Once you decide that your child is ready for preschool, you need to find a good program. Start your search early. Some families — we kid you not — apply to the best schools when their child is born, especially in big cities. After you’ve identified two or three promising schools, apply to all of them. That way, if you don’t get into your first choice, you’ll have a backup or two. To find the best program for your child, follow the six steps below.

Identify your priorities

First, decide what you want. Are you looking for a preschool near your workplace, or would one closer to home be more convenient? Do you want the curriculum to include activities such as dancing and storytelling? Are you looking for a specific approach to learning? Write everything down so you have a list to refer to as you size up potential programs.

Do your research

  • Ask around to find the most reputable preschools. Friends and family can give you the names of schools they’ve liked, and we all know that personal references are the best kind.
  • Ask some experts. The Childcare Aware hotline (800-424-2246) can give you the number of a local childcare resource and referral agency, which in turn can direct you to licensed preschools in your area. Better yet, ask for a list of accredited schools near you. While accreditation isn’t a guarantee that a particular preschool will be right for your child, in general, a stamp of approval from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is a reliable sign of quality.
  • Go online. Search Greatschools.org for over 80,000 preschool listings. Visit NAEYC and the National Association of Family Child Care for guidelines and contact information. NAEYC also has a searchable online database of accredited centers and preschools.
  • Turn to the phone book, but keep in mind it’s a limited resource. Your Yellow Pages should have a list of preschools in your area, but this is just a starting point because the listings are unscreened.

Visit and interview

You can ask a few preliminary questions over the phone (to find out fees, for example), but you won’t get a sense of what a preschool is really like until you go there and meet the staff and director. Ask the director about everything from hours, fees, and vacation schedules to philosophies on childrearing issues such as discipline and nutrition. Also, get a schedule of daily activities. Pay attention to your gut feelings about the place and how the director handles your questions.

When you visit the classrooms, check the teacher-child ratios (1:5 is ideal for 2- to 3-year-olds, 1:7 is ideal for 3- to 4-year-olds, 1:15 is acceptable for 5-year-olds), and note how many children are in a classroom. “It’s easier to give one-on-one attention and be responsive when there are fewer kids in a room,” says Stephanie Glowacki, director of accreditation programs at NAEYC. Observe how the teachers interact with the kids; make sure they’re friendly, caring, and encouraging.

You’ll want a regular, challenging curriculum; a warm, clean, safe environment; and experienced teachers who are paid well and happy with their jobs. Ask about staff turnover. If the teachers change every six months, move on. Children crave consistency and need to form strong relationships with their caregivers, so you don’t want a preschool where teachers come and go.

Ultimately, choosing a preschool is a personal decision. If, after visiting a preschool, you love the idea of having your child there, it’s probably the right place for you. “The preschool we chose was strong in arts and music, and the location was convenient,” says Winn Ellis, a counselor in San Francisco and mother of two girls. “But what really sold us was the cheerful atmosphere. The kids seem genuinely happy to be there.”

Check references

Positive word-of-mouth is a powerful endorsement. If a certain preschool has a buzz, ask parents why they’re raving about it. Ask each school you’re considering for a list of parents whose children have attended the school. Call them, and ask specific questions. Don’t just ask whether they like the preschool; ask what exactly they like about it and what they don’t. If their child is no longer there, ask why. You may also want to call your state’s Better Business Bureau to see whether any complaints have been filed against the school or its teachers.

Kid-test it

Visit the school with your child. You’ll want to see how he and the teachers interact and whether he seems comfortable in the preschool’s environment. Do the teachers seem interested in getting to know your child? Does he enjoy the activities? “I knew we’d made the right decision based on my daughter’s reaction,” says Svetlana Robledo, a San Francisco journalist. “Nina was brimming with joy after one day there and couldn’t stop talking about all the things she was learning and doing.”

Get on the waiting list

If the best preschool for your child has no openings, don’t despair. Put yourself on the waiting list, and, while you’re at it, write a letter spelling out why you like the school so much. It won’t guarantee you a place, but it can’t hurt to let the school know how enthusiastic you are about the program. In the meantime, if you’ve applied to more than one school, you’ll likely have other options to consider.