by Emily Shapiro, Columbus Park West Nursery School
When I speak with prospective parents during the admissions process I am often reminded that parents do not enter this process as experts in early childhood education. Some went to nursery school themselves, others did not. Most did not grow up in New York City, and simply went to their neighborhood school. Suddenly they are faced with the many wonderful choices among New York City nursery schools, and the task of understanding what the differences are: what matters, what matters to their family, what is right for their child. Parents come to us as consumers, but also as students.
I don’t think I am different from most nursery school directors in that I want to work with families who will be happy at our school. We do our best to predict which of the families we meet will truly be comfortable in our community. But we also want parents to be informed and empowered in making their choices. Beginning the Nursery School Search
Families naturally make use of the distinguishing markers that are most available to them. These may begin with word of mouth. Which of my friends and acquaintances have mentioned this school? Is its name familiar? Is there a generally positive association with the name of the school? Then there is the physical appearance of the school. Some schools have beautiful facilities, and it is easy to imagine feeling very good about bringing a child into these lovely surroundings each day.
Many families then begin to delve further into the field of early childhood, to study the basic philosophical approaches of early childhood education. Some of our nursery schools identify specifically with one of these. Others combine several approaches. A general familiarity with the meanings of such terms as child-centered, Montessori, and Bank Street can help parents to understand each school’s literature, and to understand what one sees on a visit. And, conversely, seeing what goes on in each school can help bring to life what one reads about each approach.
Parents may hear that certain schools are highly structured and others more unstructured, and wonder which kind is better for their child. They will also hear a related distinction made between traditional and progressive schools. I have some discomfort with these two dichotomies.
Often schools that are seen as unstructured or less structured actually have very clear expectations of children and teach children to manage highly complex environments in a very structured way, while schools that are seen as more structured may require very little of the child in terms of understanding and managing structure, simply moving the group as a whole from one activity to another for most of the school day. Perhaps this could be called a simply structured environment, and contrasted with a more complexly structured environment.
The more simply structured school environments are often referred to as traditional, while those schools that require more from children in making choices and voicing opinions are known as progressive. The progressive schools have their origins in the progressive era in American history at the turn of the last century. In that sense, the terminology is appropriate. But contrasting progressive with traditional can be misleading to parents: it gives the impression that this century-old approach to education, which has proven itself over several generations, and elements of which have been integrated into most schools in the country, is somehow a new and risky proposition. This may then suggest that the more responsible choice for one's child is to go with an environment that self-identifies as traditional. All of these are important elements of a school’s self-presentation. Parents can learn about a nursery school’s reputation, its physical environment, the school of thought with which it identifies, and how it structures a child’s typical day by speaking with other parents, reading the school’s website and print literature, and attending admissions events.
What Really Matters
There is, however, a whole other set of variables that I strongly suggest parents consider. This is what is often referred to as the “hidden curriculum,” and is strongly rooted in the culture of the school. While it can be difficult to ascertain, the process can be empowering for parents because it involves values with which you are already familiar.
To evaluate whether the hidden curriculum and the culture of the school are compatible with your family and with what you want for your child, consider that nursery school is—first and foremost—the place where your child learns how to be in a group, and how to relate to the world outside her family. Even if your child has been in group settings before, developmentally the nursery-school-aged child is at the point of forming her own group identity; what she learns in nursery school is a powerful determinant of how she will continue to relate to group life as she grows. During the nursery years, the stage is set for the child’s management of herself in group life throughout ongoing school, through the difficult years of adolescence, into young adulthood and career. We all know people with less than stellar academic careers who are highly successful in adult work life by virtue of their “people skills,” as well as academically brilliant people who struggle to find their niche in the work world because they just can’t seem to manage the complex challenges of working with others. You have set the stage for success in this arena at home. The child’s venture into nursery school is her first opportunity to put into practice the values and sense of self she learned at home in a group setting.
