The Getting-Into-Preschool Puzzle

Can an admissions director really evaluate a 2-year-old?

It’s March, which means it’s time for a spate of stories about the high comedy of preschool admissions. In certain cities—or rather, in certain well-off circles in a few cities—getting a 2- or 3-year-old into a coveted school is an enormous preoccupation. The preschool wars have adopted the weapons and lingo of the college wars: consultants, résumés, essays, safety schools, and early decision ($). This year, a film crew is coming to New York to document the preschool version of Survivor. And the New York Times and the Washington Post have parodied the benighted admissions process—with missives by groveling parents and chirpy advice-givers (when filling out the admissions form, “describe your dream date, and not your actual child”).

In the press (and on the playground), the selective schools are the villains, and parents either the laughing stocks or the victims. The underlying assumption is that sorting small children comes down to judgments about their behavior that are wildly mercurial. This fear is overblown—at the most sought-after schools, who you know and how much money you’re willing to donate just has to matter more than your toddler’s personality—but it’s not groundless. Several years ago, when I was a reporter in the East Bay in California, I went to watch an admissions “play date” at an exclusive preschool. One 3-year-old refused to share his shovel in the sandbox. Afterward, the director confirmed that he hadn’t boosted his application to the top of the pile.

Since then, though, I’ve applied five times for preschool for my two sons in three cities (don’t ask). And it’s not all a war zone out there: In most cities, the demand for good—or good enough—preschools doesn’t far outstrip the supply for people who can afford the tuition, at least for 3- and 4-year-olds. There’s an “it” choice, but if you rationally compare it with the less “it” alternatives, you’ll usually find they’re on par. And the main thing those less “it” schools want from you is not a perfect child or a secret handshake but a $500 deposit.

When schools check out your kid as part of deciding whether to let you write that check, they may indeed be in the business of weeding out the criers and the nonsharers. But they’re not making up the assessment out of thin air. Evaluating a 2-year-old is not like evaluating an 18-year-old. Still, preschool folk can tell a fair amount about your small child. In fact, the more multidimensional (read onerous) the admissions process, the more they have to go on—and the more you learn about them.

What do preschool admissions directors want to see? Curiosity, energy, some speech, maybe some ability to sit still. In some cases, potty training. What sets off warning bells? Temper tantrums. Extreme clinginess. Kids generally aren’t expected to separate from their parents when they walk in the door for an interview or observed play session. But if they never want to leave their mother’s lap, “then I ask about separation issues,” one preschool director told me.

At Franklin Montessori school in Washington, D.C., the admissions process includes a 30-minute play session for three kids at a time. Director of admissions Randy Crowley says most kids are apprehensive at first. But after Play-Doh, puzzles, and storytelling, a lot of them don’t want to leave. “And then you know, oh yeah, that kid is ready.” Crowley says she wants parents to enthuse about the Montessori method—they don’t have to know a lot about it, but they should sound committed to learning. And when I confessed to her that I’d chosen my son’s current preschool in part because of location, she suggested that it’s better not to admit so when you’re trying to get your kid in. “If a parent mentions that, especially if they also say they’re looking for before- and after-care, then you wonder, are they just looking for day care?” (God forbid.)

Crowley admits that it’s easier to evaluate the 3-year-olds than the 2-year-olds, because the younger ones’ verbal skills are so varied, and a few months can make a big difference in terms of developmental milestones. There’s another obvious weakness in the evaluation setup. However friendly and toy-laden, an admissions play session is a foreign environment. The data it spits out are data about how a child acts in a new setting, not how he acts in a place to which he goes every day, which is what school will be. The lucky kids are probably the ones who don’t quite realize that they’ve been thrown into a toy-filled petri dish. The anxious kids may be cannier. Then there are the mishaps you can’t control. On my son Eli’s first day of preschool, he arrived with a fat lip topped by a woeful black-and-blue mark. Over the weekend, he’d gotten too close to a small dog who seemed calm and friendly but proved otherwise. I worried for months that his teachers were inspecting him for signs of abuse. We were just lucky that it was too late to cross him off the admitted list.

If your small child can’t be relied on to negotiate a strange play date with charm and aplomb, maybe you’re better off with the résumé-essay-testing approach, which gives you lots of chances to describe his less apparent charms. Presumably the added information helps schools as well, even preschools. “A single test at that age does not mean very much,” Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor of cognition and education, wrote to me in an e-mail. But “if you can cull evidence from a test, a play session, a home visit, letters of recommendation (yes, the mind boggles), and they point to a consistent pattern, then you know a lot. If, on the other hand, they are wildly inconsistent, you should either watch out or select more data.”

Gardner also points out, however, that the preschools of Reggio Emilia in Italy, which he says are considered the world’s best, serve about 40 percent of the population without any sort of selective admissions process (except that they give preference to siblings). These schools don’t weed out the kids who want their mommies or resist sharing their toys, because “you come to learn how to share. That’s part of our job here,” as my son’s former preschool director Christine Reberkenny-Frisketti puts it. If that sounds like the right response to you, then maybe you should turn the essay you’re writing to get your kid into your dream school into a paper airplane or quit worrying that he didn’t get into the “it” preschool because he didn’t play well with others. What’s troubling about preschool admissions, in the end, is that they reveal how narrow the preferred range of demeanor for little kids is. We want 2- and 3-year-olds to be sunny but not loud, perceptive but not shy, energetic but not hyper. We want them to conform. Your genius friend who can’t sit still or your tech-savvy officemate who avoids eye contact? They’d be in the reject pile.