The Preschool Selection Factors Education Essay

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We live in an age of quality. Every product and service must offer quality. Every consumer wants to have it. Early childhood care and education is also receiving growing attention to the subject through research and policy making. Preschool quality is difficult to define as quality is subjective. However, it is generally understood and accepted as the practices and policies that foster positive child outcomes, child development or school readiness (Moss and Dahlberg, 2008).

Many early childhood education theories and practices today can be traced back to early educators and philosophers who had a passion for the development and education of young children. Theories and practices drawn from individuals such as Johann Comenius, John Locke, Jean Rousseau, William Frobel, John Dewey and Maria Montessori still have a strong presence in the philosophies, instructional strategies and curriculum materials found in early childhood settings today. While the future of education for young children will continue to advance some fundamental beliefs will be maintained, as in the importance of the individuality of the child, the value of play and exploration, the significance of social interactions, the advantage of self-directed activity, and the benefits of problem solving and real life experiences (Platz and Arelano, 2011).

There are many childcare centres and kindergartens in Singapore offering myriad of preschool programs for young children. Parents are spoilt for choice and they would want the best for their young children. Large scale of studies on quality early childhood programs are available. However, little research has been done to study factors that contribute to parents' choice of a quality preschool program. The purpose of this study is to understand the choices parents made in relation to the quality of their chosen program. Their selection factors can inform researchers the elements of quality preschool program valued by parents.

Rationale and context of research

Firstly, studies have shown that high quality preschool education can have significant, positive, and far-reaching effects on children's long-term development. Yet if such high quality programs do not also address the desires and practical needs of families, parents will be less likely to enrol their children in such programs.

Secondly, preschool is a resource for working parents. It is not enough to educate parents about what they should value in a preschool program. Their needs and desires should be considered when designing a program.

Thirdly, selection factors reflect both parents' perceptions of quality and range of preschool access.

Identifying the components of preschool quality is crucial but only insomuch as those elements are available or assessable to children. Children must be enrolled in high quality programs to enjoy the benefits. Parents typically decide what preschool their children will attend, and not the researchers who study preschool quality. Therefore, it is critical to understand how parents choose a preschool and what resources influence their decisions.

Research Questions

The research aims to answer three research questions drawn from the literature provided below.

Among parents who enrol their children in early childhood program, what resources do they use to learn about and select a program?

What are the selection factors considered by parents who enrol their children in an early childhood program?

To what extent do parents' selection factors relate to the quality of their children's early childhood program quality?

Literature Review

Several studies have been done to identify and determine features of a quality early childhood program. Early childhood research reports the critical elements of a high quality program include a developmentally appropriate curriculum, an assessment system that reflects the curriculum and expectations for children, adaptations to meet individual children's needs and positive teacher-child interactions that foster children's self regulation and emotional well-being (Schilder et al, 2011). A high quality program helps facilitate children's social, emotional, moral and physical development, as well as helps shape their attitudes, beliefs, dispositions and habits (Barnett and Frede, 2010). High quality childcare had positive effects on children's language and social skills as well as math ability, thinking/attention skills, and problem behaviours (Ceglowski, 2004). An earlier study by Peisner-Feinberg et al (2001) provide evidence that childcare quality has a long-term effect on children's cognitive and socioemtoional development. This is supported by Elliott (2006) quality programs are strong predictors of later social and educational outcomes. Quality in programs offered to young children show evidence of positive impact on their learning and developmental process.

There are factors associated with differences in the quality of care provided. Multiple researches of study on link between classroom quality and children's cognitive and social development have been done as cited by Lara-Cinisomo et al (2009). These findings show that higher classroom quality is predictive of child cognitive and social outcomes. Children who experience higher classroom quality do much better than children in lower-quality early learning environments. Qualities and competencies of early childhood educators are important because educators create learning opportunities (Sheridan et al, 2009). A critical factor is the ability of teachers to influence children's development and learning in a positive way.

Various studies linking teacher education to classroom quality have yielded contrasting results. Barnett (2002) concludes that the more highly educated, better prepared, and better compensated teachers are more effective, with smaller class sizes and better teacher-student ratios resulting in better teaching, more individual attention and larger cognitive gains. Whereas contrasting results in predicting classroom quality and children's academic outcomes were discovered by Early et al (2007) in their study of seven preschool programs. The authors suggested that teacher quality is complex and a simple measure of teachers' education level may not be a good indicator of classroom quality. Apart from teacher training and program type, teachers' perception and beliefs are also determinants of classroom quality (Lara-Cinisomo et al, 2009). Yet few studies are available that look at teachers' beliefs about how to work with children and what types of experiences and environment teachers should offer.

