Friday, November 05, 2021

Afterschool Programs: Ideal Opportunity to Develop Social Emotional Learning

This book that I co-authored offers
educators many SEL activities and 
valuable SEL information. 

 A director of an afterschool program reached out to me today to see if I would be interested in speaking to the afterschool program teachers about social emotional learning and behavior management. It has been a while since I presented on a teaching/learning topic, but I couldn't resist this opportunity to speak about a topic I am passionate about and a topic that directly relates to the positive development of children. 

I deeply believe that we have what it takes to help all children thrive today and into the future, and too often we don't take the time to seriously consider our efforts and potential in this regard. The way we mentor, engage and work with children directly affects how they feel about themselves and who they become. 

As I thought of the diverse teaching team which includes many new teachers, I began to think about what is most important when it comes to working with children. How do we empower and enrich children's lives in meaningful ways. 

Know and Appreciate Children

To be an effective educator at any level, you have to get to know and respect the children within your charge well. Beware of judging a child in any way, instead have an open mind to whom every child is, what they care about and whom they want to be. See yourself as a servant/mentor to the children--a person who will help them to achieve that which they desire, and a person who will lead them in positive life-enriching ways. 

Model the behaviors you want children to use

First, we have to think about how we want children to behave--what do we expect from them, and then we have to assess our own behavior to ensure that we are modeling those behaviors. That's not always easy to do, and as an educator some of those desired behaviors came easily to me and others were more difficult. For the most part, we hope children will act in the following ways:

  • Be courteous to one another by using respectful language, gestures and actions
  • Solve conflict with words not force. Take the first step and try to solve a conflict peacefully on your own, and if that doesn't work, take the second step and seek the help of a teacher. 
  • If you see something dangerous or destructive, seek a teacher's help right away--don't try to solve it yourself.
  • If you are troubled or worried, speak up right away--it is always best to get help rather than let worries and troubles hold you back. 
  • Become the person you are meant to be--discover your interests, pursue your passions, find a friend group that supports you and that you enjoy being with, develop your voice and look for models and  mentors who help you to be that person you are meant to be. 
  • Know your needs - if you're upset, try to figure out why. Are you hungry, uncomfortable, tired, bothered, discouraged. . . . . . .Let a teacher and/or friend help you to figure out what's going on. 
Foster activities and groups that help children learn about themselves in meaningful, enjoyable ways
  • The best way to learn is to engage in meaningful, enjoyable activities
  • Choice empowers children and builds confidence--whenever possible give children a choice about the activities they choose and the groups they work with
  • Infuse social-emotional learning into activities as a way to build a strong cultre and a caring community that develops self awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. 
Deal with behavior issues in calm, focused, positive ways
  • Begin every activity with a group meeting. Briefly set the ground rules, take questions and then begin the activity. 
  • If a problem is dangerous or destructive, intervene right away by peacefully (with words rather than force) separating the children involved and following these steps:
    • If someone is hurt, get help right away
    • Clearly review what happened separately with each person involved
    • Relay the incident to another staff member, preferably a supervisor - keep a record
    • Decide on next steps to ensure safety for all involved
  • Face problems by asking questions. For example if a child is acting in a way that is worrisome, hurtful, or problematic in any way, bring the child to a quiet space and ask these questions:
    • Are you okay?
    • Do you need a few minutes to calm down?
    • I noticed that you _____________, and that's problematic because ___________. Why did you do that?
    • How do you think we should handle this situation (Children almost always know the right answer to this question).
  • You are mandated reporters so if you ever see signs of abuse, by law you must report the situation. This will not happen often, but it may happen so it is important to know this. 
  • Continually assess the success of activities and revise as needed. These questions will help you to assess programming success:
    • Are the children happy?
    • Are the children learning something new--what evidence of this do you have?
    • Are the children working/learning/playing well together?
    • Is everyone getting a turn?
    • Does the activity foster social emotional learning? How do you know that?
    • Are children able to relay what they've learned and participated in with family members, and perhaps continue the activity/learning at home?
    • Do children have a say in how the activity is led, run, created?
    • Are their leadership opportunities for children?
    • Does the activity help children to know themselves better and discover their interests and passions?
    • Do the activities help children to develop greater self confidence?
When problems don't go away

Sometimes children will have a bad day, and sometimes children will display a series of behaviors that point to a bigger issue, the kind of issue that requires greater support from the program administrators, parents and others.
  • Keep a simple log of the issues children present
  • When an issue won't go away, seek the support of the program administrator
  • Use the protocol outlined in the program for dealing with significant issues
  • Put an action plan into place to positively support the child as they endure this situation.
Inclusivity and Respect

Don't allow any kind of language or action that demeans or excludes children or families for any reason. Keep an ear open and eye out for any kind of bigotry that makes a child feel uncomfortable or excluded because of their body size, skin shade, religion, economic class, culture, family style or more. Language and actions that exclude do not belong in any kind of child care setting. If a colleague or child errs by using this kind of language or action, speak up right away to help them do the right thing. If that persists, seek help from the program administrator. Typically prejudice of any kind is rooted in ignorance, and dispelling that ignorance leads to greater camaraderie and respect.

Holidays and Special Celebrations

Every youth program deals with holidays and special celebrations in different ways. I always preferred a child/family-centered, inclusive approach that helps children to feel proud of their personal/cultural/religious celebrations by having the chance to share those celebrations with one another. This can happen by letting children share a tradition, activity, story, and experiences that relate to their special holidays and celebrations. By allowing children to talk about and share these events, you build a more respectful, knowing, inclusive culture that includes many varied religious, cultural and personal traditions and celebrations. Typically, if you do include holidays in your programming, it is good to have similar holiday and non-holiday choices. For example, you could have Creature Day--a day when children have the choice to make all kinds of creative creatures during the holidays. Some will choose creatures that relate to the holidays and others will choose different kinds of creatures. 

Working with Families

Families know their children well, and when a family has a concern, entertain that concern with the utmost respect and a spirit of family-program collaboration and teamwork. When families and educators work together, the child has the greatest opportunity for success. Usually a family's concern can be easily met via collective home-school efforts to make all programming child-centered and sensitive. If a family-educator conflict arises that cannot be easily solved, then it is time to consult the program administrators.

In summary, before- and after-school programs are ideal environments for child engagement and the development of social emotional learning. Without the tight curriculum parameters of the school day, there is lots of room for creativity, collaboration and care. Utilizing child-friendly protocols and policies to lead these programs helps every child to engage and develop in positive ways.