3 things to look for in an after-school program

August 09, 2017
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School is on the horizon, and many working parents are starting to think about after-school activities for their kids.

Whether our children are 6 or 16, we want them to be healthy, happy, engaged and safe. But what happens after school can be a black hole for working parents. Some of us have visions of our kids ignoring homework and chores, gorging on chips and ice cream, and watching movies they know we’d never approve of. If our kids are adolescents, we might be anxious about experimentation with drugs, sex or other risky behavior.

This is when many of us turn to after-school programs. The report America After 3 p.m. shows a growing demand for these programs and an increase in participation. But what makes a good after-school activity? Obviously, something fun. For that alone, we could leave our children at home with the chips, ice cream and bad movies. How about an activity that’s fun, engages a child intellectually and helps him or her build life skills?

For guidance, we turned to Hayley Quinn, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Swedish who works with kids.

No overbooking

Quinn starts by stressing quality over quantity.

She says there’s little benefit in stacking one activity on top of another to flesh out a college resume or because a parent thinks more is better. Overbooked kids are frazzled, and they’ll learn more by mastering a couple of activities than by dabbling in many at a time.

“Keep in mind that kids also need downtime, time to do their homework and time with family and friends,” Quinn says.

What to look for

Quinn suggests parents look for three things when choosing after-school programs:

  • Preparation: Are there clearly defined objectives for kids? Does the program have a specific focus, perhaps even a lesson or activity plan? Will children progress through specific activities so they can build on skills?
  • Organization: How are activities organized? Are they hands-on? Do kids work cooperatively so they can strengthen social skills and learn to work as part of a team? Fun is key here, Quinn says. After-school programs shouldn’t look or feel like the school day.
  • Supervision: Are teachers and staff members positive and motivating? Do they interact with the kids and model positive behavior? Quinn says it’s useful for children to spend time with adults outside the home who are not family members. She says good adult role models will help kids develop “self-regulation,” the ability to control behavior and emotions in line with the demands of a given situation.

Balky kids and computer nerds

The younger years might be a time of experimentation but, as kids get older, they will gravitate to activities and sports they know they like. But issues can arise:

  • There are always kids, usually younger ones, who will balk at any activity and tell their parents they don’t want to do anything. Quinn suggests parents give these kids a list of choices and let them choose a program.
  • Many children are inseparable from their electronic devices and may only want to be in activities that include them. Quinn says independent coding in a computer class might work, but she doesn’t recommend other activities in which a child sits alone in front of a computer screen with no collaboration or social interaction.
  • Kids can be excited to try something new, only to find out they don’t really like the sport or activity after all. “It’s OK if they don’t like every activity they try out,” says Quinn. “But it’s important to learn not to quit without problem-solving first. Children should try new things, work through challenges and see an activity to the end, when possible.”

Learning that lasts a lifetime

Quinn says parents should look at after-school programs as a chance for children to do something they love, but also as a growth opportunity.

“Maybe they are playing a sport, and they don’t like their coach or they forget their equipment or they’re late,” she says. “Dealing with these types of situations teaches basic life skills. Kids learn how to solve problems and work through challenges. And all of these skills build over the years and help them as they move toward adulthood.” 


Check out youth.gov to learn more about after-school programs. The Afterschool Alliance can help you find programs in your area.