"Most children are very capable of adapting and are fast learners at a young age."
How do you choose a preschool that is the right match for your feisty two-year-old? Where should you go to get information? More importantly, is your little one even ready to enter a whole new world where you won’t be there to wipe her tears and help her at mealtimes?
As a first-time parent, you’re probably overwhelmed by the preschool options available: Montessori or Reggio Emilia? Art-based or language-focused? Childcare or playgroup?
And it doesn’t help when friends, relatives and social media groups offer well-meaning advice that just adds to the confusion.
So, we’ve broken down the steps you need to take in your search and the questions you need to ask at each stage.
While our experts offer their sage advice, you still need to do your research to find the perfect school – don’t just rely on recommendations as what works for your friend’s kid may not be the best for your little one.
■ STEP 1: Is your child ready?
Even before you draw up a shortlist of schools, it is important to consider the all-important question: Is my kid ready for school?
WHEN IS A GOOD AGE TO START SCHOOL?
Technically speaking, there is no “right age” to start preschool. Whether your little one is ready for childcare or preschool depends on her developmental level, which includes social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills, says clinical psychologist Vyda S Chai of Think Psychological Services and Think Kids (Kids Intervention and Developmental Services).
These skills are necessary for her to participate in a daily, structured educational programme with other children, she adds.
Most centres take in children from 18 months of age. Jeannie Ng, a lecturer at the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC), says it is around this age where toddlers begin to assert their independence, and their gross and fine motor skills are developing. It is also the time when they attain self-help and social skills.
HOW CAN I TELL IF MY KID IS READY?
Watch out for these signs of preschoolreadiness, says Jeannie of the NIEC.
• SHE IS EMOTIONALLY READY
Your tot can wave or say goodbye to caregivers without much anxiety, and she is ready to make friends or interact with children and other adults in different social settings, such as gatherings or play dates.
• SHE EXPLORES MORE
If your child shows eagerness in exploring her surroundings, then it is a good time to support her sense of wonder and curiosity by sending her to preschool.
• SHE ASSERTS INDEPENDENCE
If your little one starts wanting to feed herself, opens the cupboard to get toys or wants to put on her shoes or clothes, this shows that she has some level of independence and is willing to try new things.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS THAT MY TODDLER IS NOT READY?
If your little one suffers from severe separation anxiety, has difficulties following directions and/or communicating clearly, you may want to delay her entry into child care, Vyda advises.
If she continues to struggle with social, emotional and language development at around age three to four, seek professional support.
HOW CAN I HELP MY LITTLE ONE DEVELOP THE SKILLS REQUIRED FOR PRESCHOOL?
While the early years are crucial developing years, preschool is not a testing ground to determine your child’s success, says Patricia Koh, director and founder of Maplebear Singapore.
There are no specific skills to master before entering preschool, Patricia adds. What is more important is to learn to treasure her childhood and fill it with happiness.
Soft skills are an important aspect of child development. Patricia shares that parents who are adventurous and take their child to different places and try new things will help them adapt to preschool better.
Conversely, a well-protected toddler who is kept away from other children or from trying new experiences will fear going to preschool, she says.
Without certain soft skills, it would take a slightly longer time for your little one to settle into a new environment. That said, most children adapt well and are fast learners, she says.
IS IT BETTER TO WAIT UNTIL MY CHILD IS SLIGHTLY OLDER AS I AM WORRIED THAT SHE WILL FALL SICK EASILY?
When kids first enter childcare, it is natural that they tend to fall sick when they interact with other children who may be unwell, Jeannie of NIEC says. However, most build up their immunity as time goes by, she adds.
PLAYGROUP OR CHILD CARE – WHICH IS A BETTER OPTION?
A playgroup is a programme designed for children aged 18 to 30 months. Playgroup sessions last around two to four hours, and may be a good choice if you are looking for a shorter programme that allows your child to build social skills while learning, shares Suzee Reza, principal of Brighton Montessori at Sunset Way. Childcare programmes, which provide full-day preschool programme and offer child minding and enrichment services, are favoured by working parents.
