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On-Site Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

ABC’s of professional, purposeful, and powerful programming practices


These ABC’s are philosophical foundations. They are new and powerful paradigms. Paradigms are like mental models that we all have about the way things should be done in afterschool programs. These ABC’s might challenge the paradigms or mental models that you might carry in your own mind. We challenge you to consider these shifts and the way you may think about how afterschool programs should be.


Autonomy is the ability to act independently, to be self-governing. Autonomy is a paradigm shift away from “herding.” Many in the afterschool profession view themselves as herders of children. After school, they herd children into an area where they take attendance, then they herd children into an area in which to “graze” on graham crackers and juice, then they herd them into an area where they all sit quietly and work on their homework, then they herd them into an adult-controlled activity or onto the playground for free play until their parents arrive.

In order for kids to build a sense of autonomy, they must feel that the program community values and appreciates them.

They must be given useful roles in the program. They must be involved in service to others. Children plan and follow through with activity choices that have meaning for them. Children with autonomy have a strong sense of identity, sense of purpose and personal power. Adults see themselves as facilitators of children’s dreams and ideas. Children with autonomy are not controlled by adults – they are “self disciplined.”

Autonomy is a paradigm shift away from an “adult-controlled” philosophy. When we try to control children through power and punishment, children learn only to avoid our penalties. They become good at being sneaky and avoiding getting caught. The long-term consequences of over-supervision are children who cannot think and make decisions for themselves.

Children must learn to control their own behavior.

To develop self-discipline, children must be given the opportunity to take risks without the fear of failure, and they must learn to try things repeatedly in order to succeed. If we do not give children the autonomy to solve their own problems, we cannot expect them to become independent problem solvers. Self-discipline has a positive effect on self-esteem, teaching children that they are significant and have autonomy and control over their own lives.


In the past decade children have lost 16 hours per week of unstructured free time. It is no wonder children are suffering from the same stress-related illnesses as busy adults. Children these days are being forced perform well on tests and to grow up too fast, and this pressure makes it difficult for children to build strong relationships. To become happy and successful adults, children need a sense of belonging and membership.

Play fosters belonging.

Playfulness is a paradigm shift away from “busy-ness.” Play is more than having fun, more than resting; it is the essence of childhood learning. When children play and have fun in afterschool programs they remember what they learn better. What we learn with pleasure, we never forget. When children and staff play together they develop a strong sense of belonging and a strong sense of community.

Belonging is a paradigm shift away from “activity-led” programming. Activity-led philosophies create a curriculum that is centered on the activities without attention to purpose, to the ethical dimension of community building, thus missing an opportunity to facilitate the social development of the child. Community building must be built into intentional programming in the environment, relationships, and experiences. It involves leadership sharing, teaching caring behaviors, teaching altruism, and teaching empathy. Every decision that children make is filtered through the understanding of who they are and how they fit

Community building must be built into intentional programming in the environment, relationships, and experiences.

It involves leadership sharing, teaching caring behaviors, teaching altruism, and teaching empathy. Every decision that children make is filtered through the understanding of who they are and how they fit into the group. Giving children in our programs useful roles, meaningful work and tasks to accomplish builds a strong sense of community and belonging and membership to the group.


To succeed in life, children must acquire adequate behaviors, and skills = competencies. Skills such as planning, decision-making, resistance skills, health skills, social, emotional, intellectual, and physical competencies are crucial. Poor social skills are linked to a number of problems in adolescence and adulthood including delinquency, school suspensions, truancy, dropout rates, and mental health problems.

Afterschool programs have a unique opportunity to facilitate the development of crucial competencies.

Building competencies is a paradigm shift away from “sophistication.” People often exclaim how children are “so much more mature now than in the past.” What they actually mean is that children are more sophisticated or precocious. They know so much more about sex, drugs, and the dark side of human behavior or “street smarts.”

This sophistication comes from the rapid bombardment of adult information freely accessed through television, the Internet, and developing technology. Adults must help children to develop the skills needed to process adult information and formulate ethical questions. Children develop competencies through interactions with others under the guidance of mature adults.

Social competencies can be taught formally and informally.

Staff can sit kids down and describe the skill and provide opportunities to practice the skill through activities, skits, or role plays. Staff can also teach skills informally using the teachable moment in a natural setting – teaching conflict resolution when a conflict occurs, or teaching patience skills when a lack of patience occurs. Be intentional – design the environment, relationships, and experiences of your program in a way that strategically targets specific developmental outcomes for children and staff.

Think about the competencies your children need to learn at their unique stage of development, and design your activities around teaching that skill, OR think about what skills are needed or can be taught through an activity you already enjoy and incorporate specific skill building into the activity. Make the continual development of skills a powerful part of the culture of the entire afterschool organization. Ensure all of your activities have a purpose – building autonomy, belonging, and competencies.

What I ate for breakfast: Hot coffee and leftover red chile enchiladas – flat, con huevo (with an egg on top)!

Author Profile: @mikeashcraft

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