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Listening and hearing: Encouraging language in after-school programs

by Amanda Andrews and Karen Petty


Children today bear the weight of the world on their shoulders and bring it with them when they enter our doors. I hear children feeling lonely, focusing on negative emotions, and wanting to be heard. It is our job to create a program where they learn to speak their feelings and where they build their emotional intelligence, so they can be successful in all areas of their life.


Sharyn Wilding, owner and executive director of multiple child care programs in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, ponders the atmosphere of extended care. It is her opinion that after-school programs often fall into predictable routines and do “very little.” She raises an interesting perspective of how children in extended care programs come bearing the burdens of the day and seek a refuge to be themselves.

As practitioners, how do we bridge the gap between school, routine care, and meeting our children’s emotional and intellectual needs?


About extended care
After-school care has traditionally been seen as peripheral, taking a secondary place behind formal education. In actuality, it is formative and should be respected. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2004 report on before- and after-school programs, most children spend more than 10 hours a week in extended care (Kleiner, Nolin, and Chapman, 2004).
Children ranging from 3- and 4-year-olds (pre-kindergarten) to early adolescence, are enrolled in programs designated as after-school, school-age, and wrap-around care in a variety of locations, including public and private child care centers, public school sites, and home-based care.
Texas, for example, currently, has roughly 2,420 registered child care programs that offer care to school-age children, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (2018). The depth and breadth of after-school care shows how important these programs are to the child care community and to families.


Challenges and opportunities
Issues plague extended-care programs just as they do any school or child care setting. Extended care programs face not only the personal daily challenges children bring with them (as Wilding described) but also logistical challenges.

Some programs share space with other programs, lack storage and furniture, deal with sporadic attendance, or have restrictions placed on the activities they can offer. These types of barriers show the importance of intentional planning and the necessity to make activities appealing to the children. By applying a little more time when arranging the format, floor space, and flow of the program, teachers can reduce problems and create an environment where children are enthusiastic, comfortable, and expressive.

The mission of after-school programs varies greatly from that in formal education (Edwards and Martinez, 2006), and herein lies the greatest opportunity for child development. Extended care programs do not operate with the pressures of state standards and academic skill development. Thus, they are able to cater more to individual children’s needs and ultimately create an encompassing environment that can bridge the gap between school, routines, and personal needs.

Because the programs do not need to imitate a child’s typical school day, they offer an enriching atmosphere where children can find the refuge they seek to grow at their own pace (Edwards and Martinez, 2006).


Enhance language development
Language development is one area that can blossom in an after-school atmosphere. Without the strict standards and academic rigor that characterizes formal schooling, students can better express themselves in an after-school setting, unlocking a wonderful opportunity for language skill development and support.

According to the Russian theorist Lev Vygotsky, as children age, their self-talk is transferred to social situations. This is why it is important to include a variety of settings in which children practice their dialogue (Crain, 2011). One such place is their extended care program. Providing an environment where they feel secure enough to openly communicate and exercise their skills of expression can impact their learning and life in every setting.

How do we accomplish this in a program that often deals with logistical restrictions?