For example, Brighton Montessori takes in children aged 18 months to six years, and offers three types of programmes: full day (7am to 7pm), half day and a flexible programme (7am to 3pm), which allows the centre to cater to different needs of families and working parents, Suzee says.
Both playgroup and childcare settings provide ample opportunities for your child to learn. Instead of asking which is a better option, consider which one will suit your needs better, she adds. This includes factors like your lifestyle and even transportation logistics.
■ STEP 2: How to choose a preschool
With close to 2,000 preschool options, ranging from kindergartens offering playgroup programmes to full-day childcare centres, Singapore parents are spoilt for choice.
But with so many choices, narrowing down your options can get overwhelming. Experts say the first thing to consider is to think about the type of preschool you want your child to attend.
WHERE DO I START?
There are currently over 1,500 childcare centres and 476 kindergartens in Singapore, based on figures from skoolopedia.com. Other preschool types include Early Years Centres (EYC) and MOE Kindergarten.
According to the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), EYCs provide early childhood development services for children aged two months old to four years old.
In the year that they turn five, eligible Singaporean Nursery 2 children enrolled in an EYC will be guaranteed a Kindergarten 1 placement in a partner MOE Kindergarten.
MOE Kindergartens, which are run by the Ministry of Education, offer four-hour K1 and K2 for children aged five and six. Learn more about the preschool scene in Singapore at ECDA’s website (www.tinyurl.com/ECDAPreschool)
ARE WORD-OF-MOUTH AND ONLINE REVIEWS OF PRESCHOOLS RELIABLE?
Google “choosing a preschool in Singapore” and you will find a myriad of information on childcare and preschools. Suzee says articles and parenting forums can be good sources of information, as are word-of-mouth testimonials from parents who have sent their children to the school.
However, views from parents may not always be representative of the majority, says Jerine Ang, principal of Pat’s Schoolhouse at Sembawang Country Club.
The experts say it is best for you to shortlist your choices by scheduling a visit to the centres. Jerine also advises checking out ECDA’s preschool search portal for more information on ECDA-registered schools by location (www.tinyurl.com/ ECDASearch).
WHAT SHOULD I CONSIDER BEFORE I START MY SEARCH?
If your little one is interested in music, physical activities or art, look for preschools that offer niche programmes and exposure in these areas, says Vivien Kwok, principal of British Council Preschool.
Consider the school’s philosophy and learning style, as well. Vyda points out that just because a centre has a good reputation does not mean it is the right choice for your child and family.
It’s important to understand the type of curriculum and environment that best suits your little one, Suzee says. Will your kid thrive in a more structured environment or one that offers more freedom? Does her personality suit the school’s environment?
Jerine adds: “For example, if you strongly believe that outdoor learning is as important as indoor learning, then a centre with abundant outdoor space might be your preferred choice.”
■ STEP 3: How to create a shortlist
Experts say one of the best ways to do this is to schedule a school tour. Nothing beats checking out the school environment and vibes.
WHY IS IT A GOOD IDEA TO CHECK OUT THE PRESCHOOL IN PERSON?
Visiting the school or centre before making enrolling your child is always ideal, as you can get a better understanding of the school than just reading about it online, say principals Suzee and Jerine.
A school tour allows you to further understand the philosophy and curriculum of the school, Suzee says.
You can also observe the environment, interactions between the teachers and children, the layout and location and how lessons are generally conducted daily. It’s also a good way to check out the school’s hygiene and cleanliness.
“We strongly believe that the environment is the child’s third teacher. During school visits, you can observe how your child interacts with the learning environment, such as whether she is interested in exploring the materials or toys around,” Jerine adds.
You can also better assess if the school’s learning environment coincides with its curriculum approach. For instance, if the centre advocates a play-based approach, you should be able to see a variety of interesting play materials on display for children to explore with learning in mind, Jerine says.
It’s a good opportunity to see if the school facilities complement your toddler’s areas of development, and support the curriculum and enrichment classes it offers. For example, besides spacious classrooms and play areas, Brighton Montessori at Sunset Way has a music studio and offers ballet enrichment classes, says Suzee.
HOW MANY TIMES SHOULD I VISIT A PARTICULAR CENTRE?
