with the adults and the other children. A bit of this is what you see, and a bit would be your intuition about the place. So, take a step back with your check list, your excel sheet with highlighted boxes (yes, I did that too) and just observe.
**Fees is an important criteria but I am keeping it outside this list. Today, schools depending on the facilities they provide charge fees that does seem exorbitant. So, the thing to do is while we are deciding on the school, also see if we can afford the fees and are comfortable with it. Have clarity on what you are paying and what are your expectations from the school. Understand why schools with special methodologies or alternate schools charge higher than traditional schools. Do your homework so that you feel that you are getting the value for the money you are spending.
Goodluck to all parents and the little adults who are about to make an entry into a whole new world.