Easy-to-implement ideas
Open the door of communication by first making the children feel comfortable.
Provide children with their own space. Cubbies, hooks, or another designated area for their personal belongings allow them ownership of the space and foster a welcoming atmosphere.
Post schedules that give children ownership of their time, and provide routines that make them feel safe.
Within the schedule, make time for daily download or debriefing. Class meetings, family style snacks or meals, and small-group activities enable children to honestly answer the question: “How was your day?”
Allow for carryover or extension of their activities. Flexibility in scheduling ensures that the children’s needs are met and their interests and efforts are validated. Make sure you fully disclose what routine changes are happening and why.
Create a job system for children to feel connected and have a purpose for using their language and communication skills. Older children can read to younger children, buddies can help with homework, and children can assist in daily care tasks such as preparing snacks or meals and cleaning up. These types of experiences bond the children to the program, the space, and each other, helping them feel comfortable and supporting their interactions.
Continue the conversation through purposeful planning.
Conduct interest surveys for readers and non-readers alike to open the dialogue about children’s favorite subject—themselves. Pictorial surveys engage non-readers in the discussion about what they like and enjoy, giving all students a voice within the program. These surveys provide ideas for activities and events, making the children a part of the environment and validating their preferences (Armstrong & Schmidt, 2013).
Offer projects with purpose that help students buy in to activities and give them an audience or endgame for their activities. Children can write poems, stories, and plays to share with other children through readings or performances. Having children write suggestions for program activities or how to improve the environment gives their writing a real purpose. It also identifies ways to enhance the program.
Engage them in conversations about their work, plans, ideas, and accomplishments. Talk to them. Using open-ended questions and appropriate wait-time gives children opportunities to communicate their thoughts and practice their language skills. Honor them and their time by showing genuine interest in their activities.
Collaborate and communicate through play.
Create time and spaces that encourage different types of play, including solitary, parallel, associative, and cooperative. Children of varying ages, ability levels, and moods require a variety of play experiences. Large-group areas, access to an assortment of materials, and mobile space options (like small rugs or mats and carpet squares) help children feel comfortable participating individually or collaboratively in play.
Encourage pretend play, which engages children on many levels, encouraging negotiation, social competence, and relationship-building while also challenging children creatively and intellectually.
Listen to their play narrative. Whether children are working individually or in a group, their play will involve sounds and words that develop their language skills (Segal, 2004). Capitalize on their utterances by extending, clarifying, or supporting their speech through questions, comments, and even non-verbal gestures. Oftentimes, a smile is enough to keep the conversation flowing.
Provide games with rules to help them exercise their collaborative and social competency skills (Armstrong & Schmidt, 2013). Negotiating turn-taking, rule-abiding, and fair play are all activities that strengthen children’s communication and social-emotional development. Break out the board games, cards, or equipment and participate!
Offer movement-based outlets to meet their physical, emotional, and intellectual demands. Physical activities vary widely; they can be done indoors or out, with or without music or props, and alone or in pairs or groups. The flexibility of the choices gives children opportunities to meet their own needs while encouraging communication, cooperation, and self-expression.


Create a refuge for children
The necessity of after-school programs has been demonstrated in today’s economic climate with dual-head working families on the rise and school children often too young to stay at home alone (U. S. Department of Labor, 2018).

While the focus differs from formal academics, extended care programs provide an opportunity for growth that many families seek for their children. Language and communication development, in particular, is one of the significant learning domains affected by environmental influences (Armstrong & Schmidt, 2013).

While combatting predictability, logistics, and individual children’s needs, programs have many ways to foster language development in an after-school setting if practitioners are willing to advocate for their children and make a more concerted effort to listen to and hear their voices.

Wilding posed an interesting perspective of how extended care programs act as a refuge for children from their long days of work. But the question remains: How will you bridge the gap with your children today?


Resources for program assessment and improvement
National AfterSchool Association (NAA),
National Institute on Out-of-School Time,
The School-Age Care Environment Ratings Scale (SACERS),


Armstrong, L. J. & Schmidt, C. A. (2013). Great Afterschool Programs and Spaces that Wow! St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Crain, W. (2011). Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Edwards, S. and Martinez, K. (2006). Integrating Literacy Development into School-Age Care Programs. Exchange, (168), 52-54.
Kleiner, B., Nolin, M. J. and Chapman, C. (2004). Before- and After-School Care Programs, and Activities of Children in Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade: 2001. Statistical Analysis Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
Segal, M. (2004). “The Roots and Fruits of Pretending.” In E.F. Zigler, D.G Singer, & S. J. Bishop-Josef (Eds.), Children’s Play: The Roots of Reading. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. (2018). Search Texas Child Care.
U. S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2018). Employment Characteristics of Families Summary.


About the authors
Amanda Andrews began working with young children more than 13 years ago, teaching in a private child care center and then in a public prekindergarten program. Currently, she is working on a PhD at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, where she teaches undergraduate child development courses. Her research interests include educator self-efficacy, the influence of classroom environment, and the impact of family education on young children.

Karen Petty, PhD, is a professor of early child development and education at Texas Woman’s University and former chair of the Family Sciences Department. She was a public school and child care teacher and director prior to coming to TWU. Her research is primarily based on resilience in young children, especially those who have encountered separation and loss.