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How to Spot a Respectful Preschool

I am a mother, writer, teacher, and parenting advocate. The preschool approach I believe in holds a DEEP respect and trust for the child. I know children are capable, always learning, and do well if they can do well. I believe preschools should create their environment and expectations using respect and trust for the child as their guide. When you look through the lens of respect and trust, the environment becomes safe and nurturing, and the expectations become fair. As shocking and wild as it may sound, many schools do not guide their decisions this way.

What I am going to describe is an ideal, gold standard of respectful childcare. If I had read my own blog back when I was teaching preschool and Kindergarten I would have laughed and said, “There is no such thing! This is impossible!” Alas, it does exist, I know this because my son attends one. It is hard to find, especially when you do not know what you are looking for. I will describe what to look for in the physical space, scheduling, potty and behavior policies, and academic standards so you can find the most respectful preschool available for you.

Physical space

The physical space should have lots of, well, space. The preschool child is a human in need of locomotion. Almost constant locomotion. This means there must be plenty of space to run, jump, climb, spin, roll, kick, wrestle, and dance. For me, a large, open outdoor space is non-negotiable. Children should ideally spend all their waking hours outside. Yes, even in cold weather kids should spend most of their time outside. There are so many benefits to breathing fresh air, soaking up the sun, and being exposed to things like dirt, bark, tree sap, and mud.

Here is a great article that sites case studies and research done to support outdoor learning:

Inside, look for open-ended materials like Legos, boxes, dress-ups, blocks, sensory tables, playdough, scarfs, and balls. If it can be turned into more than one thing easily it is an open-ended material. A scarf for example can be a rope, a boundary, a hat, and so much more. If you see a lot of toys with lights, buttons, or only one function, skip this school.


The most ideal schedule is one with a quick opening and closing circle, designated meal, and rest times, and that’s it. An open schedule allows us to follow the child’s lead while supporting them in developing attention and focus. If they want to build, draw, sing, or climb all day, so be it. Spending long stretches of time on one thing builds their capacity for attention and focus.

Even snack and outside time, ideally should be on their terms. The most respectful schools have a snack and outside area that is monitored. When kids are hungry or want to be outside, they go. No need for “Snack Time” at 10 AM. This openness sends a message to the child; “You know your body and mind better than anyone. When you feel hungry or have a break in your play, I know you will give yourself the break and come on over. When you feel like being outside, I know you will head out.” Empowering kids with messages of trust is so important because it helps them develop responsibility, accountability, and confidence. Keep in mind many schools do not accommodate children in this way, I include it to illustrate that the most respectful schedule is really no schedule, but rather routines and rituals. Routines and rituals are necessary because things like eating (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and resting (nap and bedtime), hygiene, and safety are non-negotiable. The adults know these are a human needs, so we provide them in our routines. Everything in between can be their choice!

Having an open schedule says to a child, “This place and this time is for YOU. What materials or activities inspire you today? You feel like making music and being on the tambourine all day? Have at it! I am not going to interrupt you with “Math Time”. I know Math is all around you, even in playing the tambourine all day!” Again, most schools, unless you are at a co-op, will not be able to accommodate the most ideal schedule. That is totally okay. Just try to find one that allows as much free, self-directed play as possible.

Potty training policy

The best potty-training policy will be no pressure, child-lead, trusting the child and their process. Keep in mind, when you do it this way it usually happens between 3 and 4 years of age. If you had told me this back when my first child was 2 I would have scoffed and laughed at the idea. “Oh Crap Potty Training” was our bible. After all, I had a potty trained 2-year-old! Looking back, it was so adult-centered and put a terrible strain on our relationship for a long time. Plus, early potty training has been linked to behavior issues, bedwetting, accidents, and constipation all the way up to 6 or 7 years old and beyond! I wish I had let him take the lead on it. We will be using a more child-centered approach with our second child. Having a respectful preschool with a child-lead potty training policy will be so important when the time comes for him.

Here is the “potty training” at our current preschool: When a child says they need to go to the restroom a teacher will say, “We are headed to the bathroom, anyone else need to go?” That is it, nothing more.

And the words of Robin Einzig from Visible Child:

Behavior policy

The best behavior policy uses child development to guide decisions about the school environment and expectations of children. Teachers know it is their responsibility to manage the environment and expectations so children can do well. For example, a respectful behavior policy would not expect young children to “share” or “sit still” for long because child development tells us those are not reasonable expectations. Also, child development teaches us things like hitting, kicking, yelling, and pushing are normal reactions young children have. We do not shame or punish a child for these things because we know they are normal reactions that cannot be helped. It is like punishing a child for having their hair grow, they cannot help it.

Beyond that, a great behavior policy focus on prevention and connection. For example, teachers who are tuned into an upset child will be on the scene well before aggression happens. If a child is aggressive the adults need to ask, “Why wasn’t there an adult close to block the hit or defuse the tension? What about the environment or expectations is making her feel so upset? Is it reasonable to make changes to the environment or expectations to support her?” In the words of renowned child psychologist Ross Greene, “Kids do well when they can, if they can’t, we adults need to figure out what’s getting the way, so we can help.”

In general, schools that have rewards like stickers, prizes, excessive praise should be avoided. Absolutely stay away from schools with punitive policies like time-out or other punishments. Look for schools that focus on connections, relationships, respect, trust, and reasonable expectations instead.

Academics should be relevant and authentic

There are heaps of great research that supports the idea that early academics is not better. In fact, early academics is linked to ADHD diagnosis, school burnout, reluctant readers, and reluctant learners.

Here is some great work done by the University of Miami that supports a correlation of early academics to ADHD:

When I say early academics, I’m talking about pushing children to read, write, and learn math before about 6 years old. There is no need for worksheets, coloring pages, calendar time, or phonics instruction. Introducing your child too early and seriously to formal academics takes the joy out of learning. These have life-long consequences linked to teenagers and adults who lack perseverance, curiosity, and life satisfaction. Seriously. It will benefit you and your child if you wait. Allow the world of Math, Reading, Science, and Social Studies to unfold in front of your kid on their terms. They will be naturally drawn in and curious when the time comes.

Here is a great article about how early academics can hinder the child’s intellect:

So what does academic learning look like in a respectful preschool? You will find writing, art and drawing tools offered and displayed in beautiful ways (writing). There will be children counting how many swings, hops, or kicks they just did (Math). Books are available for children to read and listen to at all times of the day (Reading). You might find children experimenting with how water mixes with dirt to make mud (Science). Children will be learning about construction and architecture with boxes, pipes, and blocks (Engineering). You will hear children bickering, negotiating, and solving problems (Social/Emotional). Teachers will be conscious of using rich language throughout the day. For example, “I see that you ate half your snack” is a great preschool foundation for fractions. There will be music and singing that highlight the sounds, syllables, and rhyme of the English language (Phonics). Art, books, food, traditions, music, and dance will be enjoyed from a diverse and wide range of cultures (Social Studies).

Remember this list describes a holy grail of childcare. Being mindful of the most optimal physical space, schedule, potty and behavior policies, and staying away from structured academic time is important. In a respectful, trusting, child-centered world this is what we are all striving for. However, if you cannot find a place with all these qualities it is okay! Observe the school during the day, do most children seem happy most of the time? Are the caregivers warm and nurturing? Is there a strong focus on play, connection, and natural curiosity? You are probably in the right place.

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