The Fear Factor of Preschool Admission
I was minding my own business, watching my 15-month-old son play on the swing set, when an acquaintance and fellow mom sat next to me on the park bench.
“Have you registered him in pre-schools?” she inquired.
“Not yet. He just turned a year old,” I replied. “He doesn’t have to start for another three years.”
“I know. But have you registered him?” she asked again. “If not, you’re in serious danger of him not getting into any of the good ones.”
I didn’t want to be running around figuring out the best preschool for my son while I was still adjusting to my new role as a mother. And how could I register my child at a school without determining if the school would be a good fit for him? So, I explained to her that I was fine with taking it slow because I couldn’t be pressured into planning against someone else’s timeline.
“He’ll find a spot, somewhere,” I assured her, and myself. “Or else, I’ll teach him the basics at home and he can join at Kindergarten.”
My fellow mom was aghast at my nonchalance.
“Oh, but don’t you see? If you don’t get him into a good preschool, he won’t get into a good school, which means he won’t be in a good high school program, which effectively means he won’t get into a decent college.”
I processed her words: So, I am dooming my one-year-old son’s chances of getting into a good college and, by similar extrapolation, having a successful career. All by not registering him for preschool? I knew that an early start is often advantageous, but this seemed a little extreme.
“I think you need to take this a lot more seriously,” advised my acquaintance.
Any parent navigating the preschool and elementary school admissions process in major cities around the world knows the anxiety that comes along with it. One of my friends lamented that she had spent more time and effort on her young child’s preschool application than on her own graduate school application to an Ivy League university, only to be denied—at the pre-school, that is. The Ivy League had accepted her.
The process can vary widely between schools. There are schools that have a prescribed formula for determining admission. These award points in your child’s favor if either of the parents are alumni or if a sibling is currently enrolled. Points may also be given based on how close you live to the school and other criteria. And then there are schools whose entire admissions process is akin to a black hole: Hundreds of parents turn in long applications and then wait anxiously to find out if their child will be one of the fortunate few selected for a coveted preschool spot. At a few of these preschools, the young children are ‘interviewed’ by a selection committee. I remember waiting, three years later, in a school’s auditorium for my then four-year-old to return from his interview. Overhearing some of the other parents’ conversations, I knew I was not the only nervous one.
“Are you worried that he might not give the right answers to their questions?” one mother asked another.
“I’m worried that Vivek might get bored and decide to walk out of the room in mid-question!“ said the other.
After all, these are four-year-old children. Can anyone, even a teaching expert, really gauge the potential for learning and development in a child that young?
I’ve heard of another school that asked all the parents of the applicants to gather in a large auditorium where, in full view of everyone, administrators pulled out 30 slips of paper from a large fish bowl to announce the new preschool class. There were complaints about that process, too, but at least it was equitable and transparent. It also subtly conveyed that at that young age, there is no reliable method to determine which child is more deserving than another.
The fear factor associated with nursery and kindergarten admissions is enormous. Many parents have spent sleepless nights, paranoid with fear about whether their child will get into at least one of the several schools they are targeting.
And that brings me to how parents are often selecting schools for their tiny cherubs—an equally problematic process. They are basing their choices on college placements, IB scores, CBSE exam percentages, and competitive exam results, as highlighted on the schools’ websites. That is often their only criteria for deciding which school is good for their four-year-old. There are hardly any discussions on whether the school is the right fit for the child or the family. No debate on whether the school supports the same values as the family. I asked a parent about that, and she explained it this way: With a large supply/demand mismatch in good primary and secondary schools, the number of available seats only shrinks in higher grades. Rather than take their chances when their child is older, parents want to do all they can, now, to get into the schools with good results, later.
Is there a solution? Of course. But it requires more high-quality schools in our cities, ideally those that understand and celebrate different ways of learning and the unique attributes that each child brings into his classroom. Then, maybe, we will let our children be children in the moment—without fear for the future.