More than a safe place for kids after school, today’s after school programs are creative, engaging extensions of the school day. And they’re beneficial for kids’ academics to boot. Compared to kids who aren’t enrolled in after school, says Carol McElvain, Principal TA Consultant with the American Institutes for Research, children who attend after school programs have better behavior in school, complete more homework, and have better attendance.

The benefits extend beyond academics, however. Many programs help kids develop 21st Century skills, says Ellen Gannett, director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College, including communication, social skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and others. As you plan your child’s schedule for the upcoming school year, here are ten questions to ask before you register:

  • Does it Pass the Gut Check? Pay attention to your first impressions, advises Gannett. If you feel good when you visit, if the kids are happy, if the staff are inviting and enjoying their work, then it’s likely a good program. Stop in for at least one class, after even a short visit, you’ll have a good idea of just how well the program would fit your child. Your gut instincts in a situation like this are often telling.
  • Are the Basics Covered? Of course, safety is the first priority. Ask about building security, drop-off policies, and emergency procedures. Also, ask about student-to-staff ratios, says McElvain, the highest ratio should be one leader for 15 students. Finally, ask how the program uses its space. Is there supervised playtime on the playground or in a gym? If the program is using a school building after hours, how does the program allocate staff to different areas of the building?
  • Does it Fit My Family? The program should fit in with the schedule and time requirements of your family. If you have a variable work schedule, for example, the program should allow for different pick up times each day. And the cost of the program should fit your budget. If you can’t afford the program at first glance, ask about financial aid or sliding scales for tuition.
  • Who Will Work With My Child? An important quality indicator, says Jen Rinehart, vice president of research and policy with the After School Alliance, is the staff. The staff should have background in child development or education, and understand the developmental needs of kids. Ask about staff qualifications and training. How do they plan lessons? How do they handle behavior and classroom management?
  • What is the Daily Schedule? Each program should have a daily schedule that includes a transition between school and after school, with snack, time for socializing, and time for physical activity. After kids are fed and have been active, says Gannett, they’ll be ready to focus on the program’s academic aspects. This is a good time to tackle some homework as well.
  • How does the Program Connect with School? A good program won’t feel like school, but will build academic skills. “After school programs pride themselves on relevant hands-on, engaging learning experiences that don’t feel like more school,” says Rinehart, “but that are connected to the learning that kids do during the day.” The connection with school could be more opportunities for tutoring or homework help, or project based learning that supplements the school’s curriculum. Ask how the program communicates with teachers, and how the program aligns with the school curriculum.
  • Is my Child Learning Something New? Whether your child’s interests are science, drama, or art, he should be engaged in new learning after school. One trend in after school programs is the increase in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs that introduce kids to topics from robotics to the science of crime scene investigation. Whatever your child’s interests, ask how the staff will ensure that he’s learning something new every day.
  • Are There Service Learning Opportunities? Service learning involves investigating a need in the community and working to solve it. That could be researching how to create a community garden and then creating and maintaining a garden around the corner from school. Ask how your child will be involved in activities that promote social responsibility and community.
  • What Role Will My Child Have? Older children should have a voice in planning the program, while younger children should have a choice of activities. Ask about student and parent leadership opportunities, and how student opinions are taken into account.
  • How Was Your Day? The best gauge of a program’s quality will likely come from your child. When you pick her up, ask how her day went, if she consistently complains of boredom or other problems, then it's probably time to look for a new program.

As you plan for your child’s important after-school hours, asking the right questions at registration will help you find a program that will be an enriching, engaging, and a fun addition to the school day.