Quality Afterschool Programs Benefit Children and Families

You can’t miss that it’s back to school season: school buses once again on the roads, displays of school supplies in all the stores, and a myriad of hints and tips on offer to help you have a great start to the school-year. Most focus is on the school day, but there’s another dimension to the season – especially for working parents: afterschool programs. And it can be an important element for a happy and successful school year. I know this from personal experience.

There are significant differences in the quality and organization of afterschool programs. At our son’s first school we really didn’t know what to expect from an afterschool program. We liked the leader, who had solid experience and was very good with the kids. And she organized great enrichment classes (though at significant additional expense!). Nevertheless, our son didn’t like the afterschool program and frequently asked to be picked up early – which just wasn’t possible with our work schedules.

When we moved to a new school….we discovered a whole new reality in after-care. Structured physical activity (okay, in the form of dodgeball – but our son really LIKED it!) and creative projects. A consistent daily schedule. A tangible reward program. And – most importantly for us – supervised homework time. When we got home in the evening our son ACTUALLY HAD ALL HIS HOMEWORK DONE! You just can’t imagine how significant an impact this made. At the previous school he NEVER had his homework done. We would get home about 6:30pm, have a quick dinner, and then struggle with our tired son for over an hour to get his homework completed before we had to deliver the bad news that it was already time for bed. Weekday evenings were a misery. But we were too naïve to realize that it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

These differences got me thinking. There’s lots of focus on the importance of a good school and related standards, requirements and assessments. But what about afterschool programs? How important are they really? And what does good look like?

What Should You Look For In an Afterschool Program?

The Afterschool Alliance, a non-profit organization advocating for more wide-spread access to afterschool programs, cites numerous studies showing that afterschool programs yield significant benefits for children and adolescents who participate regularly – both in improving academics and reducing the behavior issues and experimentation that characterize the 3pm-6pm time period. But it’s not enough to HAVE a program; you need to have a quality program that engages your children, especially since families are often restricted to whichever program is available in their school or community. So what does a good afterschool program look like?

It turns out that’s not such an easy question to answer. There is no fully-established and recognized accreditation for programs, (which are licensed in the US at state level as child care centers) and no universally-accepted and proven standards. Many programs follow the guidelines of the National Afterschool Association, a set of 144 standards which are offered for sale to practitioners. The Afterschool Alliance produced an issue brief this year on program quality (one of many good references/resources on their site) that identified eight broad characteristics of quality programs, including “intentional programming” and “promotion of varied youth engagement”. The Afterschool Corporation (TASC) in New York (which supports more than 250 programs and 40,000 children state-wide) highlights seven components of a quality program, including a diverse staff and low student-to-staff ratio.

Valeska Simmonds, a site coordinator within the Carmel Clay Extended School Enrichment program in Indiana, says that their program strives to help participants build a strong foundation in basic life skills. “We aim for each of our staff to be a role model for the children in our program. We also hold Awareness time each day – a group discussion on topics such as bullying, self-esteem, and nutrition that gives the kids a chance to share their knowledge and experiences with others.”

In reviewing these different sources, I identified the following key elements to look for:

  • Strong staff: Is there an effective, full-time coordinator for the site? Does the staff have varied and child-relevant backgrounds? Do they have applicable and on-going training? Is there a low student-to-staff ratio (most guidelines recommend ratios of 10:1 or 11:1 for elementary/middle school students)
  • Safe, welcoming and healthy environment: Are the facilities in good condition and big enough for the number of participants? Does the program have documented emergency procedures and behavior expectations? Are healthy snacks/meals provided as appropriate?
  • Access and availability: Does the program operate each school day – at least for 3 hours, but ideally before and after school? Is there an opportunity for families to apply for tuition aid? Does the program have a website and other channels of communication? (Carmel Clay has the daily schedule and profiles of each staff member on their site – and even has Twitter updates!)
  • Program mission and activities: Does the program have goals for participants beyond just safe childcare? Is there a variety of diverse and activities that are connected to, but go beyond, the school day? Do they have an established process for handling homework and does it work for you?
  • Student engagement: Does the program offer students a choice of activities and involve them in planning and organizing of the sessions? Do children get rewarded for involvement and good behavior? Does the schedule have time for kids to move and a variety of activities your child would enjoy?
  • Program assessment: Does the program seek out and, ideally, publish parent feedback? Is there a formal program assessment and improvement process? Carmel Clay follows the well-known Youth Program Quality Assessment, with all 11 sites reviewed in the fall of 2010.

What Can Parents Do?

According to Simmonds, parents looking at an afterschool program should have questions: “Are children in the program having fun?” “What types of activities are offered?” “Is the staff attentive to the needs of my child?” Simmonds recommends talking to the site coordinator for answers – and arranging a visit to observe the program. “Parents are a key part of the success of any after school program”, says Simmonds. “Ask staff how your child’s day went and attend any parent meetings you’re invited to. The more informed a parent is about the program, the better.”

What has your experience been with after-school programs? Do they work for your family?

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


2 Responses to “Quality Afterschool Programs Benefit Children and Families”

  1. Braden Bills says:

    I want to have my kid learn more from his schooling. I didn’t realize that after school child care could be so helpful! I’ll be sure to see if his school offers that.

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