A one-time visit is usually sufficient, but check with the centre if you want to make additional visits. Not all centres allow parents to make multiple visits to tour the school, Jeannie says.
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR IN THE CLASSROOM AND FACILITIES?
You might be surprised to learn that an empty and overly sterile classroom is not a classroom you would want for your child. “When the classrooms are too sterile and unbelievably spotless, we may question if the children are allowed to do anything at all,” says Patricia of Maplebear.
This is what a good classroom should look like, she adds:
• It should look busy, with many learning corners and activities for the children to do (this does not mean it should be messy).
• Things should be placed where they belong and children are taught to put things away when they are not needed.
• Other facilities to look out for are areas for outdoor play, sand and water play, art and reading.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD I LOOK FOR?
Did you check the school’s licence tenure? Issued by ECDA, these range from six months to 36 months. A longer tenure signals a better-performing centre in providing quality early childhood development services.
Another tip: Look out for the Spark certification, which shows that the preschool has met the baseline quality standards in areas such as curriculum, pedagogy and health, hygiene and safety. At press time, 980 preschools in Singapore were Spark-certified, according to ECDA’s website.
Other good-to-know information includes questions on school fees and enrichment programmes, payment options and procedures, safety procedures for picking and dropping off children, as well as how the school communicates with you.
"A school tour allows you to further understand the school’s philosophy and curriculum."
MAKE A CHECKLIST
Jeannie from NIEC advises thinking through the following:
• CURRICULUM APPROACHES
For example, if you believe that learning through play is important, you might want to look for preschools that foster this approach.
• THE ENVIRONMENT AND ITS SAFETY MEASURES
Does the school have clean, spacious, safe equipment and materials, resources that support learning and development, healthy meals, and so on?
• MISSION OR PHILOSOPHY OF THE SCHOOL
Does it align with your own beliefs and values?
The distance of the school from home and your workplace can affect drop off and pick up arrangements.
• PROGRESS TRACKING AND FEEDBACK
How does the school assess the child’s progress and provide feedback?
• TEACHER TO CHILD RATIO
Does the school have an appropriate teacher-child ratio?
According to ECDA, suitable ones are:
• 1:8 for playgroup
• 1:12 for Nursery 1
• 1:15 for Nursery 2
• 1:20 for K1
• 1:25 for K2
Visit www.youngparents.com.sg/ preschool-guide for a printable checklist on choosing a preschool.
WHAT SHOULD I DO AND ASK DURING A PRESCHOOL TOUR?
NIEC’s Jeannie on what to look out for during a preschool tour:
• THE CLASS ENVIRONMENT:
Is it too cluttered? Is there evidence of child’s work? Are there features or fittings to ensure the kids’ safety?
• TEACHER-CHILD INTERACTION:
Is positive language and encouragement used?
• THE CHILDREN:
Do they look happy and are they meaningfully engaged in activities?
ASK QUESTIONS LIKE THESE:
• What are the different activities conducted in the centre?
• How does the centre support the different needs of your child?
• What is the key focus/ philosophy of the centre?
• How do the teachers record the progress of your child and provide feedback?
Besides speaking to the school principal, Patricia of Maplebear adds that it is also important to hear from the teachers what they do and if they share the school’s philosophy, vision and mission. Find out from the teachers what their goals are for the children and what are some of their aspirations.
■ STEP 4: Is the school the right fit?
Congratulations! You have settled on a centre. The final step is now to adequately prepare your little one for school to minimise tears and fears.
But you should also keep an eye on signs that suggest all might not be well.
HOW DO I PREPARE MY TOT FOR THE TRANSITION?
Work with your child’s teacher, Vyda advises. Let her know that you would like her to contact you if problems arise.
Get to know who’s who at the centre, and, if possible, offer your help as a parent volunteer. Set aside some time to ease your kid – and yourself – into school life, she adds.
WHAT IF MY CHILD HAS HEALTH ISSUES LIKE ALLERGIES OR IS ON MEDICATION?
You must alert the school principal about any health issues when you register, says Patricia of Maplebear. Take note of the following as well:
• Highlight food items that may cause an allergic reaction and the actions to take in the event of an allergy attack.
