Visiting and Interviewing School-Age Child Care Providers (page 5)
Child care for school-aged children is referred to in many different ways: as after school care, before and after school care, care for latchkey kids, after school clubs or sports programs, and summer camps. We have chosen to call these programs “school-age child care,” known in the child care profession as SACC. Although our emphasis will be on SACC programs for children in kindergarten through third grade (ages five through eight), we will also consider the needs of older children. After giving general information about legal requirements, staff qualifications, and parent involvement, we provide some ideas and guidelines tailored more specifically to school-aged child care settings.
Most SACC programs located in or run by child care centers and family care homes are regulated by the state in which they are located. The minimal requirements established by the state are designed only to ensure the safety of the children. They specify adult-to-child ratios and group sizes, which are generally 1:10 for four- to ten-year-old children, with a maximum group size of twenty, and 1:15 for ten- to fourteenyear- old children, with a maximum group size of thirty.
Regulations also ensure safety against fire and promote health standards, the appropriate education and training of staff and director, and adequate space. For instance, most states require thirty-five square feet of space per child and one toilet and washbasin per twenty children.
Independent school-age child care programs and residential and summer camps, if they are regulated at all, are often regulated by different organizations or agencies from those that regulate child care centers and family child care programs. Check with your local child care resource and referral agency to learn whether the program you are considering is required to be licensed. If it is, ask the program director to show you the license and ascertain that it is up to date. Remember that a license tells you only that the organization met the minimum requirements on the books at the time it was issued. You must check out the program yourself to make sure not only that it exceeds minimum requirements but also that it addresses the particular personality, interests, and needs of your child.
Staff Qualifications and Practices
Qualifications for staff or SACC programs and camps vary widely. In states where programs are licensed, staff must usually be at least eighteen years old or high school graduates. Some states check applicants through the state register of child abuse and maltreatment and require a minimum of twelve hours of in-service training. The licensing rules frequently state that smaller programs—those with fewer than forty-five children—must have at least one person with an associate degree in a child-related area or two years of college with a minimum of twelve credits in child-related courses or two years of experience working directly with children. Programs with more than forty-five children must have a lead person with previous administrative experience. To head a group of twenty to thirty children, a SACC teacher needs only a high school degree and one year of experience or has to be older than eighteen and have a year of experience in a child care– related area. An assistant teacher generally has to be only sixteen years old, have some experience, and be in good health.
These minimal requirements are not enough to ensure highquality care for your child. It is important that adults working with school-age children have both experience and education or training related to this age group. Training in educational methods, recreation, psychology, and social work is helpful. Staff should be familiar with the developmental stages of five- to twelve-year-olds, have good skills at conflict resolution, and be able to apply problem-solving techniques appropriate to this age group. They should be relaxed with school-age children and enjoy interacting with and listening to them. They must be comfortable talking about hurt feel2 ings and broken friendships and be able to guide children through the difficult task of developing lasting relationships with peers and adults. Staff should involve the children in the planning and operation of a program—especially for nineto twelve-year-olds—but also allow them time just to hang out without having to be engaged in meaningful activities every minute of the day. The program should include a planned approach to staffing, and each new staff member should be given written policies describing work expectations. Ask to see these guidelines for they can tell you a good deal about how the program is organized.
The organization of the environment contributes greatly to how the children function in a program. Learning centers work well for most ages. Field trips and guests should also be on the agenda. Outdoor space should reflect the activity levels of older children. Ideally, it should include large open areas for soccer, baseball, and other games, plus areas for more intimate play, such as building a tree house, and undeveloped land for exploration and discovery. The nature of an environment communicates the appropriate behavior to children— open spaces tempt them to run, intimate spaces inspire quiet play, a stage might stimulate production of a play, and unusual and interesting materials encourage exploration. Staff should have a variety of developmentally appropriate activities planned for the students when they arrive from school each day, balancing active and restful projects.
Many group SACC programs borrow space in a cafeteria or gym. A major challenge for staff is how to make this space attractive and interesting before the children arrive. The better the relationship between the site and the SACC program, the easier it is for staff to rearrange the space to their own liking.
Like all child care arrangements, SACC programs and summer camps exhibit varying attitudes toward parent involvement. Some programs welcome parents, while others may be less enthusiastic about their interest or even discourage it. Your ability to have regular daily contact with the staff of the program or camp might depend on the nature of the transportation to and from the setting you choose for your child. If she or he goes to the program directly from school and returns home in a carpool that you drive only every third day, face-to-face opportunities for discussion with the staff will be rare.
Despite these potential obstacles, it is important to think of this care arrangement as an ongoing partnership. Every adult with whom your child comes into regular contact as part of the program should have been introduced to you through information sent home. Because you are the expert on the characteristics, interests, and needs of your child, program staff should provide you with ways to share this vital information with them. At the start of the program, you should receive a handbook outlining the ways you can help your child succeed and opportunities for you to become involved. Information about the program’s activities may reach you through a newsletter or be posted on a bulletin board you can read when you pick up your child at the end of the day.
