How can I evaluate before- and after-school care?

      Since early elementary-aged children are not fully ready to take care of themselves, working parents have to arrange before- and afterschool care. The alternative – having a child spend mornings and afternoons alone – is neither safe nor appropriate. Most parents recognize that six- or seven-year-olds should not be left on their own, but many parents consistently leave eight- and nine-year-olds to care for themselves. Some of these children even supervise younger siblings.

      Parents who leave young children alone spend much of their working time worrying, and with good cause. Eight- and nine-year-olds have trouble remembering and following rules. They may open the door to strangers, go outside, use the stove, look at inappropriate TV shows or websites, or have a friend over against their parents’ wishes. Kids this age are not equipped to handle emergencies, including ones involving younger siblings.

      In addition to physical supervision, children need emotional support, which they can’t get when they’re alone. Before school, a child needs a caregiver to offer a good breakfast and a cheerful, “Have a good day at school. Hope your science project is a success.” After school, he needs to talk, have a snack, hear someone say, “How was your day? Did you work things out with your friend? Do you need help with your homework?”

      The caregiver can be a relative, neighbor, teenage sitter, or day care center worker. Many public schools lease space for independent day care operations. Since the programs are convenient and presumably screened by the school administration, parents often sign their children up for this before- and after-school care.

      Private schools also may provide care, operated according to the school’s standards and values. The school’s administrator usually has responsibility for the program. Since the quality of the day care reflects upon the school, private schools sometimes show a particularly strong commitment to providing good programs.

      A problem with all day care, whether in an institutional setting or a private home, is finding educated staff to work with early elementary-aged children from 7:00 to 9:00 in the morning and 3:00 to 6:00 in the evening. Child care workers are notoriously underpaid and receive few benefits. Qualified caretakers are hard to find and day care administrators must spend considerable time training inexperienced staff and coping with frequent turnover.

      Before settling on any type of arrangement, get recommendations from people you trust. If you hire a sitter for your home, check her references carefully. Determine how responsible a neighborhood teenager is before allowing her to stay regularly with your child.

      Whether your child is being cared for in a day care program, a private home, or your own home, pay attention to the kind of care he’s receiving. Don’t feel complacent if he’s enrolled in a public or private school program. Although all such programs should be carefully screened and supervised, they often aren’t.

      To reassure yourself and help your child, evaluate the quality of his day care. For a morning program outside your home, find out what kinds of activities are offered. Can your child bring his own toys or projects? Can he finish his homework before school? Is breakfast or a snack served? Is the atmosphere friendly? If a sitter comes to your home in the morning, is she pleasant while helping your child get ready? Your child’s school day will be influenced by the start he gets each morning.

      Learn about the after-school program. Is a snack provided? Are there active and quiet activities? Indoors and out? Can he go to an organized sport or activity in the school building or elsewhere? Is there a quiet place to do homework? What is the staff/child ratio? Is the staff warm and helpful? Can you use the center on a drop-in basis? If he spends the afternoon with a sitter, is he well supervised? Does he watch too much TV or spend too much time on the computer?

      You can tell a lot about the quality of care by talking to and observing your child. He may complain about his baby-sitter or his day care program, especially if he sees other children going home from school each day. Yet, he may be happy when you see him in the evening, and he may talk excitedly about the activities and kids he’s been involved with. If you’re pleased with the sitter or program and your child seems content, you can feel confident he is well taken care of. If you aren’t pleased, talk to your caregiver and ask for and offer solutions. Eventually you may consider seeking alternative arrangements, rearranging your own schedule, or cutting back on your work hours to better meet your child’s needs.

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