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Choosing the Right After-school Activities – an Evaluation Checklist

October 27, 2009

After-school programs offer clear benefits for working parents, providing them with a means to keep children engaged and out of trouble. But how do you choose? There are a staggering number of social, academic enrichment, prevention, and health programs available, offering tutoring, arts, technology, reading, math, sports, civic involvement, and other activities. Scheduling and cost must also be taken into consideration.

A recent working paper, After School Programs in the 21st Century: Their Potential and What it Takes to Achieve It, published by the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) offers some guidance gleaned from over ten years of research. First the expected and thankfully obvious good news – effective after-school programs can indeed offer positive outcomes for children:

Academic Performance

  • Improved levels of engagement, and greater interest in future education
  • Better attendance and discipline
  • Lower dropout rates
  • Improved academic performance and homework completion

Social/Emotional

  • Decreased behavior problems
  • Improved social and communication skills; improved relationship building
  • Increased self-confidence, and lower levels of depression
  • Increased initiative

Prevention

  • Avoidance of drug and alcohol use
  • Decreased violence
  • Increased safe sex awareness and abstinence

Health and Wellness

  • Better food choices through increased knowledge of nutrition and health
  • Increased exercise
  • Improved health
  • Improved body image

The paper found three primary factors that were most likely to contribute to positive outcomes in after-school programs. First, children should have access to programs and be able to participate in them on a sustained basis. Children benefit most from programs that align with a child’s interests, schedule, and needs. Second, programs should have appropriate supervision and structure, well-prepared staff, and clear stated and executed goals. Finally, programs should foster partnerships with families, other community organizations, and schools. You can find the full paper here.

SmartBean offers this checklist to help parents evaluate whether an after-school program will offer the “positive outcome” they desire.

After-school Evaluation Checklist

1. Does your child need another after-school activity?

There is concern from some parents and educators that children are being over-scheduled, and that the cumulative demands placed on a child are too high. Before signing up for another activity, first give some thought to whether your child has time to play and just “have fun”, and whether you get to have some fun with them.

2. How does your child benefit from the program?

Make a distinction between an after-school program that aims for one or more positive outcomes (as defined above) versus one that amounts to glorified babysitting. For academic achievement programs, studies show that the most effective programs combine academic improvement with other enrichment activities which in turn support academic performance. Research by David Shernoff of Northern Illinois University shows that kids actually learn a lot through well organized programs because the levels of engagement, motivation, and enjoyment are higher than in the typical classroom.

3. Will your child be able to participate in the program on a regular, sustained basis?

Active, ongoing participation is a key success factor. In more than one cited academic study, students who participated in multi-year programs showed the most improvement.

  • Can you make the necessary time and financial commitments to ensure activity continuity over an extended period?
  • Is your child interested and committed to the activity? This is an obvious, but sometimes neglected factor. Make sure your child shows enough interest in a given activity to agree to participate for a reasonable amount of time. Apprehensive children who think they have an easy out are less willing to engage in new activities.

4. Can the program keep your child engaged over time?

A good after-school program director should have no trouble answering this question.

  • What are the goals of the program?
  • Does the program offer adequate supervision and structured programming? Several cited studies show the best results come from programs in which staff engaged in focused, supervised activities with children. Children are more likely to thrive if they form strong bonds with a program’s staff.

5. Is there an opportunity for you and the rest of the family to get involved?

Parental involvement can enhance positive outcomes in programs and other related activities. In addition, talking with other involved parents is a great way to get a feel for a program.

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