As key stakeholders in children's development and education, parents are often challenged to find a quality program that meets their needs and desires. The degree to which parents and early childhood program providers agree on how children should be cared for is likely to influence how parents perceive the quality of their children's care. Parents and experts tend to value the same qualities in a preschool (Knoche et al, 2006). Given their emotional ties to their children, parents are also likely to value other elements too (Glenn-Applegate, 2011). Parents consider many factors when they select a program for their young children.

Various factors influence parents' choice of a quality preschool program. For some parents, the philosophy of the provider is important (Robertson, 2007). Practical considerations such as opening hours, flexible use and location are considered important (Glenn-Applegate, 2011). Parents appear to make decisions about child care based on child characteristics such as temperament (Fox et al, 2001). Given a choice of service, notwithstanding, few parents are capable of assessing quality indicators such as staff qualification and competence, the program quality, and outcomes for children (Elliott, 2006). Parents, and not experts who study program quality, typically decide on the preschool program their children will attend. It is therefore critical to understand how parents choose a preschool and what resources influence their decisions.

It is important to understand parents' selection factors for several reasons as it will allow program providers and policy makers to better understand parents' needs and priorities and potentially provide more desirable options. The choices parents made relate to the quality of their chosen program (Glenn-Applegate, 2011). Parents' viewpoints are valid and by including these viewpoints in current definition of quality program, program providers and experts can better understand the childcare landscape and influence choices available (Ceglowksi, 2004). Determining parents' selection criteria is necessary in providing resources for discriminating consumers of childcare (Gamble, Ewing and Wilhelm, 2009). From a policy perspective it is valuable to know to what extent parents' attitudes and expectations can be influenced in ways that support the use of a preschool program (Robertson, 2007). It is important to acknowledge and understand parents' considerations when making preschool decisions for their children. Their selection factors can inform researchers the critical elements of preschool quality program valued by parents as key stakeholders in their children's wellbeing.

Research Methodology

The study was conducted to find out the resources used by parents who are enrolling their children in preschool program offered by childcare centre and kindergartens, and factors that influenced their selection of the preschool program. Two survey forms are of primary interest. Prior to distribution, the survey forms were vetted by researchers in early childhood education. They are the Resources Questionnaire and the Preschool Selection Questionnaire. Parents were asked which resources they used to learn about and select a preschool. A list of 10 potential sources was provided and parents were asked to tick those that they used. They could also write in addition sources they used that were not listed. The Preschool Selection Questionnaire was designed to assess parents' preschool selection factors. They were asked to rate the importance of 15 predetermined factors on a scale of Not So Important, Very Important, and Most Important. In addition, they were asked to identify the three most important selection factors they considered when choosing a preschool (open-ended). A qualitative method was used by conducting one-on-one interview with parents. Five questions were asked on basis of their choice of a preschool program, the quality features of a program, the resources they used to find and select a preschool, the three most important factors they considered when selecting a preschool program, and their views and perceptions of the teachers.

Participants

A total of 25 parents participated in this study. 15 parents were from one child care centre and 5 parents were friends of the participating parents. Another 5 were approached through word-of-mouth recommendation. Parents who completed the questionnaires did not participate in the one-on-one interview. Likewise, parents who were interviewed did not participate in the survey. 20 parents completed and returned the questionnaires and 5 parents were interviewed in person.

Data collection tools

On 21 December 2011 a letter of introduction was issued as a cover for every set of the two survey forms. Parents received copies in an envelope and returned them via a provided self-addressed envelope. A few parents returned them in person by hand. Parents were assured confidentiality.

20 parents were asked which resources they used to learn about and select a preschool. A list of 10 potential sources was provided and participants were asked to tick those that they used. They could also write in additional sources that were not listed. A copy of the survey can be found in the appendix. All ticks were counted and recorded for each of the 10 items. The Preschool Selection Questionnaire was developed specifically to align to the research questions. A copy of the survey can be found in the appendix. The survey was designed to determine parents' selection factors using two formats. Parents were asked to (1) rate the importance of 15 predetermined factors on a scale of Not So Important, Very Important, and Most Important (close-ended), and (2) identify the three most important elements they considered when choosing a preschool (open-ended). Each scale was counted and recorded for every items in the list. The open-ended responses were collected and reproduced in the findings below.

