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Education doesn’t stop once the last bell rings. For kindergarten kids to high school seniors, how they spend time outside the classroom has a huge effect on how they do inside it—and beyond.

So, can a tee-ball uniform lead to a cap and gown? Or, a school play help with school work?

Maybe, according to Wood River High School social worker Julie Carney. And there’s a growing body of evidence that backs her up.

Studies show that after-school activities can boost academic performance, improve behavior, ingrain healthy habits—and reduce the risk of developing bad ones. They tend to develop higher self-esteem and a positive sense of engagement with school.

They’re not just good for children, either: A pair of Brandeis University studies found that parents worried about their kids’ after-school care miss an average of eight days of work per year.

As the latchkey kids of the ‘90s have kids of their own, these programs are even more important. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 63 percent of married couples with children had both parents in the workforce in 2018. Seventy-four percent of single mothers worked, and 84 percent of single fathers.

In the absence of activities, the baby-sitter for many of those kids would be screens, according to Hailey Elementary School social worker Teri McKenna.

“In the past 25 years as a school social worker for Blaine County, I’ve witnessed an increase in working parents, and children going to a home with no adult supervision,” she said.

“This has led to a spike in children spending excessive hours unsupervised on electronic devices. There is plenty of research from the American Pediatric Association to link concerns with overexposure to electronics. It impacts children’s behavior, mood, attention, motivation, sleep and especially social learning.”

The impulse is in everyone, Carney said: Go home, tune out, shut down. For kids, though, the isolation echoes through their development.

While elementary-school students may need after-school programs for supervision, they inevitably use the time to explore the world and develop basic interpersonal skills.

Middle school can be rife with hormones, body issues and social challenges. Unchecked, that sort of “self-focus” can be brutal on an adolescent, Carney said.

“The urge to isolate can be really strong,” she said. “Activities encourage you to get outside yourself and experience life in a different way.”

It’s key for parents to pick the right program, and discuss it in detail with their child.

“When young children spend time in constructive, supervised settings after school, not only are they safe, but they’re filled with opportunities to develop their so-cial and emotional skills, problem-solve relationship issues and attain healthy friendships,” McKenna said.

As they age, engagement becomes more the point. At the high school, Carney works with students entering adulthood.

“The hours between 3:30 and 7 p.m. are way riskier for high school students than little kids,” she said. “They have cars. They’re bored. It’s a loose time. And if they don’t feel socially connected, if they feel isolated, they might fill that time developing bad behaviors.”

Carney’s experience mirrors the research: High-school students that participate in after-school activities tend to earn better grades and are less likely to drop out.

Having a trusted mentor outside plays a big part. So does consistency in activities.

“Knowing what you’re doing after school—having a constant, trustworthy place to go every day—gives you a sense of safety and stability,” Carney said.

It’s vital to pick the right program for each child. And, Carney said, that’s where parents have a huge role.

Communication is key, to help identify a good fit, as well as talking out problems if the child says it’s a bad one. Either way, it’s a learning opportunity for parent and child alike.

“It’s a balance,” Carney said. “One size doesn’t fit all. Your kid doesn’t have to be involved in two sports, three clubs and five whatevers. Sometimes, kids can overbook themselves. They don’t want to miss out—and that can create stress.”

Parents also play another role: paying the bill. Economic factors are strongly correlated to participation in after-school activities.

But locally, options exist for every income. McKenna and Carney encourage parents to contact school social workers or the organizations themselves.

“Resources are always available,” Carney said. “Money shouldn’t be an issue. We want every child in this valley to have a good, safe place to go after school.”

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