How Preschool Has Changed in 30 Years: A Teacher Talks

Preschool Mural Photo by Luis Vidal/

Preschool Mural
Photo by Luis Vidal/

To say that preschool has changed since my mother, Abby Vance, began teaching tots 32 years ago would be an understatement. In 1982, she’d never met a vegan child, most mothers preferred formula to breast milk and preschools didn’t offer cultural enrichment courses.

All in all, they provided no fodder whatsoever for comedy writers such as Jason Shapiro. His Twitter feed of the fictitious Los Feliz Day Care lampoons 21st century preschools where Meatless Mondays are every day; superhero costumes are forbidden, as children should be “heroic through social action;” and spiders aren’t squashed but “euthanized.”

Shapiro is far from the only one to notice this sea change in preschool culture. In her 2011 short story collection You Are Here, author Danzy Senna takes aim at an exclusive preschool where the annual fees costs more than state college tuition and only “Google-worthy” families need apply.

So, when did the laidback day cares of the ’80s turn into the hyper competitive juggernauts of today? I recently spoke with my preschool teacher mother about the trends she’s seen over the years in the Chicago area and her tips on how parents can help their kids succeed during the pre-K years. Here’s what she had to say:

Nadra Nittle: We’re in an age where parents vie to get their children into the hot, it-preschool. How much does getting into the ‘right’ preschool matter?

Abby Vance: I don’t think it matters, as long as the school is accredited and teachers have ongoing accreditation—they’re studying and honing their craft. Parents should also have open access to the school, which means they can show up at any time. As long as you have that, it’s pretty secure.

NN: I won’t name your specific preschool, but I know it serves affluent families. How in demand would you say it is?

AV: We have a long waiting list. Because it’s hard to get in, the parents [waitlisted from my school] usually go to another school and when there’s an opening we call them. Some people choose to go to our school then, but others decide they’re happy at their [second-choice] school.

NN: Which children tend to do the best in preschool and what can parents do to help?

AV: The parents that help their children be more independent. Those children are more comfortable. They know how to soothe themselves.

NN: How can parents help their children be more independent?

AV: The parents always say goodbye to their children and that they’re coming back for them. They don’t slip out of the room because they’re afraid the child will cry. It’s easier for the child if they know that mommy’s coming back after snack time, if they have a time.

NN: What sorts of demands do parents typically have?

AV: Some say, ‘I never want my child to cry.’ They don’t want us to put them down. They have to be told it’s group care, not individual care. We can’t hold their child all day, but every child gets shown affection during the day.

NN: What are some of the concerns parents have today that they didn’t have 20, 30 years ago?

AV: They’re really concerned about the food. Everybody wants organic. All the food at our school is organic. A lot of kids have peanut allergies. If there’s a birthday, parents already know they can’t bring anything in that’s cooked at home. They have to buy it and it has to be peanut free. A lot of kids have dairy allergies. Their parents say they can’t have milk or eggs.

NN: Do they actually have dairy allergies, or do their parents just not want them to have dairy?

AV: They say they have allergies. No juice is served at all because it’s too sugary. We used to give the kids graham crackers when I first started teaching, but we don’t give those snacks now because of the sugar. A lot of parents say their children can’t have fish at all.

Preschool boy with books. Welcome to Learn/

Preschool boy with books.
Welcome to Learn/

NN: Is that because of the mercury content?

AV: They just say they can’t have fish. Parents also want more enrichment classes. I teach music. There’s a Spanish teacher. There’s a movement teacher, dance teacher, library teacher.

NN: What else are parents concerned about?

AV: They want to know their child is learning something every day. We take pictures of the children throughout the day. If the child is outside doing something, we take a picture. If they’re playing with manipulatives, we take a picture. We send them a report every day.

NN: What recent trends have you noticed?

AV: With babies, almost every child is breastfed. When I first started only about 20 percent of babies were breastfed. Now it’s 90 percent, and the only reason the 10 percent don’t do it is the mother had a health problem or doesn’t have enough milk.

NN: What tips can you offer parents on choosing a preschool.

AV: Make sure you know how long the teachers have been there, if they’re paid a fair wage, if they’re happy. When they get a tour of the school, they can stand and look inside of the classrooms. They should know how long the school has been open and if they’re accredited. Are the teachers college-educated? Do they have child development certificates?

NN: What can parents do to foster good relationships with teachers?

AV: They understand that they may come in and it might look [chaotic] to them, but we know what we’re doing. The parents show appreciation by buying the staff coffee or donuts or lunch. They tell us that they appreciate us or tell our director.

NN: What are some of the things the kids know when they finish preschool?

AV: They know how to write their first and last name, they know their colors, how to count up to 100. They know their addresses and phone numbers. The majority know how to dial 9-1-1. They know to stop, drop and roll during a fire. They know not to talk to strangers, even if the stranger says, ‘I know your parents.’ They know their parents’ names. They can read sight words, some can read totally. Most of the kids have iPads and tablets and telephones. They all know how to use them. It’s scary. They know everything they’re supposed to know by the time they get into kindergarten.

2 thoughts on “How Preschool Has Changed in 30 Years: A Teacher Talks

  1. I think the change probably came as more research went out about how important the early years are in development. I also think, though, it’s probably another way for people to compete. Daycare might be a little “edge” in a competitive world. Your comparison was really interesting, thanks!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Mercy. I agree that some of the changes, like the increase in the number of breastfed babies, are related to research. For others, it’s definitely a way to compete.

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