5 parents were interviewed in person. They were asked five questions on basis of their choice of a preschool program, the quality features of a program, the resources they used to find and select a preschool, the three most important factors they considered when selecting a preschool program, and their views and perceptions of the teachers. A transcript of the 5 interviews can be found in the appendix.

Survey forms (quantitative) with write-in responses (open-ended) and interviews (qualitative) are used in this study because data collection obtained from multiple modes is more valid. In general, open-ended formats produce more precise data than close-ended formats as they do not limit or constrict respondents' answers. Providing a list of answers in rating scale, though, is more reliable and allows for easier interpretation of analysis. A rating scale is appropriate when asking respondents to indicate importance.

Findings and Data Analysis

Results are summarised below according to the research questions following the questionnaire formats and interviews.

(1) Resources used by parents

The first research question asked what resources parents used to learn about and select a preschool for their children. Parents were asked to check all applicable items out of a list of 10 resources. The 10 items were included based on practical knowledge of what resources exist for parents to use (eg. the internet) and theoretical assumptions of what parents would likely do in order to learn about their options (eg. saw the preschool near their home). Parents had the option to write in responses that were not included in the list. Results for this question reflected the rate of response for the 10 resources and parents' open-ended responses. Both sources of data were considered simultaneously (Chart A).

* Others: An older child is already enrolled in the centre

Parents were most likely to select a preschool as a result of their visit (80%) and or because they had seen it in the neighbourhood (60%). An equally high percentage of respondents had discussions with family members and friends (55%). This is closely followed by the use of internet (50%) as their resources to learn about and select the preschool.

(2) Preschool Selection Factors

The second research question asked what preschool selection factors parents considered when choosing a preschool for their children. This question was answered by analysing parents' ratings of 15 predetermined factors and parents' written-in responses (open-ended). Further analysis was made on factors that parents rated Most Important and then grouping them into 3 clusters of Amenities (safety and hygiene guidelines, clean, appealing, location, hours), Teachers (caring, stable and responsive, qualifications, communication), and Program (values, classroom ratio, fees). Findings are projected in a bar chart (Chart B)

As a whole, parents in this study considered a variety of preschool selection factors. Teacher cluster received the highest priority from parents (32 counts). The most popular factor is the cluster was "The teachers are caring, stable and responsive to children's individual needs". Interestingly, the Amenities cluster received same priority level as the Program cluster (23 counts each). Safety and hygiene was the highest prioritized factor in the Amenities cluster (10 out of 23 counts) and match of values between parents and program was the most prioritized factor in the Program cluster (6 out of 23 counts).

For the open-ended responses, parents were asked to write 3 most important elements which may or may not be listed in the questionnaire. If a statement was similar to a previous one (eg "syllabus & curriculum" and "program structure and daily activities") it was assigned a group eg program. Similar identification of statements was assigned into other groups (refer to Table 1 below) such as teachers and safety & hygiene. Statements that were straightforward in description or definition eg location, hours, were not assigned into group.

Table 1

3 most important elements parents considered when choosing a preschool

(Open-ended written-in responses)

Statement

Group

#

Professional, caring, trusted, qualifications, approach, attitude, teaching method

Teachers

17

Syllabus & curriculum, program structure & daily activities, lessons benefit child, educational needs, philosophy, positive feeling

Program

12

Environment is safe, clean, food

Safety & hygiene

11

Location

7

Hours

4

Classroom ratio

3

Fees

3

Licensing

1

"No negative remarks posted on the website"

Reputation

1

From the above table, parents placed the highest priority in teacher characteristics (85%). This finding replicates research which has likewise shown that parents value caring, sensitive teachers (Knoche et al. 2006; Shlay et al, 2005). The second most prioritized element in the above table was program (60%), which included parents' values and philosophy. The third most important element was safety and hygiene.

Overall results from this open-ended responses resonate with those in the preschool selection factors survey.

(3) Interviews

A few parents were recommended for interview through word of mouth but only 5 agreed to participate. The interviews were conducted over two weeks to accommodate individual parents' schedule. At the interview, parents were given free time to answer 5 questions. Their open-ended responses were dictated and typed verbatim into a list. A copy of the interview transcript can be found in the appendix.

