Linda Rix

Article Summary:

A list of guidelines to help you choose the right after school program for your children.

How to Choose the Right After School Program

Nothing is more precious to you than your child's well-being. And if you are a working parent with school-aged children, it is essential to your own well-being that you find quality after school care. You need to know that your child is safe, happy and well-cared for when he or she is not with you.

The good news is, unlike years ago, there are now a number of after school programs from which to choose. But how do you know which is the best program for your child? By observing, asking questions, and knowing what to look for-that's how. Based on my more than 20 years of experience in education and child care, I offer you the following guidelines;

Become Familiar With The Program
First of all, find out if the program is flexible enough to meet your needs. Is the center open on school holidays - a must for many working parents? Are before school care hours available if you need them? Does the center require that you commit to more days than you need?

Then, ask about the curriculum.
A good program will offer kids a variety of enriching activities-academic, athletic and creative. Beyond the ubiquitous arts and crafts, look for programs that include things like computers, performing arts, music and other specialties. A well-rounded program will offer kids a choice of activities, and feature weekly themes and special events.

In addition, check out the program's safety procedures.
The policies should be specific and in writing. What do caregivers do when a child fails to appear? Can any adult pick up your child, or only those whose names you specify? Are parents welcome to stop by unannounced at any time?

Find out about the caregivers and teachers, too.
What are the center's hiring practices? Are thorough background checks performed on new hires? What is the ratio of teachers to children? A desirable ratio will not exceed more than fifteen kids to a teacher-and the center should be constantly adapting that ratio according to activity and need.

Don't hesitate to ask for references.
Ask for the names of several parents whose children are already in the program, and be sure to make those calls.

Scope Out The Facility
You can tell a great deal about a facility simply by looking at it. It should be clean and bright; equipment and furniture should be safe and in good repair. Look for a range of beneficial toys and arts supplies. Peruse the book shelves: are the titles age-appropriate? Are they the kinds of books you read at home?

Based on my own experience, I find that a little disorder is a good sign. It means kids are busy, active and involved. A place that is too neat and sterile probably isn't going to be very enriching-or very much fun.

Be a Fly on the Wall
I recommend that you spend at least an hour at the center at a peak time, observing the interaction between caregivers and children. Make yourself as inconspicuous as possible, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the children happy? Do they interact freely with each other and with their caregivers?
  • Are the kids engaged in interesting activities? (An occasional video is alright, but children should not be spending most of their time parked in front of the television.)
  • Do the caregivers spend most of their time listening to, teaching, and playing with the kids? Are they quick to respond to a child's needs? Are they patient? Are they firm?
  • Is there structure? Do the caregivers do a good job of maintaining order? (Pay special attention during transitions between activities-this is the time when potential problems are most likely to occur.)
  • What is the noise level? While a chaotic environment is certainly undesirable, a fun-loving program will generate a fair amount of enthusiasm-and the resulting noise-from its participants.
  • Is there also a designated corner for reading and doing homework? Kids need a place for quiet activities, too.

Will Your Child Be Happy Here?
Talk to the caregivers and find out if they are eager to take a personal interest in your child. You might tell them about your particular concerns ("my daughter tends to be shy") and ask them how they plan to handle them. Find out how teachers help new kids adapt when they first come aboard.

And, last of all, remember: you know your child better than anyone. Follow your instincts. After observing the center and learning about the program, you will know in your heart if it is the right place for your child to be.

Linda Rix is a former elementary school teacher, and president and founder of the AFTERSCHOOL CLUBŪ, which has been providing before and after school care in the Chicago area since 1985. Headquartered in Grayslake, Illinois, the AFTERSCHOOL CLUB provides child care to school districts, often directly on school premises.

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