• To avoid potential allergic reactions, make sure you check the school’s menus to ensure that there are no or few food items that pose high allergy risks, such as nuts and shellfish.
• You must be responsible for issuing medication to your kid.
• Teachers are only allowed to issue medication to your child if it is prescribed by the child’s doctor. In the case of unprescribed medication, a form must be signed by you or a legal guardian before a school staffer can administer it.
• If your little one is ill and needs antibiotics, keep her away from school.
WHAT SHOULD I PACK?
Bring a set of spare clothes, a towel (for emergencies), wet wipes, a child-friendly water bottle, and daily snacks, Vivien suggests. Most importantly, the bag containing these items should not be too heavy as your kid must be able to manage it on her own to celebrate independence, she says.
CAN MY CHILD BRING HER FAVOURITE BLANKET ALONG?
If your little one insists on bringing her favourite blanket or pacifier to school, try not to force her to part with the emotional crutch immediately, Patricia says.
Every child should be given her own space and time to settle into a new environment. The teachers can spend time with her to find other ways to distract and redirect her attention.
WHAT SHOULD I EXPECT DURING THE FIRST FEW DAYS OF SCHOOL?
Every child adapts to new situations differently. Some kids might simply walk into school happily and tear-free, while others might start bawling. As going to school is a big change, your kid might feel sad and a little scared, Vyda says.
She advises the following when dropping your toddler off in school:
• Keep your tone positive and upbeat, as children pick up on the reactions of trusted adults in their lives.
• Don’t linger. Say a quick and upbeat goodbye and reassure your child that all will be well.
• Resist the rescue. Try not to run back into the classroom if you hear her crying, as upsetting as this can be. If you “rescue” her, it is likely to prolong her distress and make it harder for her to adapt when you leave.
• If you’re still very nervous, wait outside the classroom for a few minutes to ensure all is well, or call the school later in the morning to check.
• Take deep breaths!
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE FOR MY CHILD TO ADAPT TO SCHOOL?
Some kids confidently settle into their new environment within minutes while others take a couple of days, or even months. “It all depends on the personality of the child and how the parents respond,” Vyda says.
You can tell that your child has truly settled in when she looks forward to going to school in the morning, Patricia says. By then, she would have no problems saying goodbye to you and would probably have a school staffer whom she is attached to.
HOW CAN I TELL IF MY TODDLER IS NOT ADJUSTING WELL?
Most children go through an adjustment period in preschool, Jeannie shares. They may show signs of stress, like crying or having stomach aches before going to school, finding it difficult to sleep, having nightmares, becoming moody or refusing to eat.
If you notice changes in your tot’s behaviour, raise it with her teachers, Vyda advises. For example, is she warming up to a specific teacher, or interacting with other kids? Good childcare centres or preschools usually provide a behavioural chart or communication book for parents at the end of each day, she adds.
WHEN SHOULD I PULL MY CHILD OUT OF SCHOOL?
Don’t pull your little one child out of the centre at the slightest change in behaviour, Jeannie says. Make the transition from home to preschool a smoother one by having an open conversation with her teachers, she advises.
However, if your kid still shows signs of stress after some time – the period of adjustment varies from child to child – you may wish to consider if the preschool is a good fit, she adds.
WHAT ARE THE DOS AND DON’TS WHEN PREPARING MY TODDLER FOR SCHOOL?
Vivien of the British Council Preschool shares these tips on how to prepare your toddler for the first day of school.
• Explain to your child where you will be and what you will be doing during school hours.
• Explain how long she will be in school for, with reference to the flow of activities.
• Explain about toileting and what to do if she needs to use the toilet.
• Trust the teachers. They are professionals and know how to help your little one settle in.
• Be supportive and answer your child’s questions.
• Treat going to school as part of growing up and explain that everyone goes through that.
• Be overly anxious, as anxiety is contagious.
• Don’t let your tot feel there is choice in going to school.
• Don’t indulge in too much discussion about school, especially just before the first day, as it may create unnecessary anxiety.
• Don’t project the school or teachers as “punishment houses” or “disciplinarians”.
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