Due to the nature of my job, I visit a lot of afterschool programs throughout the country. A common element I’ve noticed at any program, whether they are in schools, community buildings, or churches, is the smell. It is the same no matter where I go. There’s always a hint of disinfectant, perhaps some body odor if it’s a middle school program, crayons, paint, chalkboards, whiteboard markers, or computer labs (I don’t know what that smell is, but there is definitely something distinct about it). These are the smells of youth and learning experiences.
Despite the olfactory similarities, there’s something slightly less tangible that varies considerably from program to program. I’m going to call this “the essence” of the program.
I sense almost immediately upon entering a program if students are going to be engaged during the activities, if staff will exercise complete control or will concede some of it to the youth, if there will be a sense of “controlled chaos” or downright utter chaos when youth arrive at the program.
As this happens time and time again, and as I am called upon to conduct “Behavior Management” training for afterschool staff around the country, I have to stop and wonder about this inherent essence of the program. Where does it come from? How does it sustain? What changes or impacts it? And, most importantly for my work, how do we teach it?
These are important questions that I won’t be able to answer completely but think that programs that do these things well are the highest quality programs. The rest of this blog will be dedicated to the qualities I have noticed among all of the programs that feel like afterschool to me…those programs that are teaching students something in a fun, interesting, and engaging way and how staff can help each other implement these components in their program.
After attending and presenting at conferences, workshops, and seminars around the country, I have seen the amazing learning that happens when afterschool professionals network with one another. Imagine the learning that would take place if those same adults (and the adults working with them) were able to not only talk with one another about their programs but to actually observe the day-to-day operations.
The little things that effective youth workers do with their kids, such as giving warnings before transitioning to another activity or talking softer than the youth when trying to gain their attention, are tactics that I have seen skilled youth workers take for granted. These are critical components of a quality afterschool program that need to be explained and modeled by those who do it well.
There are three elements that afterschool staff members could learn from one another through observation—how to build relationships with youth, how to create a positive and supportive environment and how to be consistent.
All the research is pointing in this direction, the key to successful afterschool programming really is the relationships! I cannot stress how important it is to develop and maintain positive relationships with the youth we work with. As students are built up by these positive interactions and shown that a fun and important adult in their lives cares about them, great things happen. Students become more engaged in the regular school day, they are more attentive, have increased positive behaviors and decreased negative behaviors. Their attendance rates increase, they get along better with both teachers and peers, and ultimately, their academics improve.
Beyond what the research tells us, I have heard countless anecdotal stories from people throughout the country about “that one kid” who had nothing going for him and then suddenly changed gears when he started attending the afterschool program regularly. He formed close relationships with the staff and then, as he grew older, mentored younger children in the program. But, how do we teach effective ways to build positive relationships? It is inherent in some people’s personalities that they automatically connect with youth and students. For others, it takes a little longer. The staff who do this well can demonstrate and model for other staff members how to reach the students who are hard to get to know. Staff can also engage in role playing exercises. The old adage is true—practice makes perfect, even when determining the best ways to connect with children and youth.
The second quality that these engaging programs have in common is their structure and environment. I referred to afterschool as “controlled chaos” before. Well, what exactly does this mean? It means that when I walk into an afterschool program I do not want to look at the clock to make sure that school has been dismissed because students are still sitting in desks completing worksheets. I’m not engaged as an observer, which leads me to believe that the students are not engaged either. The program should definitely have structure, but there should not be a rigid feel to the activities.
The environment should be one that is nurturing, engaging, and safe, where the youth feel comfortable being themselves.
It should be a place where youth take leadership roles and start gaining the confidence to do things that other adults, including teachers and family members, might not let them do yet. An effective teaching model for this that I mentioned earlier is observation. Let staff observe each other and talk about the positive attributes of an activity and things they could do better. It is so much easier to see how someone else can improve than when you’re in the midst of an activity yourself.
The third quality that I’ve observed in successful afterschool programs is consistency. When I talk about consistency, I’m not only talking about consistency from day to day and week to week, but also from staff person to staff person. Everyone in the program should be able to talk about the ultimate goals of the program and understand how they fit in with those goals. The best-intentioned leaders will run programs that fail if their staff are unable to communicate exactly what it is they are trying to achieve. The only way to ensure that everyone is on the same page is to have regular communication. Again, this is best when at least one staff member can step up to the plate to demonstrate how understanding the purpose behind each activity can lead to better programming and help programs achieve their goals.
I’ve asked a lot of questions in this blog without fully answering them. Most of them center around how to teach someone the intangible skills that I have observed are related to high quality afterschool programs.
My tentative answer to this challenge is to develop mentoring programs for afterschool professionals.
I know there are a smattering of mentorship programs out there for afterschool professionals; however, I would like to see us move toward something more systematic. This should be a focus at the national conferences and something that all programs rally together for. Until we have the time and money devoted to mentoring, programs will continue to operate in isolation, wondering if there’s something new or better or more engaging out there that they could try.
And since I’m writing this on the weekend, for breakfast I had an everything bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee from the Gallery Café (across the street from my house in snowy Chicago).
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