Navigating After-School Care

In a society where it’s common for both Mom and Dad to work outside the home, the typical 9-to-5 schedule doesn’t afford many parents the luxury of picking up their children from school.

As a working mother, Jolyn Brand quickly realized that after-school care was a necessity for her two children. Brand, a Texas-based independent education consultant, sought out day care centers, neighborhood home day cares and a high school baby sitter to provide after-school supervision. It was a challenge to find a fit for both her children, she said, and she ended up trying all three options.

“My daughter is quite the talkative girl and enjoys free time to play and talk to her friends,” Brand said. “My son, on the other hand, preferred quiet time to complete his homework and read.”

The challenges of arranging after-school care suitable for the entire family can cause stress for parents and children. Ease the pain and strain by assessing your needs and taking advantage of local resources to find the best fit for your child.

I needed a center that would help set a structure for my children to complete their homework, provide a healthy snack and discipline all the children in its care so that my children felt safe and comfortable.

Jolyn Brand, independent education consultant, mother of two

Assessing Children's Needs

Brand began investigating after-school care options by assessing the needs of her children. She evaluated their likes, dislikes, preferred activities, personalities and social skills. Since her daughter was more of a social butterfly, she wanted to find a center that allowed for free time and structured activities. Finding a center that would cater to her son, who preferred to read and complete his homework right away, was more challenging.

“When I asked about homework time, the director pointed to a set of tables,” she said. “In practice, the kids were told they had the options of doing homework or playing, which resulted in very few opting to complete their work. The few who did were also distracted by the kids playing and the noise.”

It’s also important to assess your child’s emotional needs, said Sara Lise Raff, an educational consultant and mother of three. “Parents need to know if their children have separation anxiety and, if they do, that the staff at the after-school program is prepared to handle it if the child cries,” she said. “Even if your child has apprehension, he should feel like he can participate without having you there.”

Raff suggested that parents get to know the staff’s qualifications to ensure that they can meet a child’s emotional and social needs. “Parents should ask if activities provided by the program provide loose exposure to children or if they teach formal skills,” she said.

The activities also must appeal to your child. Does the center offer specialized art instruction for creative minds or dance lessons for the aspiring ballerina? Does the program appeal to the athletic type or the studious child?

“Most general after-school programs look to reach the masses: They offer various classes and programs and try to change up the schedule with fun events and celebrations,” Raff said. “Other programs may be more limited and more focused on certain types of classes or academics. Parents and kids need to see the programs, look at schedules and always talk to the director before signing up for a program.”

Assessing Parents' Needs

While your children may be seeking a center that supports fun, parents must select an option that meets financial and logistical needs. “After-school programs’ costs can vary widely depending upon where the program is located and the specialized classes offered,” Raff said. “Parents need to know costs up-front and know if they can pay in a lump sum or set up a payment plan.”

Many centers work with state and federal agencies to provide free programs or reduced fees for families who meet income requirements.

Then, parents must factor in logistics. Is the center close to work or home? Do the hours coincide with work hours? Does the center charge extra for late pickups?

Ask about the nutrition plan. Centers should offer a filling, healthy snack, such as graham crackers, apple slices, Goldfish crackers or fruit cups.

Raff recommended evaluating the director’s involvement with the children. “Parents should make sure there is a mature director on-site at all times and that she is active and connected to what the kids and the teachers are doing,” she said. “There should be a way to easily and quickly get in touch with the director if there is a problem before or after school.”

Directors should have a license in CPR and advanced course credits in emergency care, child abuse and child development, Raff said. Centers should be accredited and regulated by state and federal agencies to ensure safety.

It’s also important to inquire about the teacher retention rate. “If a center constantly has new teachers, it means that past employees weren’t happy there,” Brand said. “Kids crave stability, so the longer teachers stick around the better.”

Discipline was at the top of Brand’s priorities when researching centers. “I needed a center that would help set a structure for my children to complete their homework, provide a healthy snack and discipline all the children in its care so that my children felt safe and comfortable,” she said.

She suggested that parents ask about discipline policies and strategies: What happens to a child if he hits another child? What if a child bullies another child, verbally or physically? Parents should discuss concerns about discipline and family values with the director to ensure their wishes are respected.

Finding a Fit

If you think you are alone in the search for an after-school program, you're not. According to the Afterschool Alliance, in 2009, 8.4 million K-12 children in the U.S. participated in after-school programs.

The search for the perfect fit begins at home. Parents and children should discuss their needs and available centers. Brand suggested asking friends, too. “Other parents will know the pros and cons of the local programs,” she said. “Contacting the school where the child will attend is also a good start. Schools will usually keep a list of which centers or individuals provide transportation to and from school.”

More important, parents and their children should visit the center, take a tour and bring a list of questions. “I also encourage parents to ask the same questions of the director and the teacher in the classroom,” Brand said. “Getting different answers is a red flag.”

Following each visit, ask your child what she liked and didn’t like. “If they are able to tell you things they liked, such as friends they knew from school or a particular play center, that’s good,” Brand said. “If they are able to tell you several things they disliked, such as the noise, the smell or a teacher who yells, that’s a definite red flag.”

In the end, parents must choose an after-school program that feels right for the entire family. “You have to go with your gut and remember that no program is perfect,” Raff said. “Focus on safety, cleanliness and the very real option for your child to have fun.”

Care Centers vs. At-Home Baby Sitters

Although after-school programs at local centers or your child’s school may provide an opportunity for your child to socialize, many parents opt for in-home baby sitters.

In-home care is more individualized and personalized, said psychologist Svetlana Ravinovich. Your child will receive one-on-one attention and care in an environment he is familiar with. “Parents do have a direct connection with the sitter and complete control over dietary issues and activities,” Ravinovich said.

However, Ravinovich warned that finding a sitter you can trust is often a challenge. “It can be a risk,” she said. “Get referrals from friends, family and other parents.”

State-regulated, center-based programs must provide referrals and data for parents to analyze.

Center-based programs also have more children and more opportunities for your child to make friendships and practice social skills, Ravinovich said. “Some kids need more practice beyond lunch or recess at school to socialize,” she said. “Centers can build on their interests and give them the skills to work with others.”

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