There should also be opportunities for conferences and parent education workshops. Most programs can benefit from periodic work parties made up of parents, children, and staff. Perhaps you can provide leadership in organizing communitybuilding events if staff are not already doing so. If you have a specific interest or talent that might appeal to the children in the program, try to come in to share this resource with them and their caregivers.
Despite the tremendous expansion of school-age child care options during the past ten years, about 15 percent of all fiveto twelve-year-old U.S. children are left alone at home, to fend for themselves, every afternoon after school lets out. Some people call this self-care; others refer to it as the latchkey phenomenon.
Experts agree that children under the age of twelve should not be left alone as a matter of routine. Although children develop at different rates and some eleven- and twelve-yearolds probably are able to look after themselves for short periods, most children this age and younger cannot manage crises. Children younger than twelve are unable to evaluate all possible alternative courses of action to take in an emergency and select the one most appropriate for solving the problem. What might seem like a minor occurrence to adults can become a major catastrophe for a young child home alone. The howling wind, a clap of thunder, or the pounding rain that accompanies a weather change can be very frightening to a child alone. The telephone caller who hangs up without speaking or the stranger ringing the doorbell can severely challenge the self-confidence of a child who has no one to turn to for assurance. Children often worry excessively over seemingly minor accidents such as spilling milk on the couch, breaking a glass, or burning food while trying to fix a snack.
Don’t leave your under-twelve child at home alone. If you are thinking of having your teenager provide after-school care for your younger children, wait until the youngest is eleven or twelve. This is a lot to ask, especially in a family with limited resources whose children claim they can look after themselves. But think of the worst-case scenario. Are your children mature enough to anticipate and avoid dangerous situations or respond to them sensibly should they occur?
If your child must be left at home alone, think of the arrangement as a job that requires the child to be formally prepared and trained. Think of everything that happens daily in your home and try to anticipate the unexpected. What should he do if the electricity goes off? What if someone rings the doorbell? What if someone gets hurt? Suppose the cat runs out the door and won’t come back? Discuss all these possibilities with your child and establish clear guidelines for handling them. Write out the guidelines and post them on your refrigerator. During the last couple of weeks before school starts, describe such situations to your child and ask how she or he would handle them.
Another important support for the child who is home alone after school is to have a well-established routine for how to use the time until you return from work. Try to have him perform simple chores. If your employer allows it, set a regular time for telephone contact with your child. Maybe there is an adult relative or friend he can call as well. Also try to arrange for a “safe house” where he can check in before or after school if necessary. Perhaps a neighbor is at home during the day or you have a friend who doesn’t live too far away. Some communities have established “phone friend” telephone help lines for children who are home alone, either as a community service or as a service available for paid subscribers. Children who call this number can speak with an adult trained as a counselor about any worries they have or simply to hear a friendly, reassuring voice when they have been by themselves for several hours and feel lonely or scared.
Never leave a young child at home alone. If you can arrange nothing else, try to find a college student or a retired person who is willing to provide regular help for a modest fee. Perhaps a relative can come to your home for a couple of hours a day for a small amount of money. Some family child care providers offer their homes as safe houses for children who are old enough that they don’t need constant supervision. To explore these and other options further, check with your local child care resource and referral agency. Other places to seek information and ideas are a school newsletter, neighborhood newsletters, and bulletin boards at local libraries and food markets. The parent-teacher organization at your child’s school might also have useful suggestions.
Ultimately, the success of an after-school program depends on the particular characteristics of your child and your family. Here are some questions to help you think about your child’s strengths and needs:
- How would you describe your child’s temperament?
- What are his or her strengths?
- What activities does your child enjoy most?
- What are the low points in the day and the year for your child? Why do these occur?
- Was anything in the last year a negative or painful experience for your child? What can you learn from that experience?
- In what area do you think your child needs the most help? Can an after-school program be helpful in that area?
- Has your child become involved in something because of a friend? Has that been a good experience?
Choosing a School-Age Child Care Program or Camp
Finding the right school-age child care program or summer camp involves four steps:
Step 1: Contact programs by telephone.
Step 2: Visit programs that meet your basic requirements.
Step 3: Talk with program directors.
Step 4: Make a choice.
Step 1: Contact Programs by Telephone
You will need to gather information at least a year before your child needs this care so that you can see the programs in action before your child enrolls. Check with your local child care resource and referral agency for names of school-age child care programs in your area. Also, ask relatives, friends, and neighbors for ideas and possibilities. When you have a good sense of the alternatives, pick two or three that seem to meet your most basic requirements. Give each of them a call, using the questions provided on the SACC telephone survey form.
