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Choosing After-School Child Care

School-age child care includes almost any program that regularly enrolls children from kindergarten through early adolescence during the times when schools are traditionally closed. This includes programs operated by schools, family day care providers, recreation centers, youth-serving organizations, and child care centers. Also known as extended day programs, before-and-after school programs provide enrichment, academic instruction, recreation and supervised care. An array of drop-in and part-time programs also serve an ad hoc child care function.

Options Available to Families of School-age Children
Changes in family structure and values have altered the way in which many children are cared for. More mothers are in the labor force; more families are headed by a single parent; and fewer relatives are available to care for children. Increasing numbers of families are looking for ways to care for their children in before-and-after school programs or through the use of a patchwork quilt of care arrangements.

There are many options for school-age care. Each offers advantages and disadvantages, and none is right for all children under all circumstances. Some children may benefit from the slower pace and smaller environment of a family day care home, while others may need the larger physical and social setting of an after-school program. Children with special talents may enjoy a narrowly focused program that allows them to improve their skills, while other children may require highly varied programs that help them maintain their interests.

Developmental Needs of School-age Children
Self-care arrangements do not meet the developmental needs of some school-age children. As these children navigate the passage from early childhood to adolescence, they need opportunities to make friends, play, develop skills and initiative, see products through to completion, and receive attention and appreciation from caring adults.

Characteristics of Quality School-age Programs
Baden and others summarized three years of research on programs in the U.S. In the course of this research, it was discovered that the best school-age child care programs have certain common elements. These programs:

  • offer a safe environment that fosters optimal development;
  • employ a sufficient number of qualified, well-trained staff;
  • are administered efficiently;
  • encourage staff-parent interaction;
  • balance activities to include structured and unstructured time, teacher-directed and child-initiated experiences, and a range of activities;
  • capitalize on the interests of the children and opportunities for informal, social learning;
  • use community resources as much as possible;
  • communicate clear, consistent expectations and limits to children;
  • provide indoor and outdoor space for active play, and places for socialization and private time.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has established the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, which offers accreditation to centers serving children through age eight. Its validation criteria confirm the elements of quality programming mentioned above.

Supportive Services: Some Back-up Solutions
In addition to adult-supervised child care programs, some communities offer supportive services for self-care. These include educational materials and curricula that provide information for latchkey children and their parents; telephone reassurance lines staffed by phone counselors trained to provide a friendly voice and occasional advice; and block parent programs using trained volunteers who make their homes available during after-school hours in case of emergency. These programs are designed not to address the day-to-day needs of children after school, but rather to reduce the possibility of serious trouble confronting a child.

Few studies have measured the impact of self-care on children over time. One study of former latchkey children found that negative reactions to unresolved stress did persist into adulthood. A handful of studies indicated that children in after-school programs did better in terms of academic performance and social adjustment than peers who were not in care.

(By Michelle Seligson and Lillian Coltin. Information provided by the National Parent Information Network. Courtesy of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education )

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