As afterschool professionals, we give a lot of lip service to the phrase “voice and choice”.
Theoretically, we understand that students feel more ownership of their afterschool programs when they are able to voice their opinions and provide input into the program. Sounds easy, right? Like most good ideas, however, implementation is much more difficult than it sounds.
Students are most likely not going to gather and discuss collaboratively what they want the program to be. There is also a good chance that their ideas may not fit within the program’s budget or be logistically possible, especially for smaller programs that may have limited monetary budgets, staff, and students. And, let’s face it, it’s easier for staff to make a schedule and expect youth to follow it. It takes time for both staff and students to become used to the idea of students having significant input. Staff needs to learn to shift authority to the students, and students need to take the responsibility seriously. Depending on what the students experience during the school day, the concept of voice and choice may be a new concept to them as well.
Different strategies can be employed to introduce the concept of voice and choice to afterschool programs. Of course, there are always a variety of factors that need to be taken into consideration, such as program size, budget, and grade levels. Below are some strategies that can be used to increase student voice and choice at the program level while teaching youth invaluable skills that will help them throughout their lives.
Strategy #1: Create Student Advisory/Governance Groups
Form a group that allows students opportunities to have hands-on experience with running the program. Depending on the structure of the group, the students’ objective may be to simply inform the staff what activities they would like to do in the program thereby forming an advisory group. Participating in an advisory group can teach youth how to listen to others and be respectful of other people’s opinions. Basic knowledge about working as a team can be learned through participation on an advisory team.
An alternative to the advisory group is for the student leadership to be modeled after a student council where the students set up a governance structure with elected “officers”. In this case, the students have a more active role in the program where they may actually be choosing the activities and taking a lead role in ensuring that the activities happen.
For example, students may decide to host a family event where they are in charge of planning and executing the event. An afterschool youth governance council can teach youth basic principles of governing boards, how to collaborate with others, and how to plan an event or project from beginning to end.
Although these types of groups may work best for older students, simpler models can be put into place for younger students. Program staff can form grade level groups with younger students so they can discuss their ideas for the program and provide insight to staff.
Strategy #2: Ask Students What Program Activities They Want
Even without formal student groups, youth can still have a major say in what the program offers. Through informal or formal focus groups, program staff can simply ask students what type of programming they would like in the program. Staff can then take those ideas and implement as much as possible given their resources. Students should be informed that staff will try as hard as possible to use as many of their ideas as they can, but the program must take into account the number of students who want to participate in each activity and the program budget.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that afterschool also is an opportunity for students to have experiences that they may not have in their home lives or in school. Even when asking what students want in their programs, staff must remember that the students should also be exposed to experiences that they may not even know exist. By exposing students to new things, they may develop new interests. Afterschool should be able to provide opportunities to have students develop these new interests.
For example, in one small rural program I have worked with, students have found that one of their favorite activities is when a community member comes in with her dog, and the students have the opportunity to read to the dog. All the students enjoyed this activity, even those who did not like to read. Having witnesses this program, it is fascinating to see students read to the dog and not realize that they are participating in an activity that five minutes before they had been complaining to the staff member how much they hated reading during the silent reading time. Although students never would have chosen to participate in a reading activity voluntarily, having them participate creatively in an activity as simple as reading can make them enjoy it.
New interests can be developed further by having local business owners or community leaders speak about their educational experiences and career paths. By hearing from others, students are exposed to new ideas and people, and it may shift their thinking or get them excited about a career or hobby that they can then research further. During the afterschool program, students can be provided the time and resources to adequately explore these new interests, which leads us to strategy #3.
Strategy #3: Help Students Determine How Activities Will be Executed
Another element of student choice is the “how” they are going to conduct an activity. This can be as simple as providing students with a variety of materials for an art project and then allowing them to decide how they are going to put the project together.
Or, it can be a more complicated project, such as a service learning project or capstone project that involves the students thinking about a problem and then developing ways to solve. Students just need access to the appropriate materials and resources to make the activity happen.
The more that students feel they have input into the program, the more they feel “ownership” of the program, and the more likely they are to engage in the program and the activities. When students are more engaged, they are motivated to come to the program on a regular basis, and they are more motivated to learn.
By providing students the opportunity to state what they want their program to be or by allowing them to decide and/or design an activity or project, students begin to develop critical thinking skills that they will need to be successful in all their educational endeavors and future jobs and careers.
My choice for breakfast was a leftover piece of an egg casserole with orange juice.
Author Profile: @taradonahue