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Thursday, April 12, 2007

What do you care about for your child’s preschool?

Ellie’s teacher at New School asked me for some feedback about what I value in a preschool. She is collecting information on this to report back to the team and preschool administration. I love this for two reasons.

One, as a parent, it shows they care what I think and more importantly what I value.
Two, as an organizational psychologist, I know from experience, the fact that they are asking at all is a mark of excellence. In my field it’s called Kaizen or continuous improvement. A big part of creating any high performing organization is getting feedback from your constituents then measuring your organization against it and making changes. And you don’t just ask once, you keep asking, you keep looking for ways to always improve. I am very glad that Ellie is in such an organization. The great qualities of her school are apparent every time I go there. The happy faces and contentment of the staff create such an environment of well being one can’t help but thrive there.

The general information that Ellie’s teacher is looking for is what matters to parents most in a preschool placement. The specific questions I responded to are below.

1. What did you look for when you saw the physical layout of the classroom?

Cleanliness (old school was dusty – not a good thing for someone who spends so much time on the floor
Comfort – would there be comfortable place for Ellie to lay down and stretch out?
Accessibility – was there room for her wheelchair?
Safety – the less sharp edges the better, the less clutter the better, child safe
Brightness and natural light are really important for physical and emotional health
Overall aesthetics. Did it look like a nice, fun, lovely place to be. Why would I want my beautiful daughter, little ray of sunshine she is, to spend so much of her time in a place that did not look beautiful, colorful, fun, and happy?
Enough space. I didn’t want Ellie crammed in a small space.

Note: All these things are equally important and are not listed in order of importance. If any one of them had been off that would have been a red flag.

2. What did you look for when talking to staff or when observing staff interaction with your child?

Competence and demonstration of understanding in regards to cerebral palsy and multiple disabilities. Handling someone with hypotonia is a bit tricky. Communicating with someone with sensory integration, hearing and visual issues is difficult. I wanted to be sure that they knew how to do this. If they couldn’t Ellie would be stranded in a place where no one understood her and no one could communicate with her. This is what happened at her last school and there was no way I was going to put her in that situation again, alone, in a sea of activity that she had no control over. The staff at New School excel at communicating, bonding, and building relationships with Ellie. As I write this I am getting a bit choked up thinking about it. It was such a relief because before I met them all I wasn’t sure there would be a place for Ellie at all.

Enjoyment, joy, interest in the teachers’ and aids’ affect when it came to interacting with Ellie. I wanted to see the passion in them for working with children with disability. Happily for us, and especially Ellie, it is there in spades.

Respect and positive benefit of the doubt. I wanted Ellie to be respected for the full fledged human being she is. I also wanted them to believe us about all the things Ellie can do and give her the positive benefit of a doubt if Ellie did not demonstrate all that upon first blush. I wanted them to have positive assumptions about her current level of functioning and her future potential. The motto of the school is all we see is possibility. Which epitomizes their approach and attitude and culture. Check!

3. What did you want to know about the preschool curriculum?

I wanted to know that it was flexible. I wanted to know that they would allow Ellie to develop the things she can and not solely focus on the things she could not do. I wanted them to take an appreciative approach. The old school called any skills Ellie had “splinter skills” which they are. But they wrote them off and always looked at what she could not do. From my perspective that is the wrong approach. I rejoice in any and everything Ellie can do. We will manage the things she can’t do but use the things she loves and can do as the motivators and self esteem builders to bring her along. Anyone who focuses on all the things they are bad at all the time will never succeed in much because they are not valuing their strengths. It’s a common approach not to value our strengths in society as if we are all supposed to be good at everything. Luckily Ellie’s teacher and staff take a flexible approach and will work with Ellie where she is at. They also do not expect all the kids to keep pace with each other. This flexibility was really important to me so that Ellie could work at her own pace.

I wanted her to get socialization opportunities with appropriate peers. I wanted her to be in a class with other kids who are as sweet and gentle as she is. Her classmates fit the bill in all of these ways. They challenge her too, sometimes by pulling her pigtails and taking her toys. These are great ways for her to learn to share and deal with other people in the world. They give her hugs and kisses too. It’s a basic love fest most days. Soooo cute too – did I mention the cuteness factor is quite high?!

Work on her expressive communication in that Ellie would be comfortable enough to stretch and grow and brave expressing herself.

Develop important life skills like eating and potty training and dealing with every day situations like eating at a table and navigating social norms.

4. What were your top 5 concerns about your child going to preschool?

That’s an easy one - Ellie’s happiness. They asked Dave and I this the day we went to visit. I said I had one main concern - that Ellie be happy to come to school. That she not get exhausted and sad and shut down like she did at her old school. She’s only 4 and school should be fun. This was my main, number one, uber concern.

Other concerns were that her time be well spent because these early years are precious to us in terms of her brain healing from its injury.

5. Lastly, please share with us a positive experience you and your child had while in preschool:

OK - read my blog!
All experiences thus far, with New School, have been positive.

What do you think? In an ideal world what would you like for your child in preschool?