5 Must Ask Questions For Parents in Search of the Best Early Childhood Program

You’ve read the brochures, checked out the shiny pictures, and narrowed down your choices to the programs that work in terms of location and schedule. You’ve visited the building and checked for clean toys and rooms, qualified teachers, and center accreditation. You have the center policies in brightly colored folders, and know the math – teacher/student ratios, and square footage. Somehow, though, there’s still something missing. What is the next step in figuring out where your child should spend their early childhood years? Surely the decision is more than just ratios, square footage, and accreditation.

Practically everywhere they turn, parents of young children are bombarded with information about the benefits of selecting a high-quality early childhood program – stronger social and academic skills are among them – and the risks of not doing so – behavioral difficulties and long-term school challenges are examples of these risks. Unfortunately, the information available to help parents make this important decision often looks more like a checklist of “concrete” facts, and gives short shrift to another, equally important consideration.

  • How are the people in the center getting along – both the children and the adults?
  • What does it look like when things are going well…and what does it look like when things are bumpy?
  • In short, what are the relationships in the center like, and will the family feel comfortable within them?

This set of questions can be harder to answer but are every bit as important.

What’s in a relationship?

Why is it so important to understand the relationships in early childhood programs? For many children, this will be their first experience socializing with people outside of their immediate family or close friend group. This is where children take their “first steps” in learning how to communicate with someone new, and figure out how to share space, toys and time with virtual strangers. This is also one of the first experiences most parents will have communicating with an unfamiliar adult about their child. Over the long haul both children and their parents will lean on these early experiences to negotiate new classrooms and schools, so a strong positive start is important. Additionally, as most parents and caregivers know, every child will experience challenging moments emotionally and behaviorally. Inevitably some of these moments will happen in the early childhood program, and it will be important for families to know and be comfortable with how these moments will be addressed.

What do you need to know?

Knowing that relationships are important to understand is one thing. Knowing how to understand them is quite another. Fortunately, the APA Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education has put together a brochure intended to give parents some guidance about questions to consider, and things to look for, when deciding whether a center will work for them and their child. Most of these questions are best addressed when visiting a center while children are present, but if this is not possible, parents can re-phrase the questions to explore how a center thinks and responds to different scenarios.

High 5 Questions to Ask When Visiting an Early Learning Center

hand showing one fingerWhat’s happening in the classroom? Looking around the room, do you see toys or activities that your child would like? Do children seem to be choosing their own activities, working together, or following adult direction? Is there a routine, and is it flexible?



hand showing two fingersHow are teachers and children getting along? What is the tone when teachers talk to each other, and to the children? Are positive communication and kindness modeled between the adults and to the children?



hand showing three fingersHow do teachers guide, and when needed, redirect children’s behavior? Do you see clear expectations for child behavior, and would your child understand them? If a child or a group of children are struggling with something, do adults step in, and how?



hand showing four fingersHow do teachers talk with children? Are teachers talking with the children about what the children are doing and if so, how? Are comments positive and specific to the child? Are new ideas or questions introduced that may guide a child to the next step or another interesting activity?



hand showing five fingersHow do teachers communicate with parents? How do teachers talk about and to parents? Is there a way to know what is happening day to day, and what will be happening over the next few weeks (e.g., community gatherings)? Can families visit, and does the program have a plan to support school transition when the time comes?

Some things change, and some things stay the same…

The challenge of asking these questions is that in many cases the “right” answers will differ for different families. This is also a great strength – understanding how your family values, builds and maintains relationships with other people will be incredibly useful information when selecting a school, looking at different clubs, sports, and activities, and communicating with other caregivers. In addition to asking these questions during initial program selection, parents should also continue to consider them over the course of their child’s enrollment. Program styles, staffing, and family preferences all may change over the years, and in some cases, a family may wish to explore a new program. If this does happen, the family will have the benefit of the core questions plus a solid first experience to guide their next steps. Looking beyond the shiny brochures, brightly painted walls and carefully balanced numbers will help parents find a comfortable program, help children feel comfortable during their day, and ultimately support the growth and happiness of the entire family.

What are you looking for in an early childhood program?

If you’re a parent who has recently or is in the process of looking for an early childhood program, what types of questions did YOU ask? Share your experiences in the comment section below.

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About the Author

Dr. Janice Lepore is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Lutherville, Maryland. She has a broad background providing clinical and consultation services in a range of settings, including public and private schools, hospitals and clinics. In addition to her direct clinical work, Dr. Lepore works with parent groups, school teams, and legislators to apply the principles of psychological science to program development and public policy. Dr. Lepore is a member of several professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, APA’s Division 42 – Psychologists in Independent Practice, and the American Psychological Association Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education.