Eva just ended her first year of preschool. I haven’t talked too much about her school for safety reasons, but we’ve decided to move her to a different program for next year so I don’t mind sharing a few details. I had a hard time finding info about the kind of program we put her in, so hopefully this helps out some naive and hopelessly lost parents as they do that horrible initial preschool search.
But first, a look at the bean because she’s HUGE now.
Our decision to put her in school at 18 months came from a lot of different issues we were having. A large one was that Eva wasn’t socialized at all. She cried loudly whenever people came over to the house (including family members) and she wasn’t gentle with other children. There were actually a couple of very embarrassing incidents involving pushing/hitting other toddlers while we were out at the zoo, library, etc. so I got to be the horrified mom of the toddler that was likely a little sociopath in training.
Another big issue was the fact that I didn’t have much time to work unless she was asleep and her naps started to get much shorter. The result was that I was doing hours of work late at night and then waking up cranky, which made me not the best Mama. It’s very hard to explain “working” to a toddler and 18 months is a little old to expect her to just sit on the floor and play with blocks for an hour. Plus, errands were starting to take much longer and Kyle and I were constantly trading off so someone could escape to the grocery store. Having at least a couple of hours every day freed up tons of time for getting things like shopping, meetings, and doctor’s appointments done.
Finally, we had read really good things about getting kids started in preschool early. As long as the programs aren’t too academic, early preschool seems to help language development, social skills, and general independence. It also sets a good foundation for liking school down the road. So, with all of those reasons in our pocket, we started to look for preschools.
After the first week of looking, I had learned three important things about finding a preschool:
/// Not all preschools are the same and it’s usually a get-what-you-pay-for situation
/// It’s as important to look at the kids in the preschool as it is to look at the teachers: wild and crazy kids aren’t a great sign.
/// 18 months is really early to start as most toddler programs are actually just daycares and not preschools
We also might be suffering from a local phenomenon of inconsistent preschools. Preschool isn’t regulated very much here in Utah, so we saw everything from chain preschools to church preschools to preschools run in people’s basements by moms. I will say that the type of preschool was not at all an indicator for how well the preschool was run. The home-based preschools with no supervision were often clean and happy and the big chain ones were often poop-scented and chaotic. After a while, they just blended together into an exhausting mess.
Ultimately, we settled on three options: (1) the preschool based out of the church that we occasionally attend, (2) a preschool based out of a charter school recommended by friends, and (3) a private Montessori school. They all had their benefits and drawbacks. The church-based preschool was by far the cheapest, but the kids seemed a little out of control and it was staffed by women of the congregation and not people with preschool training. The charter school seemed like a very fun environment, but the toddler program was only a couple of hours per week and it was basically just playtime with other kids. We didn’t want an academic program, but we also didn’t want a completely unstructured playdate. So, we decided to go with the Montessori school.
If you aren’t familiar with Montessori, it’s education based on the idea that children go through different natural phases of learning and they learn best when provided with tools and freedom to choose which activities they want to focus on. It’s deeply rooted in early childhood learning so there’s a lot of focus on toddler activities (versus traditional programs that assume toddlers aren’t really ready to start learning yet). There aren’t structured lessons, but the classroom materials are very specific and Montessori teachers are available to help kids on an individual level and occasionally lead groups of kids in songs or stories. There’s also a major emphasis on conflict resolution and social/life skills, which is exactly what we were looking for with Eva.
The big drawback? The Montessori was out of our budget by quite a bit. It’s pretty much what you’d think of with a private school even at the preschool level. I’ve heard that the rates are quite reasonable compared to schools in San Francisco and New York City, but when you compare them to the rates for other preschools in the city, it’s about ten times as much. So, that was a tough thing for our family budget – it quickly turned into a “we can afford it if we don’t…” situation. Enrolling her in the preschool stopped any house hunting, any talk of adding a second car this year, any extra vacations, any big purchases, etc. It also put a lot of pressure on me to make sure that I was earning enough to make it worth it, since we could have just kept her at home for free and saved the tuition money.
The hardest thing of all, though, was justifying the expense for an 18-month-old who wouldn’t remember the school year when it was over. Most people don’t put their kids in preschool until they’re about four-years-old, so this wasn’t a necessary thing to spend money on. We also weren’t sure that she would even get anything out of it, whereas we could see the tangible benefit of taking her on more vacations, enrolling her in lower-cost community programs like Gymboree, buying lots of educational toys, etc.
However, we really didn’t know how to recreate the social benefits for her without the program. A few hour-long classes per week wouldn’t have the same effect because she stuck to us like glue in social situations and we don’t have enough friends with similarly aged kids to make multiple playdates per week a reality (not to mention that they would only add to my suffocated work schedule). The kids at the Montessori were in a calm, peaceful, environment that emphasized good social behavior and the style of education was going to give her the freedom to develop a little independence. And so we closed our eyes, signed the check, and enrolled her.
After a year of toddler Montessori classes, we learned a lot. Here’s the good:
/// Montessori toddler education is pretty amazing. Within a month, Eva was much better about doing things on her own, including pouring herself a drink, getting a snack, putting her toys away, etc. Many of these developments probably had to do with her getting older, but I appreciated that the school was actively cultivating independent behavior. It’s easy for Kyle and I to get into the habit of doing things for her, so we probably were holding her back a little.
