MELISSA BLOCK, host: Some New Yorkers spend 20 to $30,000 a year to send their children to preschool. But before they can even pay the tuition, their kids have to get in. Competition is fierce for a spot at some of Manhattan's most coveted schools.
As Nazanin Rafsanjani reports, one of the most anxiety-inducing parts of the process for parents is the preschool interview.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: When you think preschool interview, it's hard not to imagine a job interview for babies. But that's not exactly how it works. This is Amanda Uhry. She's the founder of Manhattan Private School Advisors. She helps families get into private school.
Dr. AMANDA UHRY: The child interview isn't an interview. It's a play date.
RAFSANJANI: But for parents it can feel like a play date with a lot riding on it. That's why people pay Uhry $18,500 for her services.
UHRY: This is a war, the problem is it's not a war of attrition. It's just a war of more and more and more people. And I feel like a wartime profiteer but this is a war. So, what you're competing against, you don't want to think about because when you start thinking about the competition you'll never be able to do it. It's like a sport.
RAFSANJANI: For this reason, the preschool interview is similar to other high-stakes interviews. You need to ace it to get a spot. So I asked some preschool directors about how a 15 or a 16-month-old aces an interview. They offered several do's and dont's.
Elise Clark is the director of admissions at City and Country School.
ELISE CLARK: A child was at the water table and she was busy sudsing up some soap and stirring with her spoon. And there was a child next to her. I think he wanted to get her attention and he decided to start hitting her on the head with a spoon.
RAFSANJANI: Hitting with a spoon - deal breaker. Also on the dont's list - biting. On the do's list, says Clark, if you find yourself being hit with a spoon, remain calm and try to ignore it. Other toddler do's: If you see a toy you like - even if it's all the way on the other side of the room - go for it.
This is Gabriella Rowe, head of the Mandell School on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
GABRIELLA ROWE: We don't care if they know their letters. But we want to know if they're curious about that truck that's on the shelf. Because that truck - what draws them to that truck is going to be the same power, the same resilience, the same overcoming of fear that they're going to have to rely on when they going on those job interviews; when they're asking probing difficult questions, if they're a research scientist; when they are a doctor facing a difficult circumstance or when they're one of us going into a cocktail party where we know absolutely no one and we have to start a conversation.
RAFSANJANI: But the most important piece of advice for toddlers: Keep your parents in check.
ROWE: Usually it's the parents that blow the interview for the child, not the other way around.
RAFSANJANI: Everyone I talked to had lots of dos and don'ts for parents. Do turn off your cell phone. Don't bring in your Starbucks.
ROWE: Don't hover over your child and try and forcibly get them to engage. Don't jump in if they're doing a certain activity and you think they're doing it wrong. We've had moms who see a child putting a puzzle back incorrectly and they'll jump down and say no, no, no, no, you've done it wrong.
RAFSANJANI: And remember, toddlers are allowed to throw tantrums, parents are not.
ROWE: I had one just horrible, horrible circumstance where I had a mom sort of sneak her child, when they melted down, around the corner toward the bathroom and start yelling at them that they just, you know, had to get it together. And it broke all of our hearts.
RAFSANJANI: One question Rowe gets a lot: What to wear to the interview. Business casual is not the right choice for a baby, although Rowe does see toddlers in suits and ties. Her advice: Dress your baby in something clean and comfortable. Same goes for you, too.
ROWE: We will have parents who very clearly dressed up for the occasion of the interview. And it's incredibly hard for them to get down on the rug in their very, very high heels and short skirt. And this is a classroom for young children. You know, you're going to be on your knees. You're going to be sitting crisscross apple sauce.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROWE: You should be prepared for that.
RAFSANJANI: City and Country's Elise Clark told me the truth is that it can be hard to assess whether such little kids are ready for school. Even after years of doing this, the decision can sometimes feel random.
Her main piece of advice: the same advice you'd get for any interview. Try to relax, be yourself, and if all else fails, resort to flattery.
CLARK: The child who will say things like, "I really like this school." I mean, it's hard not to fall for that. (Laughing)
RAFSANJANI: Repeat after me, I really like this school. For NPR News, I'm Nazanin Rafsanjani.