One quarter of all school-age kids care for themselves after school, a big change since the days of Ozzie and Harriet when the majority of moms worked in the home.

In fact, the disconnect between parental job constraints and school hours has given rise to its own special brand of anxiety: Parental After-School Stress.

Parental After-School Stress

In 2004, Drs. Rosalind Barnett and Karen Gareis of Brandeis University found that working parents frequently worry about their children between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m., especially if they have precarious after-school arrangements, such as having older children caring for their younger siblings. This phenomenon, which they dubbed Parental After-School Stress, is further aggravated by long commutes and inflexible work hours.

One sure way to alleviate Parental After-School Stress is to offer parents quality after-school programs. Good programs keep younger kids safe and older kids out of trouble. They also motivate and engage children who might otherwise be tempted to watch too much television, or who might remain inactive and isolated during the after-school hours.

Ten qualities of great after-school programs

How do you know if an after-school program is adequate, good or great? Many organizations, such as Baltimore’s Safe and Sound Campaign, the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, the National Afterschool Association and the YMCA, have guidelines for assessing after-school programs. GreatSchools has compiled this list of assessments from guidelines provided by these and other groups.

1. A staff trained in child development.

The staff should be of an appropriate age and be trained in child development, early childhood education or recreation.

2. Lots of healthy snacks and drinks.

Look for fresh fruit and vegetables, a low ratio of chips and cookies, and an interesting variety of food options.

3. A variety of activities.

There should be a wide array of activities, such as sports, cooking, crafts, field trips and homework help.

4. A planned and balanced schedule.

The daily schedule should be balanced, planned in advance and available to parents. Each day should include some indoor time and some outdoor time, with a balance of quiet and active time. Furthermore, there should be a balance between child-initiated (free-time) and staff-initiated activities.

5. A polite and friendly staff.

Watch the staff interactions with the children. The staff should be polite and friendly to both children and parents, and should interact frequently with the kids.

6. Positive child management techniques.

The staff should use positive techniques to manage the children, such as redirecting a child’s interest, rather than simply saying “no.” This can take more time and energy on the part of the staff, but results in a better emotional climate in the program. Other positive techniques to look for include positive reinforcement and encouragement.

7. Easily accessible program information.

Parents should receive information about the program’s philosophy and operating procedures upon request. The information should include the hours of operation, fees, policies about illness and refunds, and a list of holidays and other days when the program is closed.

8. Good staffing ratios.

Staffing ratios should be conducive to good supervision. Optimal ratios vary according to the age ranges of the children, but typically you should look for a ratio of one adult to 10 to 15 children. In addition, the staffing should be well-organized and not fluctuate widely.

9. Quiet areas for the children.

There should be private areas available both indoors and outdoors so that children can be quiet if they so desire.

10. Time dedicated to doing homework.

There should be a time and a place provided for doing homework. Good homework help is important and can take many forms, for example:

  • An incentive program of stickers or prizes for finishing homework
  • Staff members who work with the same children regularly
  • Staff members who are trained to tutor in various subjects
  • A strong relationship with the program staff and the school, which is more easily accomplished when the program is housed in the school

After-school programs for adolescents

According to a recent study, America After 3 PM, commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance and the JCPenney Afterschool Fund, middle school students have the greatest need for more after-school programs, with only 6% in a program.

“Middle school programs are very different than elementary school programs,” says Peter Howe, chief operating officer of the National Afterschool Association. “The things that interest them are different than what interests the younger kids. The programming has to be different because for older kids the program has to sell itself to the child, whereas in an elementary school the program has to sell itself to the parent. It’s a program that constantly has to reinvent itself. The kids are at an age where they have a choice and may have the keys to their house. They can choose to just go home if they want to. It’s about marketing, staff training and preparing the program.”

The National Afterschool Association distinguishes middle school programs from elementary school programs in this way:

  • For many programs, middle-schoolers voluntarily choose to attend.
  • The programs are usually less structured and have more sporadic attendance.
  • Programs need to offer “cool” activities in order to attract participants.
  • They should communicate to adolescents that “they can be something” by employing visioning techniques.
  • They should help teens explore new options and gain new skill sets.

High school students, while capable of taking care of themselves after school, can also benefit tremendously from after-school programs. The hours from 3 to 6 p.m. are peak times for juvenile crime, teenage car crashes and experimentation with alcohol, drugs and sex. A recent survey of over 1,000 law enforcement professionals found that they ranked after-school programs as the most important tool for reducing youth crime, even ahead of hiring more police officers.

But exactly what after-school programs for high schoolers should look like is still unclear. “They tend to be even more voluntary and less structured than middle-school programs,” says Howe. “In fact, in high school, the word ‘after-school’ is probably not the right word to use. High school programs are very specific; for example, a program may be music focused. But it really varies where you are in the country, whether you are suburban or urban, and how the program is funded.”

Where to find after-school programs

The largest provider of after-school programs is the public school system. “A lot of after-school programs are housed in schools because there are a lot of resources for them in schools,” says Yvonne Guzman, an executive and researcher at Afterschool Alliance.

Other providers are YMCAs, religious organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs and private schools.

How to start a program if there are none in your community

A documented shortage of after-school programs across the nation means that dedicated parents, schools, elected officials and corporations must pull together to remedy the situation. If there are no programs in your community, or if all the programs are full, don’t despair. Roll up your sleeves, organize other parents and start your own program.

“Get a sense of what the needs are in the community,” advises Guzman of the Afterschool Alliance. “Learn about the many types of funding streams that parents can tap into, like the 21st Century grants, or the schools themselves. There are also state and local initiatives. For example, in California, there’s Proposition 49, which will put $550 million into after-school programs. That’s the biggest effort ever at the state level. And in Tennessee, they’re putting all their unclaimed lottery money into after-school programs.”

Corporations are also big funders. Says Guzman: “Corporate Voices for Working Families is a great resource. Eight of their member corporations invested over $136 million in 2005 in local after-school programs.”

Check the Afterschool Alliance Web site for detailed information about who to talk to, key facts and figures to use to persuade potential funders, and sample advocacy letters.

The future of after-school programs

The current after-school landscape is a patchwork of local initiatives, with little or no central organizing effort nationwide. “It’s a school-by-school situation. It’s a broken up effort and really varies with the interest in the community,” says Guzman.

That may be changing as momentum to provide safe and nurturing care for all school-age children between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m. continues to grow. Howe, of the National AfterSchool Association, believes the most exciting development in the after-school movement is California’s Proposition 49. “It was approved by California voters in 2002, but only now is the money being appropriated. The funding is the most aggressive funding ever in after-school and the way it’s being rolled out is really amazing.”

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Updated: March 18, 2016