Not even counting college — just from elementary through high school — your child will spend 13 years in school. So is preschool even necessary? Learning to share, knowing how to follow instructions, and acquiring a strong foundation for academic learning are just three of the 10 compelling reasons why experts say preschool gives children a boost that’ll help in years to come. Since picking a preschool can be tough, here are tips to help you get started.

Shhh! Secrets for scoring the best preschool

Deciding whether or not your child should attend preschool seems like a snap compared with the question that can send parents into a paroxysm of panic: Where should my tyke go? Adding to the anxiety: those hyper-organized families who applied to the “best” schools when their child was in utero. Before you throw in the towel thinking the best spots are taken, learn these six secrets to locating good choices for your child.

Don’t forget that a part of the preschool equation is the parents. Here are two essential factors to consider to ensure the preschool you have your eye on works for your family, too.

Wine or preschool?

Montessori. Reggio Emilia. Waldorf. For newcomers to the preschool arena, these could as easily be new wine varietals as preschool philosophies. Before you start visiting schools, give yourself a quick education about the 12 most common types of preschools. Being clear ahead of time about what you want — be it a program that’s play-based or academic, religious or non-denominational, a co-op or more of a drop-off — will increase the chances you’ll find a program that best suits your child and family.

Ask the right questions

So you’ve narrowed your search to a handful of possible preschools. You’re taking tours and want to make sure you aren’t missing something essential. Seems straightforward enough, but picking a preschool can be like testing perfume: after a few, they all start to blend together: preschool after preschool teeming with 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds running and (happily, we hope) screaming from painting to Legos to reading stations. How can you really know where your child will thrive? From assessing whether the school is safe enough to understanding its discipline policy, make sure you can answer these 10 key questions for any preschool you’re considering.

Final advice on choosing right… and avoiding disaster

Choosing a school is such an individual choice. What if the school is too big for my little one? Is it too chaotic or an “organized mess” where my preschooler will thrive? Learn what our resident expert has to say about steering clear of false assumptions and how to make a smart assessment of any preschool.

But wait! Before signing on the dotted line, beware the three biggest mistakes parents make when choosing a preschool.

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