So much to do and so little time. Kids today feel the weight of this and understanding how to find a good fit helps maximize their time and yours. Knowing their interests are fed and needs are being met through their after-school programs can make all the difference in the world.

The Idaho Out-of-School Network strives to keep kids safe, active and learning through access and participation in quality out-of-school programs.

The Global Family Research Project out of Harvard University found that youths spend nearly 80 percent of their waking hours between kindergarten and 12th grade outside of school hours. The most opportune time to explore and be empowered to try new things often happens in the hours outside of the regular school day. There is a growing need for youths to learn 21st-century skills, get the physical activity needed for their brain development and optimum function and explore and define their passions.

Quality is everything! What makes a quality program for youth? This is an evolving definition, but the consensus in the after-school program world is that the following eight components make a quality program:

Intentional program design

The program has activities planned that are developmentally appropriate, culturally sensitive and include active play, encouraging healthy social, creative, emotional and physical development. They should consider the whole child.

How to know: Ask to see a schedule of activities and know the program’s goals and mission. Inquire how stages of development are met and understood, whether there are multiple learning techniques and how the needs of different skill levels are met when a program has varied age ranges all together. Activities can be tied to goals or a larger mission of the program and help track growth. Ask if there is time for the youths to reflect on their activities, value what they are doing, communicate and celebrate accomplishments.

Supportive relationships and environments

The program provides a structure for the staff and youth to have a trusting relationship, fostering a healthy, respectful, nurturing and safe environment with clear boundaries and expectations.

How to know: Observe the interactions with youths and between staff to see the natural flow and gauge the environment created.

Youth voice, leadership and engagement

Youths are included in planning and implementing activities that enrich the program. The program intentionally empowers youths to be engaged.

How to know: Ask to hear from someone participating in the program and listen for what they know and enjoy about it. Be aware of whether there are policies that evaluate the impact on the program participants and the level of ownership by youths in the program’s success.

Responsiveness to culture and identity

The program values and honors creating a safe and welcoming environment for all.

How to know: Ask if there are policies or staff training on inclusivity. Determine if the program has equitable hiring practices or policies including a nondiscrimination clause. There also will be opportunities for youths to celebrate and express their culture, heritage and selves and to feel good in the space provided.

Community, school and family engagement

The program shows a strong and healthy working relationship with families, the community and schools.

How to know: Ask if there are methods of communication with families that are clear, regular and translated if needed or adapted for special needs. To determine community engagement, ask if there are community partners/supporters of the program and avenues for youths to be more connected with partners.

Leadership and management

The program has a strong and defined mission with transparent management systems and financial oversight.

How to know: Learn what the mission statement or philosophy of the program is to be sure you align with it and understand the focus for the youths involved. Is there a developed method to evaluate the program and support continuous improvement? Ask if there is a policy manual and if it is available for families to see. Ask how the program was established and if it was based on input from families and the community or a strategic planning process—both are very good signs.

Safety and wellness

The program creates safe, healthy and developmentally appropriate programming for participants.

How to know: The program encourages healthy eating and exercise. It has a clear policy on anti-bullying and has procedures to protect youths with written guidelines on things such as abuse prevention.

Ongoing staff support and volunteer development

The program has a well developed orientation and ongoing opportunities for professional development for staff and volunteers. The staff members are youth-centered and motivated to engage with the youth.

How to know: The program has a training manual or schedule for orientation and reviews the mission and philosophy along with set procedures on an ongoing basis with staff and volunteers. A quality program also has regular staff meetings and opportunities for training.

The Idaho Out-of-School Network recognizes that each out-of-school-time program is unique with varying missions and philosophies, serving wide and diverse populations, ethnicities, age ranges, interests and values. The quality standards are not intended to dictate policy and practices. They are intended to suggest and encourage a strong baseline for what makes a quality program and they help provide stakeholders with ways to measure the effectiveness of programs and help them best choose the most impactful programs for their youths. Enjoy and make the most of these precious years!

Please feel free to reach out to the Idaho Out-of-School Network at 208-947-4271 for further information or resources.

Anna Almerico is program director for the Idaho Out-of-School Network in Boise.

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