Step 2: Visit Programs That Meet Your Basic Requirements
Here are some key things to think about as you visit schoolage child care programs and camps:
- How will the program match up with your child’s personality, interests, and likes and dislikes?
- What is the program’s philosophy? Is the emphasis on cooperative play, on primarily competitive games, or a balance of the two?
- Does the staff show respect for the children? How is such respect evidenced?
- What is the approach to discipline? Are the children allowed to help set the rules for individual and group behavior?
- What is the physical layout? Is it open and flexible? Is it designed to keep the children stimulated and occupied? Are there spaces for cuddling up with a good book and relaxing? Is there a place to do homework undisturbed? Is there space for running around and getting rid of extra energy?
- What is the food like? Are nutritious meals and snacks planned that are appropriate for children of this age group?
- Do the activities take into consideration the differing developmental levels of the children?
- Are the materials and equipment freely available to the children? Are they safe and of interest to children the age of your child?
- If your child has special needs, can the program accommodate them?
SACC Telephone Survey Form
- SACC program name:
- Date of call:
- Name of Director:
- Ages of children served:
- Hours of care provided:
- Days program does not operate:
- Is transportation provided from my child’s school to the program?
- Will there be an opening when we need care?
- What are the fees?
- Is the program licensed or registered?
- Ages of children in my child’s group?
- Number of children per staff in my child’s group?
- Total number of children in my child’s group?
- Qualifications of program staff?
- Briefly describe the program’s philosophy.
- May I have the names and phone numbers of two or three parents of children who have attended the program or are now using it?
- When is a good time to visit?
If you are considering a day or residential camp for summer child care, use the same survey form to gather information.
Make sure that you check out standard health and safety issues—cleanliness of bathrooms and kitchen, health policies, whether staff are trained in CPR and first aid, whether there are practice fire drills, and so forth. We provide a list of questions to ask when you visit the center.
When visiting a residential camp and interviewing the camp director, you will need to ask some additional questions. What is the camp’s overall philosophy? What are the educational backgrounds of the director and the staff? How old are the counselors, and what special training in the care of schoolage children have they received? What is the ratio of adults to children? Do they address special safety issues, such as having medical staff on call, life guards on duty at the waterfront, and nighttime supervision of the children? What vehicles are used for transportation, and what condition are they in? What happens during a typical day at camp?
Obtain the names of three families who used the program or camp during the previous year or summer. If at all possible, include one or more families whose names you obtained on your own. Call them for references and use what they say to help shape the questions you ask when you visit and interview the program director. If possible, speak both to the parents and to the children who attended the program or camp. What did the parents and children like most about the program? What did they like least? Would they recommend the program to friends?
Step 3: Talk with Program Directors
If you are unable to visit the program or camp while it is in operation, you will have to rely heavily on what you can learn from the director. Remember that this person has a vested interest in convincing you to enroll your child (unless there is a long waiting list) and so will portray the program in the best possible light. Use the questions listed under Step 2. The director probably hired the staff who will work with your child so ask questions about their qualifications and experiences, whether their backgrounds have been checked to make sure they have not previously been involved in abusive situations,and how they are supervised and evaluated. Ask about the program’s approach to parent involvement and staff-parent communications. Balance what the director tells you with what you learn from families who have used the program or camp in the recent past.
Step 4: Make a Choice
When choosing an after-school child care program, practical matters such as location, transportation, and cost will influence your decision the most. But don’t lose track of the interests and needs of your child! In the long run, convenience will not make up for a child who is miserable and whose unhappiness makes you miserable.
When choosing a summer camp, it is better to send your child to a day camp before trying a residential arrangement. When choosing a residential camp, remember that your child’s happiness will depend at least as much on living arrangements and social activities as on educational, sports, and art activities. Be sure counselors understand the social dynamics of cabin life and are prepared to intervene if children are being singled out in any negative way. If your child can attend camp with a friend, that relationship can often provide emotional security in times of social stress and uncertainty.
When picking a program for your school-age child, the most important ingredient is the adults who will have responsibility for your child. Think back to the directors and staff you met or talked to. Which ones did you feel most comfortable with? Have they had some training so you can be sure they know what they are doing? Another useful way to make a choice is to close your eyes and try to imagine your child in each setting you visited. Which one feels best? By now you have applied all available objective criteria in comparing programs and camps. Now trust your instincts.
In 1997, Mon Cochran joined with Eva Cochran, Coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Degree Program at Tompkins Cortland Community College, to write a parent's guide entitled “Child Care that Works: A Parents' Guide to Finding Child Care,” published by Robins Lane Press. The aim is to provide parents with the information needed to understand quality in child care and find satisfactory child care arrangements.
Under the leadership of Nancy Torp, Senior Extension Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension, portions of the book have been adapted as fact sheets for Extension educators, parents, and child care providers across New York State.
Reprinted with the permission of Cornell University. © 2008 Cornell University
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