Many elementary-grade and middle school children spend their afternoons in an afterschool program. Often these programs are conducted right on the school campus but usually they are presented by an outside group.
As one might expect, the quality of these programs is important but the quality varies. How can you be sure your own child’s afterschool experience is a good one? How can you be sure it doesn’t actually contribute to children’s bad behavior?
A recent study in the American Journal of Community Psychology set out to discover if afterschool programs support a sense of community among the children. Feelings of belonging and shared values have been found in the past to be important in adult social organizations. Children in second through fifth grades in three Pennsylvania schools were asked how connected they felt to the other children in the program, how willing they were to intervene if another child was behaving badly and the types of bad behavior they themselves had committed in the afterschool setting.
The researchers found that the more connected kids felt to other children in the program, the more likely they were to uphold behavior standards of the group and the less likely they were to get in trouble themselves. Feeling a sense of community made children act better.
But, “Too often, we don’t create a place where youth can grow, develop and have a hand in shaping their own environments,” the principal researcher Emilie Smith said. She goes on to note that afterschool programs should include practices that support a sense of community among the children and encourage their engagement with the staff and with each other.
If your child attends an afterschool program, what should you look for?
- Adequate staffing. The more staff, the more likely children will be well-supervised, the more likely bullying behavior will be minimal, and the more likely it is that staff will themselves be unstressed and able to respond calmly. When you walk in, can you quickly find a staff member?
- Well-trained staff. Of course, afterschool programs tend to hire the most inexpensive, inexperienced employees they can find: high school students, college students, and low-skill adults. So the need for good training is important, along with careful supervision by a highly-qualified leader. Ask about staff training and ask about the credentials of the program director.
- Humane interactions. Children will copy what they see adults doing, so if staff seem controlling, harsh, or disinterested, children will be mean to each other, uninterested in others’ difficulties, and disengaged from the program itself. When you visit, notice how staff interact with children. Are they modeling respectful, pleasant behavior?
- Activities that are fun for everyone. Not every child enjoys competitive sports, competitive games, and other activities that pit one child or team against another. Make certain that a variety of activities is offered and that competition is kept to a minimum.
- Help with homework that is truly helpful. Most afterschool programs dedicate some time to completing homework. How this is handled can affect not only your child’s afternoon but his success in school. So homework supervision that is actually helpful and develops kids’ study skills and abilities is important. Ask how homework is handled before you enroll your child.
Certainly, families who use afterschool care need afterschool care – it’s not optional. And certainly there usually is only one program offered convenient to a child’s school. It’s unlikely that your family will have much choice in the matter.
But that’s not to say you don’t have influence. If the afterschool program at your child’s school seems inadequate, talk to the program director and to the school principal. The value of good afterschool programs is clear.
Good afterschool programs make children feel good about themselves and each other. Good afterschool programs inspire children to behave well. It’s worth it to make certain your child’s afterschool experience is a good one.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.