Choosing an Effective Preschool

5 Characteristics of Highly Effective Preschool Programs

Preschool is expensive, but it’s also a major investment in your child.  The thought of sending your little one to preschool may also be the source of a lot of anxiety.  Maybe it will be the first time your child will be spending their day with someone besides you and your family.  Choosing a preschool can be a daunting task. You want your child to enjoy their first school experience, and to give them a jumpstart for their elementary school years. Then there are the worries of how they will adjust, and of course, are they safe?  Decades of research have shown preschool has a lifelong impact on children, but the most important factor determining the effectiveness of a preschool is the quality of the program [1].  While program effectiveness is variable, research shows that the vast majority of programs are considered mediocre, due to weak program standards and inadequate funding [1]. So how do you find a quality program?  Research shows that there are several factors that differentiate quality preschool programs from the rest of the pack.  Below, you will find 5 characteristics you can look for when you are seeking the right preschool for your child.

  1. Highly educated and adequately compensated teachers: It shouldn’t be a surprise that teacher education is an important part of quality programs.  There is a positive correlation between teachers with a concentration of early childhood courses and providing developmentally appropriate learning curriculum for young children [1]. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child also highlighted the importance of appropriate teacher compensation as a factor in having effective teachers that provide effective programs [2].  The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) highlighted similar needs, noting that “early childhood professionals must have excellent preparation, ongoing professional development, and compensation commensurate with their qualifications and experience.”  They noted that in the majority of preschools, the highest paid teachers earned only $18,000 a year, and the turnover ratio was 31% [3].  Since consistency is an important aspect of a preschool program, low turnover is crucial in providing a dependable routine for your child.
  2. Teacher Student Ratios: Better teacher/student ratios have been found to have a positive impact on educational effectiveness as well as other health and safety benefits.  The recommended ratio for 4-year-olds is 1:10 and the recommendation for 3-year-olds is 1:9. Standards vary by state, but here in our home state of Arizona, the requirement is 1:13 for 3-year-olds and 1:15 for 4-year-olds!  While state-run Pre-K has better ratios, the availability of these programs is limited [4]. Why are better ratios important?  Eager to Learn, a report by the National Research Council on preschool education, found that in smaller groups, child-initiated activities are more common, with teachers more likely to follow the children’s lead rather than directing or scheduling all activities [4].  This paralleled a finding by project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) which found that self-initiated learning is critical in effective early education curricula [5]
  3. Language Rich Environment: Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language as an adult knows they’ve got nothing on a 3-year old. But children’s ability to learn a language (or two!) can have vastly different results depending on the environment they are exposed to.  That exposure can lead to differences in vocabulary ability by 18 months.  The educational level of parents and caregivers is a huge factor in language growth.  By age 3, children from college educated homes or children with college educated caregivers have, on average, a vocabulary 2-3 times larger than the vocabulary of a child with high school educated parents and caregivers [6].   While the average impact on language from preschool attendance is very low, high quality programs have a much greater effect, with children demonstrating up to 2 years of additional language growth. To achieve this growth, the most important factor to look for is the presence of give and take interactions between the teacher and the child which elaborate on a given topic.  These interactions foster higher order thinking skills, and drive the development of language in the young child [7].
  4. Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum: The importance of developmentally appropriate curriculum cannot be understated, because young children do not learn the same way that adults, or even older children learn. Children who have the opportunity to engage in age appropriate activities, such as blocks, sand, and picture books show larger gains during the preschool years than kids who engage in activities common in elementary school.  The elementary-age activities, often labeled “global curricula” focus on language, literacy, and math skills, with knowledge about science, arts, and social studies.  These programs, surprisingly have shown little or no impact on preschool children.  Instead, developmentally appropriate curricula provide intensive exposure to topics with a focused scope [7]This returns to the idea of a child’s self-initiated learning which is guided by warm and responsive teacher interaction with the child.  The child’s self-initiated learning may often expand into the traditional learning topics of language, math, science, and social studies, and the teacher can help direct the child to connections with these topics.  However, the highly effective program provides developmentally appropriate activity and then guides the student to explore through their own curiosity.
  5. Whole Child Education: A whole child education designs their program to connect to all areas of a child’s life, and recognizes that all aspects of a child’s growth are interconnected. This includes the child’s social/emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being.  Furthermore, it helps the child build connections with the natural world, to understand our role and dependence on nature.  It also honors the child’s spiritual growth, by honoring and respecting the beliefs of the child’s family and culture [8]“Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. This is done, not through an academic “curriculum” that condenses the world into instructional packages, but through direct engagement with the environment. Holistic education nurtures a sense of wonder” [9].  The value of a holistic education is recognized worldwide, with UNESCO developing the Holistic Early Childhood Development Index (HECDI) with the goal that all children meet their full development potential.  The HECDI states, “Extending from conception to the age of 8, early childhood experiences carve out pathways towards health and well-being that persist throughout life.  Science clearly demonstrates that such holistic approaches greatly increase the chances that children will complete school, experience good physical and mental health and contribute positively to their societies[10].  A holistic education can be accomplished in many ways, but it is characterized by providing an education which teaches to all aspects of a child’s growth without overemphasizing one particular aspect of that growth.

The study of effective early childhood programs is a vast and ongoing subject of research.  However, multiple studies have demonstrated that highly educated teachers, above average student/teacher ratios, language rich environments, developmentally appropriate curriculum, and a whole child education are hallmarks of effective programs.  One last thing to remember, preschool, especially an effective preschool, is an important investment in your child’s growth.  Studies have shown that the economic impact on a child’s life is between $3 and $9 for every dollar spent.  As with all areas of education, preschool is an investment with long term benefits [2][7].

If you are looking for a quality preschool program in the Phoenix metropolitan area, check out how Camelback Holistic Preschool can help your child prepare for kindergarten, and for life. You can reach us by clicking the link below.

Click to Contact Us


  4. Bowman, B.T., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S. (Eds.) (2000). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  8. Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations for the Council of Australian Governments (2009).

Subscribe to Our Newsletter