/// The social environment worked as well as we hoped it would. Eva never had an incident in which she was agressive with another student and rarely had any problems with kids being agressive towards her. I think it was key that she had an environment that was free from Kyle and me so she couldn’t fall back on us instead of being social. She learned phrases we don’t say at home like “please stop that”, “this is my work (i.e. I’m playing with this right now)”, and “shhh, too loud please”.
/// The works (activities) designed for toddlers are great and they were exactly what Eva was interested in at any given time. Lots of sorting, stacking, puzzles, etc. and nothing that passively entertained at the push of a button. There was also a lot of play with water, paint, and other messy things so Eva often came home in different clothes. I appreciated that they just let her do her thing, even when she spent two weeks dumping water onto the floor just because it was interesting to wipe it up with a rag. We don’t let her do interesting things like that at home.
/// There was a lot of communication from the school, which we appreciated. We got a daily report that included how Eva ate, how many times she went to the bathroom, what her general mood was, and what she was particularly interested in that day. The reports really helped us get her talking about school, which was fun. We also got a weekly newsletter about the school in general, including special events and reminders about days off.
/// The biggest perk of all was that Eva loved it. She cried the first two days and then never cried again unless she was crying because she didn’t want to go home. She chatted about her teachers and friends all year and loved showing off the works that she brought home. She even got a little sad sometimes on the weekend when she woke up and we told her she wasn’t going to school (which doesn’t bode well for our long summer ahead). It was the perfect way to get her associating school with something positive to look forward to.
And the bad…
/// Was it worth it financially? Ugh, that’s so hard to say. We’re 90% sure that it was but it’s really hard to put a financial figure on early education. She learned a lot, but it’s not like she’s in the other room writing economics essays right now. We also have no way of knowing if she wouldn’t have learned just as much and been just as happy if we had kept her at home. The biggest reason we feel confident that it was worth it is the dramatic change in her social self. She’s much more agreeable now, gentle with other children, and less likely to be screamy about strange people. That may not sound like much, but it makes a world of difference living with her. That being said, with the new baby on the way, that second car is looking a lot more desirable…
/// Paying a lot makes you feel like everything should be perfect, which is an unreasonable expectation for a preschool (albeit pretty hard to shake). Eva had five school-based injuries this year, ranging from being bit by a classmate to chipping her front tooth to being hospitalized after she grabbed another student’s peanut butter pretzel and had an allergic reaction. That last incident, especially, rocked my feelings about her school. Obviously I don’t feel like they ever put her in danger on purpose and they did change to a nut-free classroom after that, but the fact that it happened at all was pretty unforgettable from a mom standpoint.
/// We were really looking forward to being friends with other parents who were invested in this particular form of education, but it didn’t happen as naturally as we thought it would. Although we did meet a few parents that we became friendly with, we ended the school year not really knowing most of the parents. Most parents at the school are quite a bit older than we are and many have high-earning, long-hour jobs that didn’t leave a lot of time for socializing. We also found that many “invested” parents expressed thoughts on parenting a little too freely for our taste – lots of criticisms about how we were potty training Eva, what she was eating, what additional classes she should be enrolled in, etc.
/// Montessori is based on three-year blocks of education, so by enrolling her we were committing to a three-year plan. As I mentioned, we’re pulling her out of the Montessori for this next year so it will be interesting to see if it all slides out of her brain like they said it would.
/// Finally, for every accomplishment that happened because she was in Montessori, there was another milestone she wasn’t reaching. The ideals for Montessori education are pretty high and they reach into the home, so it felt like Eva “should” have been able to dress herself, use the potty, cut her own fruit, rinse her plate, etc. long before she actually could because she had classmates who were doing those things. I wouldn’t say that we felt pushed by the teachers or anything, but with parenthood already being a bit over-competitive I don’t think we needed that extra bit of “why can’t Eva do this?” For a philosophy that’s supposed to be so natural and relaxed, it’s surprisingly high-pressured.
So, to wrap up a long post, it was great for her first year of school but now that she’s socialized we don’t feel like we need to spend money at the same rate. Also, although we’ve adopted many of the Montessori principals at home, we weren’t as sure about continuing the free-range, non-curricular process as she got older. Even in elementary school, there are no desks or organized lessons for Montessori students. Many studies have said that this is actually a positive thing, but Kyle and I are hoping that she has a more traditional education so it will be easier to move her between programs if we have to. So, she’s going to a new preschool with a little more structure next year. We do feel like if we see a huge difference and feel like it’s not as good for her, we’ll put her back in Montessori, but I think it will be fine. Our take: Montessori is great for toddlers, passable after that.
That is, of course, just our opinion and I know lots of people would passionately argue in favor of a full Montessori education so if you have any thoughts, feel free to share them! I’d also love to hear how other preschool experiences went if you have them, since we do have the option of just keeping her at home with the new baby next year. She’s enrolled, but we’d just lose a small deposit if we pulled her out, so speak up!