This, I believe, is the essence of the nursery school experience. When you choose a nursery school, you are choosing the environment in which your child will practice asserting himself among peers and with authority figures who are concerned with the entire group, not just with him. You are choosing the environment in which he will learn that his wishes are not paramount to those of others. Will he respond to this disappointment by giving up the expression of his wishes? Or by becoming increasingly forceful in expressing them? By learning techniques of sneakiness by which he can fulfill his wishes without others noticing? Or will he learn the skills and rewards of cooperation? Will your child learn that his ideas are very important—and that others may also have valuable ideas? Will he learn that only the authority figures have truly worthwhile ideas and he may as well keep his to himself or learn to predict what the authorities will say and voice only those ideas? Will he learn that life with others is fun and rewarding in spite of its challenges or that it is a constant source of frustration and disappointment? Will he learn to see himself as successful and able to meet challenges or as not very good at getting along? Will he learn that adults are a wonderful and helpful source of support in times of difficulty as well as times of joy? Or will he learn that adults are a source of disapproval and frustration?
The ability to function comfortably as part of a group and to take in what the adults have to offer is much more difficult to attain than is an understanding of sound-letter correspondence, and is critical to the child’s ability to learn in school. As I often say to parents, kindergarten teachers expect to teach children to read—but their job is much easier if we send them children who can sit in a group, listen, wait their turn and participate. A good nursery school will provide a literacy and numeracy rich environment and send children on with many good skills. But if a child arrives in ongoing school with gaps in those areas and yet a good ability to engage in the learning environment at school, the kindergarten teacher can fill in those gaps easily. On the other hand, if a child arrives in kindergarten reciting his ABC’s and decoding words, but unable to tolerate waiting his turn, this presents a much greater challenge.How to Uncover the Hidden Curriculum
So, how can you tell what lessons are being taught in the hidden curriculum at a given school? One way is to ask questions. You can ask how conflicts between children are managed, how children are taught classroom routines when they begin nursery school, what happens when a child has difficulty following a rule or participating in a routine. And listen for clues in the response to what the general attitude seems to be toward the individual child and what the expectation seems to be for the child, as well as how much responsibility the school seems to expect teachers to take for guiding children—as against simply punishing them—in learning to manage group living.
When you visit a classroom while the school is in session, listen carefully to how the teachers talk to the children. Teachers should be clear about their expectations. But is there also an invitation to the child to present her own feelings or point of view? Does the teacher seem to really listen? Is the tone respectful as well as authoritative? How do children speak to teachers? Do the children seem to come to the teacher to “tattle” or to ask for help in reaching a solution? If the child is “tattling,” does the teacher’s response move the child toward a more constructive engagement in problem solving? Listen to how the children speak to each other. Also listen for teachers guiding children in learning constructive ways to talk to each other.
As you walk through the hallways or visit a classroom when the children are not present, look at the work on display. Is the work on the walls the children’s own work? Or does it seem to be work created by teachers masquerading as children’s work (for example, teacher-made work colored in by children). This will tell you something about the messages given to children about the value of their contributions, their ideas, their creativity. Perhaps there are photographs of children at work with captions dictated by the children, or other displays of children’s own words, thoughts, opinions. To what extent does the art work show individual differences and to what extent does the goal seem to have been for everyone to come up with the same product?
Look for opportunities to note how the adults speak to each other. Is there respect and genuine interaction between teachers, between administration and teachers, between educational staff and support staff such as maintenance workers?
Children need help and support to acquire the attitudes and skills necessary for group living. The best gift you can give your child in the nursery years is time spent in a school environment where interpersonal relationships are valued, and where there are adults who see it as a major part of their job—whether or not they articulate it as such—to guide children in acquiring these attitudes and skills. Such schools can be found under any rubric (traditional, progressive, Montessori, Bank Street —or any of the many other kinds of schools you will find in New York City). Whether it is a well-known nursery school whose name makes your friends’ ears perk up, or a small school that elicits the question “Where is that?” matters little. So long as it teaches her how to interact constructively and pleasantly in a group, it will give your child a great start in the big world.
This article first appeared in the 2010 Parents League Review
. It is copyrighted and may only be reprinted with written permission by The Parents League of New York.