On the question of preference of choice when parents first chose a preschool for their children, location of the centre (close to home) was notably the predominate factor. One parent chose the preschool through prior knowledge of the centre, and one other parent made her choice based on the lower fee she had to pay. The next question asked parents the quality features they looked for in a program. Although the responses varied in words, main features cited were staff and the environment. Notably, parents expected staff to be caring and the environment was clean. Out of the 5 parents interviewed, 4 cited visit to the centre as the resource they used to select the centre. Only one parent selected the centre through recommendation of a friend. Parents were asked to name three most important factors they would consider when selecting a preschool. Parents' answers were direct. 6 factors could be derived from the responses. They were cleanliness, teachers, location, program, safety, and fees (refer Chart C below).

Cleanliness and teachers were two popular elements cited by 4 parents. Parents were finally asked for their views or perceptions of teachers in a quality program. This question was asked because teachers are essential components of preschool programs that result in improved outcomes for young children. "Caring" was the most significant answer from 4 of the 5 parents interviewed.

Results from this study showed that parents prioritized interpersonal teacher characteristics and cleanliness when selecting preschools, and relied most on personal visit to preschools and family and friends as sources of information.

Discussions

This study asks the following three questions:

Among parents who enrol their children in early childhood program, what resources do they use to learn about and select a program?

What are the selection factors considered by parents who enrol their children in an early childhood program?

To what extent do parents' selection factors relate to the quality of their children's early childhood program quality?

In 2004 a UK government agency commissioned a research review which identified seven factors indicative of good quality preschool. The seven factors are (1) adult-child interaction (responsive, affectionate and readily available), (2) well-trained staff who are committed to their work with children, (3) facilities that are safe and sanitary and accessible to parents, (4) ratios and group sizes, (5) staff development (stability and improvement of quality), (6) supervision that maintains consistency, and (7) a developmentally appropriate curriculum with educational content (Moss and Dahlberg, 2008).

Findings from this study are mixed with regards to the degree to which parents' preschool desires align with the criteria that experts find most important. Criteria that may be a matter of quality for some parents may be a matter of access for others. In other words, one parent's "plus" may be another's "must". This may be the case for program structure, cost, distance from home or work, and teachers qualities.

Results suggest that parents most commonly expect teachers to be caring though they view teachers qualifications are equally important, whereas research indicates that early childhood educators must have formalized training in early childhood education and content knowledge in order to support program quality and impact child outcomes.

Parents demonstrated a significant preference for cleanliness. Apart from this feature, parents were concerned about their children's developmental needs and preparedness for school. The present findings are encouraging in regards to what parents know and value. Program environments are the framework for children's learning. They support the implementation of the curriculum through the use of space, materials and opportunities for children to experiment, practice their skills, analyze, socialize and problem solve. Environments must provide support for the health, safety and nutrition of young children in order to ensure their optimum development and well being (Schilder et al, 2011).

The availability of preschool programs will dictate the range of parents' options. Typically, parents do not select from an exhaustive range, but rather consider their choices given what is available. For example, parents will not weigh their preference for full-day or half-day care if full-day care is not available in their area.

Limitations and Recommendations

There were several limitations to this study. Firstly, children were already enrolled when parents completed the survey. Findings may have been different if parents were in the process of selecting a preschool for their children when data were collected. Future studies should aim to collect data before parents have enrolled their children in a preschool. Secondly, the participating parents were using childcare centre-based care. Parents who enrolled their children in kindergartens did not participate as they were not available at the time of the study in view of the year end school holidays. Future studies should be carried out after opening of the school year to include kindergartens. Thirdly, the sample size of 25 parents was relatively small that was not randomly selected and less than ideal sample size.

Preschool programs and policies could be adjusted to reflect those elements of quality which parents value most (eg. caring teachers, clean environment) as well as the factors parents must consider in order for the program to fit their lives and schedule (eg. location, cost).

Conclusions

Quality is a key feature because when programs of low quality are provided, they are unlikely to generate the child and family outcomes intended.

The integration of data on quality is the goal of a quality improvement strategy in early childhood development. Without the use of data to inform practice, there will be no link from measurement of quality to quality improvement. Existing childcare centres and kindergartens must use the data to foster high quality practices and implementation.

References

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