©ISTOCKPHOTO.COM / HISPANOLISTIC

Starting daycare or preschool is a huge transition for your child and for you as a parent. It’s time for them to branch out, spread their wings, make friends and be in an environment where they will learn and grow. But how do you go about finding the right fit?

Begin by starting your search as early as possible, says Kristina Koonce, senior marketing & communications specialist at Apple Montessori Schools. “Figure out your needs and the needs of your child, which will help narrow down the search, and then you can begin researching efficiently,” she says.

Miriam Pedler, director of early childhood at the Leonard and Syril Rubin Early Childhood Center at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, says parents should start thinking about their childcare needs during pregnancy. “Access to programs that fit your needs is important to take into consideration,” she says. “I also recommend that parents reach out relatively early in their pregnancy, as quality infant programs are rare and have limited availability. Even if you’re not planning on starting your child in an early childhood program until they’re older, it’s important to have a sense of each school’s enrollment process and timeline.”

©ISTOCKPHOTO.COM / ALVAREZ

TAKE IN THE ENVIRONMENT 

Everyone wants a nurturing and warm environment for their child, but there are also other things you should look for in a school you’re considering. “Of course, a calm, clean, safe atmosphere,” says Koonce, “but also, a knowledgeable and personable staff.”

One of the best ways to determine how a school measures up is to pay close attention to the students, Koonce says. “Try and schedule a visit that involves a classroom observation so you can watch how the children respond to the teacher, how they interact with each other, how the atmosphere is and most importantly how you feel in it.”

Start by being clear about what your family needs, says Pedler. “Do you require a full day with early and late care? Are there food, learning, or special needs that should be considered? Make sure that programs you visit are able to support any needs you have.”

A great program should have access to a safe, engaging outdoor facility, as kids benefit greatly from being out in nature, Pedler says. “Experts agree that outdoor play is just as crucial for kindergarten readiness as the learning that happens inside the classroom,” she says. “Also make sure that the children have access to many different types of play and engagement such as music, dance, sports, and yoga, as these can benefit all little learners!”

©ISTOCKPHOTO.COM / FATCAMERA

ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS 

Come prepared with a list and don’t be afraid to ask anything that’s on your mind. The school director you end up working with is there to inform you and put your mind at ease.

“Some basic questions you want to know are about the teacher- -to-student ratio, communication, health and safety, learning style, discipline, schedule, teacher tenure and training, school hours and fees,” says Koonce.

“It’s important that we as directors have meaningful partnerships with our families and it’s great when they ask for and value our input,” says Pedler. “We love to get theirs, too. Definitely find out a school’s philosophy regarding social-emotional learning and sensory play. In today’s day and age, children are starting kindergarten without these crucial skills that they really need to set them up for success as they move forward in school. Programs that focus solely on academics can build unhealthy habits in developing learners.”

All kids are different so how can you be sure you’ve found the right place for them to thrive?

“Envision what you would like your child’s day to include and discuss which school fits the needs of your child,” says Koonce. “It goes without saying: you want your child to be well cared for, but it’s equally important to find a program that nurtures all aspects of your child’s development.”

It’s also important to get a good feeling for the vibe of a school, and whether you can picture yourself and your family there, Pedler says. “A great school should be able to support all children’s personalities, because all children are different,” she says. “But as parents, your comfort is important as well. After all, this is where you build your community! Does the school share the same values as you do, and how do they put those values in action?”

©ISTOCKPHOTO.COM / HISPANOLISTIC

LOOK FOR RED FLAGS 

When it comes to being an observant parent, remember that the school should never sell you on themselves. “Definitely be concerned if a school seems too eager to have you tour or register,” says Pedler. “A great school’s administration is focused on the students, teachers and families during the day and may not be sitting by the phone, or able to give a tour at the drop of a hat.”

When it comes to any school, parents should trust their gut, Koonce says. “If you get the sense that something feels off, it probably is.” In the end, the most effective way to learn about a preschool or daycare is to just look at the students. “They should be happy, engaged and loved and that’s something you can tell from a visit.”