Difference Between Daycare and Preschool

Our children are the most important thing to us. When it comes to their care, nothing could be more stressful. Many parents value their children’s education and would rather send their child to preschool over a daycare. The problem is that in many states that the difference is so nuanced that childcare options can call themselves a preschool and really be a daycare.

So what’s the difference then? What do I look at?

How do you tell the difference between the two? Well, you’re not going find it in the legal definition but in the context clues of your first tour. The most important thing you can do for your child is to demand a tour. Refusing tours is a huge red flag in the childcare industry. Any school that doesn’t allow a tour should be passed on.

Assuming you’ve narrowed your choices down to the facilities that are willing to give you a tour, how do you tell if it is really a preschool or a daycare pretending to be a preschool? It comes down to Curriculum, Homework, Student/Teacher ratio, Switching Classes, Turnover, and the Education level of the Teachers.

Does that sound overwhelming? Don’t worry I’m going to walk you through how to ask without being obvious or how to pick up on the answer without asking at all.

Curriculum used by the teachers

The first question that a daycare will most likely stumble on that a preschool director won’t mind answering is, “What curriculum do you use?” A curriculum is the guide that a teacher uses to advance her students. There are many curriculums available. The type of curriculum will tell you what the facility values when you Google them later. If they say they let their teachers lead the way, it usually means they’re daycare and education often takes the back burner.

Next, ask how long they have used the curriculum. If it is less than five years, ask why they changed. This will force them to discuss why they chose what they chose and admit that they haven’t always used one if this is a recent implementation.

On the other hand, if they’ve just started using a curriculum, it will usually accompany a change in leadership. This may be completely fine. If they stumble over this question, then it is most likely that the curriculum is what they use to look more legitimate and it should be your first red flag.

Difference Between Daycare and Preschool

Homework in a preschool?

The next thing you want to ask about is homework. This naturally piggybacks onto the end of your curriculum discussion. Most preschools send work home in order to show the parents what the children are learning and to get you involved with their education.

Now, some preschools will just send the child’s work from the day home. Others will actually send homework for the child to complete at home and return. Some parents think that homework is a necessary part of education, while others think it is not.

In this case, the key is not whether the facility does homework or not, or sends day work home or not. It is what the director has to say about it. If the director doesn’t have a good response about the homework (or not) question, that’s a red flag.

Class Structure

From this point in your conversation, you can easily transition into asking how the classes are structured and when your child changes to a new teacher. If they tell you age 3-5 are all in the same class, that is a huge red flag that this is just a daycare.

I’m a former preschool teacher. I can tell you that very little learning happens in a class with that large of an age range. It’s not so much of a red flag for them to keep your child with the same teacher, but that classes should be structured by Kindergarten year or at least 3 going on 4 with 4 going on 5 elsewhere.

Teacher qualifications

As you go on the tour, be sure to meet all of the teachers. Don’t let them show you the window of a teacher teaching a class and then move on. Ask if you can meet the teachers when you discuss making the tour appointment. Ensure that you talk to the teacher about where they went to school, how long they’ve been teaching, and how long they’ve been at the particular factility

You’re looking for a specific combination of the perfect answers. Teachers should have at least a degree from a community college or several years of experience. They’re going to fluff their answer which isn’t a bad thing since all you really care about is if they know what they’re doing. If they don’t have a degree and have been teaching less than two years to be wary. If more than one teacher follows this pattern I wouldn’t enroll there.

Some parents will want the teachers to have more than an associates degree. This is personal preference. I would say that a masters in teaching at the preschool level might be less important than significant experience in a preschool classroom, and the right manner and attitude with the children.

What you want to know the most is turnover. By asking each teacher this question, what you’ve asked is how many teachers have been here for a while. Daycares pay their workers minimum wage and thus have a high turnover. Preschools want educated individuals and expect to pay a bit more. Higher pay makes it more likely that an employee will stay.

Where are the teacher’s aides (aka teacher’s assistants)?

The last thing you should be on the lookout for is teacher’s assistants. You don’t care how long they’ve worked there or what their education is. You only care that they exist and you want them to exist for a very good reason. Aides are there to help keep the peace. A classroom of 20 three years old can be a very chaotic place without the presence of adults. I don’t care how much experience you’ve had with children, or how many degrees in teaching you have. Children who are aged two, three, four, five, and even six, are rambunctious, loud, unorganized, enthusiastic, undisciplined, and adventurous. (Among other things). Without additional adults, successfully managing a class of more than 10 children those ages without assistants is very difficult.

I was a preschool teacher in a terrible environment once and had no assistants. I couldn’t leave the classroom at all when the children were present. That meant I couldn’t even use the restroom or copy papers unless it was on my lunch break.

Without assistants, when a child gets in trouble or becomes disruptive, then education stops as the teacher tends to it. A good teacher will burn out quickly in this kind of environment. Daycares won’t fork out the extra money for assistants but a preschool will understand how important they are to the classroom.

Making your decision

This may seem like a lot and not all of it will be equally important to you. I’ve seen parents become frustrated with a daycare masquerading as a preschool and the truth is it is not always the teacher’s fault. Teachers, like students, need certain environments and tools. Without them, they can only care for your child and not educate them.

About the Author

Natasia Rea is regular Mom Advice Line contributor. She’s a 32-year-old native Kentucky resident and mother of two wonderful children.

Before you go, check out this recent article from one of our many Mom Advice Line contributors about Toddler Language Development Activities


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