For the past fifteen years I’ve had the privilege of working in the afterschool field as a program director, consultant, policymaker and advocate. I’ve met countless people who are making a huge difference. Students are doing better in school, becoming more enthusiastic about learning, developing positive social relationships, experiencing new things and mastering new skills.
There’s no question that afterschool programs change lives.
Now it’s time to save lives. Just a few years ago, gangs, drugs and alcohol ranked at the top of the list of issues facing youngsters in our country. Today, the #1 concern is childhood obesity – and it’s getting worse. Millions of children and young people in our communities are overweight, malnourished and physically unfit. Poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyles cause serious health issues, lower self-esteem, lead to social and psychological problems and contribute to poor academic performance.
If this pattern continues into adulthood, as it usually does, one in every three children is likely to develop type 2 diabetes (and one in every two Latino and African-American kids). Unless the trend is reversed soon, they’ll miss more work because of illness and disability and die prematurely. And, they’ll be part of the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
We can’t eliminate poverty, which is a major contributing factor, but we can do much more than we might think. Youngsters who develop healthy eating habits and are physically active at an early age are much more likely to be well, stay well and do well in school. We can help them develop these habits and become part of the urgently needed, comprehensive solution to this potentially devastating problem. Children can’t wait and neither can we!
Youngsters who attend your program already have a huge advantage.
Even if the snack you offer isn’t all you’d like it to be, it’s much better than what they’d get if they stopped by corner markets or fast food restaurants or bought ice cream from street vendors on their way home from school. They may not be as physically active as they should be, but they’re not sitting in front of the television eating chips, drinking sodas and internalizing the $80 billion in messages the food and beverage industry spends each year to influence them to make unhealthy choices.
This matters, and it’s not enough. Making a real difference means becoming more intentional. It’s about linking the activities and approaches you offer to the outcomes you want – and children and young people deserve. There are several things you can do to start this process, all of which can make a big difference without costing a dime.
First, if helping students become more successful in school is a priority, don’t limit your support to providing homework assistance or academic enrichment. Children who get more exercise perform better academically. It’s all about the brain, and how it works. Increased physical activity stimulates the mind. Kids concentrate better and learn more. With physical education virtually nonexistent during the school day, you may be the only game in town. Don’t let this be a missed opportunity! Integrate at least 30 minutes of moderate to strenuous physical activity into your program every day and be sure every youngster who is able participates.
Second, kids who eat better perform better. This explains why schools provide free breakfasts and offer healthier lunches and snacks when testing is going on! They get it. Nothing in, nothing out. Garbage in, garbage out. Quality in, quality out. Let’s get beyond No Child Left Untested to Every Child has Opportunities to Succeed. More and more afterschool programs are influencing the choices schools offer year-round and yours can, too!
Third, if behavior management is an issue in your program, remember that not every child has Attention Deficit Disorder or is a bad kid or a trouble maker. No training or staff development approach is going to make much difference if the core issue is that youngsters are hungry or malnourished. Children and young people who don’t have enough to eat, or access to the right foods, are often anxious, irritable and confrontational or depressed and withdrawn. It’s not rocket science. It’s a simple reality.
Try shifting some of the funds you use for behavior management training for your staff to securing more healthy food for youngsters.
Work with food services managers at your school sites. Develop relationships with food banks, local supermarkets and farmer’s markets. Apply for Farm to School and other grants. Plant gardens and supplement snacks with fruits and vegetables. And make sure that families are aware of foods stamps and other programs that put more, and better, food on their tables.
Fourth, it’s up to you to model the behavior you want to see in the kids you work with when it comes to eating habits and physical activity. If you and other staff members drink sodas (the leading cause of overweight among middle school students), kids will too. If you allow junk food on your sites, it will signal your approval. Replace soft drinks with water and unhealthy foods with fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. When kids are involved in physical activities, are you and your staff fully engaged or sitting on the side lines? Stop the madness and get involved! Will you get push-back from some folks? Without question. And they’ll get over it and everyone’s lives will improve.
Fifth, if you provide incentives that aren’t good for kids, you’re contributing to the problem in a huge way. If you reward them with pizza parties or celebrate holidays or special events with candy and cupcakes you’re setting a pattern you don’t want and they can’t afford. Down the line you’re hurting, not helping, youngsters. The same is true for culminating events or year-end celebrations. How about a professional sports event, hosting a dinner with their families or a arranging for camping experience? Be creative and mindful. It matters.
Don’t think this will work? Try it! Small steps lead to big accomplishments. It’s 7:00 in the morning and I’m sitting at my laptop, after walking a mile. I’m drinking a Starbuck’s non-fat latte (which I’m not willing to give up) and eating whole grain cereal, yogurt and blueberries. Quite a difference from skipping breakfast and exercising by answering e-mail! Has it been easy to change my habits? Absolutely not. Does it take a lot of intentionality? Sure. Am I glad my colleagues in afterschool programs are supporting me? Without a doubt! Be the guide-by-the-side in your program. Don’t just change lives, save them!
Author Profile: @andriaf