By Jordan Langton:
Working with children in and out of school settings has always been a deep passion of mine. Raised in a tight-knit family of educators, I really saw no other path and my earliest jobs were chosen to reflect that path. I spent my summers working at a summer camp for at-risk youth, and my nights and evenings running a YMCA after-school program through AmeriCorps and the YMCA. For six years I taught public-school in rural Ohio giving me a solid understanding of the expectations and trends within the public education world. I became obsessed with public policy focused on minority student rights and education funding. Wanting to find out more about these deep and difficult questions, I decided to pick up everything and move to Denver to attend CU Boulder to obtain my Master’s in Education Foundations, Policy, and Practice. I believe that my strong foundation, along with my passion for education policy, helped give me a unique perspective, in not only being an advocate for school age needs within programs in Colorado, but also in helping the professionals that choose to work with this amazing age group of children through quality training opportunities.
When I am asked to try and encapsulate what it means to work with “School Age” children and programs, I often reflect on my years as a sixth-grade teacher in Ohio. I taught in a traditional public elementary school in a rural part of the state, so developing and encouraging a strong sense of community was imperative. We were going to be learning all day together in a tiny, poorly ventilated classroom with original wood plank flooring from the 1930’s that creaked with every step. Teaching 25 children in this room was challenging enough, but when you add in the fact that school agers grow exponentially both physically and mentally year by year, herein lies the real challenge. At the beginning of the year I would be greeted by fresh-faced and happy children who were ready to face the hurdles of the school year, but by February they were jaded young adults who were in it and over it, somehow at the same time. I believe Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Cain, said it best when he said,
“School-age children are much more self-directed and peer-focused than when they were preschoolers. And their behavior and communication style seem to change overnight. There is always a moment when you think, ‘I don’t recognize this child,’ and then you realize, ‘Oh, she’s growing and changing.'”
Children from age five to twelve are growing and developing so quickly. To be given the opportunity to watch so many young children make such meaningful growth in their development year after year is something that I will always value, and I will spend as much time as possible helping to support others who choose the same path. It’s no easy task. Working with school age children with big opinions, but still so much to learn, can be tough!
Historically, school age trainings have been more limited and often forgotten compared to early childhood trainings. But, where there are trainings, they are often focused on classroom and specialty educators. I see an opportunity to increase the number of quality trainings for those professionals who work with school age children both in and out of school time. The tide seems to be shifting as educational researchers, politicians, and communities help to raise expectations and hopefully funding levels. When I started working in after school programs and summer camps in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that the administration and parents were content if their child came home with no major injuries. Now, there are various quality rating assessments developed to ensure students are engaged academically and socially within their programs. Many new after school providers are focused on academic programs, encouraging STEM and STEAM learning outside of the classroom, or getting children moving in athletic programs or exploring their passion in theater. Parents expect after school programs to provide professional academic support for their children’s needs, as well as to have a direct link to their classroom teacher to provide bridge support for their social, emotional, and academic needs.
I believe that one of the foundational elements for providing a powerful and meaningful educational experience for children comes from empowering the professionals who work with them to choose and attend professional development opportunities that suit the specific needs of their program and children. Working in the field can be challenging. For those looking for authentic education, training, and assessments for out-of-school-time programming, it can be frustrating that the opportunities do not exist. If our expectations for these programs continue to rise, as they should, then we need to make sure to provide funding and supports to make it possible.
We need to reimagine the resources we provide professionals who work with school age children. This process begins by providing professional development for school age staff, not only to enable them to provide quality programming, but to deeply empower them. Knowledgeable and empowered staff will always strive to provide a quality experience. Using quality assessments, such as the School Age Care Environment Rating Scale (SACERS) or the Class K-3 scale, provide staff another opportunity to see that their responsibilities are taken seriously and that there are written expectations for quality to uphold. While the rating system can seem daunting at first (who likes to be observed!?) there really is nothing better, as a professional, to get researched, and nonbiased evidence of the quality programming that you already provide, as well as the support you need to further improve the quality of your programming and teaching staff. By choosing to proactively support and educate one’s staff on best practices for their children through quality rating systems, trainings, and workshops, they are making the choice to support out-of-school time programs to provide the quality of care we have come to expect.
I was able to see many wonderful examples of quality trainings in action at the annual conference, The After School Zone, put on by the Larimer County Early Childhood Council this past November. Science curriculum was taught through application and attendees were even given a free copy of the teacher’s curriculum guide. Many other workshops had participants up and out of their seats, practicing various brain breaks, introduction activities, and social emotional focused learning activities. We must learn new strategies and curriculums in this way, because this is the way we should teach it to our students. The before or after school setting is not one where anyone is sitting still, ever! It would be a disservice to our staff, and our children, if we did not provide quality trainings and educational sessions using strategies that model what works in the out of school time setting.
What I saw at the After School Zone conference was a reminder of the passion that is held within this group of hardworking professionals, and how eager they are for practical, quality training. Despite working with an age range of children in which things can change on a dime, from Kindergarten to sixth grade, and being paid minimum-wage while living in a world with rapidly rising expectations, these incredible professionals only want the knowledge to do better, to work harder, and to provide a quality program that meets the constantly changing needs of their children.
Feel free to reach out with any School Age related questions or comments!