What to Consider When Choosing an After-School Program

If, like many parents, there is no way you can pick your kid up from school in the middle of the afternoon, after-school programs can be a lifesaver. But they’re not all created equal. Some are more like an extended school day, which some kids might love. But other kids may not, and would be better off in a sports-related program or something more artsy. All the options can seem overwhelming, but asking yourself these questions is a good place to start.

How Are the Kids Grouped?

You may not want your third-grader hanging out with fifth-graders. Perhaps you’re concerned about the new – ahem, mature – vocabulary or other unwelcome habits they may pick up. We all want our children to grow up in their own time, and sometimes sheltering the young ones from too much time with the older kids is a good thing. But it really depends on the culture of the school. In some cases, grade mingling can create positive learning opportunities.

How Much Does It Cost?

There are (too many) days when you’re on a work deadline, traffic is horrible, or you have another sick child and you can’t make the 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. pick-up deadline. So it’s important to know about the additional charges incurred for late pick-ups. Is it a flat rate or per minute? Is there any penalty after it happens a couple times? (Who me? of course I’m definitely not asking from past experience … )

Is the Staff Professional?

Does the staff have child development training? An associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or special training? Are they CPR, first-aid and EpiPen trained? How do they handle special concerns, like food allergies or resolving conflicts? Start a small conversation with the staff to get an idea of their personalities. You’ll want to know that you’re leaving your child with someone who has a positive outlook and attitude. Also check to see how the staff is dressed. I remember seeing a first-grade aftercare staffer in jeans with cut outs that left nothing to the imagination. I just wasn’t ready to have that discussion yet with my little girl. Peek in and observe the staff.

What Will the Kids Be Doing?

In many programs, the children just sit the entire time. Seriously! How is that good for anyone? We’ve all probably heard about the latest research, which suggests that sitting is the new smoking. And many schools only offer physical education once a week or bi-monthly. Health hazards are looming with all this sitting. Kids are meant to MOVE! They need to get out all the jitters before they can concentrate after a whole day at school. Plus, they’ll be ready for bedtime earlier if they move more throughout the day. And we need our down time too!

Is There Room for Play?

Is there time to run and play that’s not structured? Yes, kids thrive with structure. But just like adults, they also need time to decompress and unwind without a scheduled activity. I look for activities like basketball, wall ball, jungle gyms or tree climbing (if the school allows it). Playing together with classmates after school also creates a sense of belonging and an opportunity to make new friends to socialize with outside of the classroom.

Is Their Homework Done?

Don’t you just LOVE the idea of doing homework with your child after a long day of work? If, like me, that sounds exhausting, check to see that there is time in the after-school program for homework. I like assignments done (at least for elementary school- age kids) by the time everyone is home, because my stress release is cooking or taking a family walk. Homework help after school is so crucial for my sanity that I will pay for it!

All Eyes on Them

Ask to peek in on a class before enrolling and check in a few times periodically after they’re enrolled. Ask your friends and their kids what they do and don’t like about the program. (A little birdy told me you serve ice cream or cookies every day, are you considering serving healthier snacks?) If what you hear is a deal breaker, you know to avoid the program.

Talk to your kids too! They can help you answer some of the questions, and their input is essential if you want to pick a program that works for everyone. If only I could help you (or myself) meet the pick-up deadline every time …

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