In the rush back to school, it can be difficult to comprehensively prepare after-school staff for their important jobs. In my experience working aftercare, I noticed that staff (including myself) often fell into one of two traps: They would make programs too much like school (in other words, too structured without enough recreation) or make it too much of a free-for-all (in other words, too much chaos). The best after-school staff would strike a balance between these two extremes, providing structure and academic support while allowing plenty of opportunities for choice and play.
If your program strength is recreation...
Try these tips to improve your staff members’ skills in academics and routine.
Focus on Academics
Many after school programs have a designated time for homework. When I ran after-school programs, this was one of the most difficult parts of the day. Kids were burned out from being in class all day, and the wide variety of ages represented made it difficult to give kids personalized attention. On top of it all, a lot of the content had changed since I was in school (Common Core math, anyone?). It was easy to simply give up and stuff those worksheets in the backpack to be done at home!
But at the same time, helping kids get their homework done is an incredible service to working parents. It’s one less thing for them to worry about when their kids get home at the end of a long day—and, if you say you provide homework help as part of the program, it’s absolutely something that needs to get done.
Enter staff training.
After-school staff teams need to know how to support participants with their homework. But tutoring isn’t something that just comes naturally. It’s absolutely a skill! So, bring in an expert. Lean on your “feeder schools” to identify an educator who can teach your staff how to support students academically. In my experience, this type of educator might run the learning center, be a curriculum specialist, or simply be an experienced teacher. Ask this educator (and pay them!) to give a presentation to your staff about how to support students’ learning. Once your staff members have the tools to do so, homework time will be much more successful.
Plus, it benefits staff members, too! Learning more skills while on the job is great for future career aspirations or to use as a resume builder. This goes for the educators you bring in to help teach your staff as well. These instructors may have the opportunity to earn internship credit or log continuing education hours, so check with them when you bring them on to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship that goes beyond a paycheck.
Learn School Systems
Many classroom teachers rely on structure and routine to successfully move large numbers of students through the day. These types of structures could be something as big as the daily schedule (“after lunch we have quiet reading time”) to small moments like the cues teachers use to get students’ attention (“one, two, three—eyes on me!”). Each classroom will have its own culture, as will each school.
However, most of our after-school staff have not had the extensive training that teachers have to learn “classroom management.” So, during staff training, offering a lesson on these skills is imperative. You can even bring in an educator to describe how they manage their classroom with some structure and routine. Once your staff members learn more about structure and routine during training, they can work together with colleagues to determine what their schedule is going to be and what mechanisms they'll use to communicate with students. Having a plan in place that the team understands from the beginning and can spend the first week or two of the program using with the kids will pay off in a big way throughout the school year.
If your program strength is structure...
Try these tips to improve your staff members’ skills in fun.
Level It Up
Add a little friendly competition into staff training with this game:
- Divide the staff into two teams.
- Present staff members with a particular time of day during the after-school program.
- Challenge them to “take it up a level.”
For instance, perhaps the time of day is arrival time. Typically, students will be hanging up their belongings and washing their hands. Ask the first team to share a way that this time of day could be leveled up. Perhaps they say to play music during their arrival. Then, ask the other team to take that up another level. Perhaps they say to stand at the door and give each student a warm, personalized welcome as they enter the room. Continue back and forth between the teams until you are out of ideas!
You can play multiple rounds with different parts of the day, including snack time, homework time, free choice, and departure. And while you play, be sure to record the ideas for future reference! This type of brainstorming helps stretch our staff members’ creative muscles, as well as builds a bank of ideas for when things start to feel monotonous mid-school year.
Learn About the Kids
One of the most important ways we can make after-school programs fun for kids is by building appropriately deep relationships with them. To do this, we need to get to know them!
As soon as you can, conduct a welcome survey for your students or have them start the program with a few get-to-know-you games, which can be much more exciting than answering questions on paper.
This could be done in advance of the school year or during the first week of school. Ask students questions like their favorite books, shows, sports, snacks, hobbies, animals, and more. Even the shyest students will get excited to talk about (or write about) their favorite things. Then, give your staff members time to study the students’ responses so they’re prepared to talk with them about their interests and plan activities that will appeal to them.
This type of personalized approach goes a long way in building relationships with kids—and when kids trust us through positive relationship building, we are able to have so much more fun with them!