Home Articles 6 tips for choosing a quality early learning environment

6 tips for choosing a quality early learning environment

Left: A matching exercise at San Francisco de Asis Catholic Church and School in Flagstaff. Photo by Karen Barr.

I have dedicated 13 years of my career to building the brains of children and supporting their families here in the Valley. For many of those years, I was a preschool teacher — constructing tall block towers with little architects, mixing hues of paint with creative artists and investigating Arizona’s desert on nature walks with young scientists.

I had the opportunity to teach in a Quality First program; my preschool was part of the First Things First statewide partnership to improve the quality of educational programs for kids from birth to age 5. It meant our school was committed to continuously improving the quality of its services to children and parents and providing professional learning for its teachers.

What I learned from my early childhood experience is this: You are your child’s first and most important teacher! Your positive relationship sets the foundation for lifelong learning. But in today’s busy world, many families also must rely on early learning programs to provide safe, secure, responsive caregiving so they can get to work or school with peace of mind.

Whether your family needs full-time childcare or a few hours a week in an early learning setting, quality matters. Research shows that participating in a quality early learning program impacts children’s lifelong educational outcomes. According to a Harvard Study, quality preschools can improve child wellness, increase educational engagement, and reduce the need for special education placement or grade retention.

There are many great options out there, and there are many factors to look for when choosing a preschool that is a good fit for your family. The way the program feels, interactions between caregivers and children, and commitment to quality improvement are important points to consider.

Here are some questions that might guide your search:

Do you feel welcomed and included when you walk in? A welcoming preschool is warm and caring — a place where caregivers take the time to get to know you and your child. The diversity of the families, languages, and cultures should be reflected in the classroom books, materials, photos, and environment.

Are there positive, consistent relationships among caregivers and children? Relationships are at the heart of quality early-learning experiences. Look for a caring community of learners where teachers are engaged in play with children. The caregivers should seem to genuinely enjoy teaching to support children’s learning and development.

Does the environment encourage play and foster social and emotional development? Quality programs understand that children are unique learners with individualized strengths and interests. Teachers should plan and provide many experiences that support children’s whole development of social-emotional, cognitive, language/literacy and physical skills. Social and emotional development — the ability to regulate emotions, persist and pay attention, and play cooperatively with others — are important skills that build the foundation for success in school and beyond.

Are the teachers well-supported? Quality programs invest in ongoing professional development and training so teachers can continue to hone their skills to provide activities that challenge children to their next level of development. The work of building brains is complex and demanding. Well-supported teachers should have access to coaching, comprehensive health care, mental health and well-being services — and worthy wages that reflect the importance of their job.

Is the program participating in Quality First? Quality First is an initiative of First Things First, the state early childhood agency. Quality First works with more than 1,000 licensed and regulated preschool providers in Arizona to improve the quality of early learning in ways that help young kids learn, grow and thrive. Participating in Quality First is voluntary, but shows a commitment to go beyond regulatory requirements to help infants, toddlers and preschoolers be ready for success in school and beyond. For more information and to find a Quality First center near you, visit qualityfirstaz.com.

Is the program NAEYC accredited? Accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is the gold standard of quality for early childhood programs. Programs that are NAEYC accredited have committed to maintaining high standards for culturally and developmentally responsive teaching, collaborative relationships with families, staff competencies and qualifications, and continuous quality improvement. For more information on local programs that have this accreditation, visit www.azaeyc.org/connect/arizona-naeyc-accredited-early-learning-programs.

Across Arizona, thousands of early childhood professionals work day in and day out to provide quality early learning experiences for children and families. Learning environments, caregiver interactions, Quality First participation, and NAEYC Accreditation are just some factors that can guide you to find a good fit for your family.

EARLY CHILDHOOD RESOURCES

Arizona Association for the Education of Young Children
azaeyc.org
A 501(c)(3) non-profit early childhood membership organization dedicated to ensuring all of Arizona’s teachers have the resources they need to build the brains of young learners. AzAEYC provides professional development, training and technical assistance to early childhood professionals on topics that elevate their voices as professionals, access to the AZToolkit (a comprehensive resource for early learning providers), and a list of NAEYC-accredited early learning and higher education programs.

Arizona Department of Health Services: Bureau of Child Care Licensing
azdhs.gov/als/childcare
Regulates and monitors childcare facilities, public school childcare programs and certified group homes statewide. A “Parent and Community Information” page links to a variety of resources for parents and childcare providers.

Association for Supportive Child Care
asccaz.org
Connects parents with resources on reliable child care, techniques to encourage healthy brain development and parenting. Provides innovative early education programs for kids and families (Kidding Around Yoga, Kith and Kin, Play and Learn, VROOM!) and training sessions and seminars for parents, caregivers and early childhood educators.

Arizona’s Early Intervention Program
des.az.gov/services/disabilities/developmental-infant
AzEIP is Arizona’s statewide interagency system of services and supports for families of infants and toddlers (birth to 3) with disabilities or delays.

Child Care Resource and Referral – Arizona
azccrr.com
Find childcare providers in your area, download a Quality Care Checklist (in English or Spanish), access links to financial assistance opportunities, find support for a child whose behavior has resulted in expulsion, learn how to become a childcare provider, submit a provider complaint.

DES Child Care Assistance
des.az.gov/childcare
The Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) offers a Child Care Assistance program to provide financial support for childcare costs to eligible low-income working families, teen parents enrolled in high school or GED classes, homeless or domestic violence shelter residents, and individuals who are unable to work because of physical or emotional conditions.

First Things First
firstthingsfirst.org
Arizona’s only public funding source dedicated exclusively to early childhood, First Things First:

  • Invests in proven programs and innovative strategies that strengthen families in their role as their child’s first teacher, expands access to and improves the quality of early learning environments, and promotes prevention and early identification of health problems that impact learning.
  • Administers Quality First, a partnership with more than 1,000 child care providers statewide to improve the quality of educational programs for kids from birth to age 5.
  • Offers a downloadable checklist that parents can use when visiting preschools.
  • Provides the free Arizona Parent Kit to parents of all newborns in the state before they leave the hospital or birthing center. The kit includes instructional DVDs that are available for checkout at libraries statewide.
  • Funds the Southwest Human Development Birth to Five Hotline (877-705-KIDS) to provide answers to child development questions.

National Association for the Education of Young Children
naeyc.org
Administers a national, voluntary accreditation system to evaluate and help raise the quality of all types of preschools and childcare centers. Maintains a list of programs that are currently accredited to help parents find NAEYC-accredited programs in their area.

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