Keeping children happily engaged is one of the biggest challenges I hear about in my workshops and training events. Children come to your After-School Program at a lag time in the afternoon where they have already spent a lot of energy and focus during school hours. Their bodies and minds are tired, sugar levels might be on the low side, and they have the urge to let loose after being pent up all day.
Just traveling from school to the After-School Program offers an opportunity to get into behaviors and interactions between the children that bring a different energy into your facility. This presents an immediate Staff challenge as they guide children to designated areas where the goal is to get them ready to begin the first activity.
Restoring order is much more difficult than maintaining the flow.
Yes, all this often creates stress among the staff and youth workers. However, with a plan of action and some simple tools, your staff can become masters of managing a group of energetic after-schoolers. Using specific techniques and structures, the transition from school to After-School can have a controlled yet upbeat feeling, welcoming the group into the next phase of their day.
Here are 4 powerful tips on keeping children engaged and focused to get you started right away:
1. Keep the children moving
During that time of the day, forcing children to sit down and expecting them to be quiet won’t work well. Natural body cycles are telling them to either settle down, zone out and be unproductive, or to ramp up for active playing and moving. When you are resisting their natural body rhythms, it becomes a power struggle and a losing battle.
Instead, get them up and moving to give their bodies oxygen for energy and help their brains to focus. Give them space and the opportunity to let off a little steam. Embrace the controlled chaos and the noise. Welcome their live participation with warmth and joy. What a different energy than the “Sit down!” commands we hear so often. What a different way to begin your After-School day.
2. Vary the types of activities
A child’s attention span is always short, but it’s especially short right after school. This means alternating between high energy activities and quieter, focused activities. Start immediately with games and structured play that allows the children to vocalize, move their bodies, and act a little crazy where laughing is encouraged.
Once they have a chance to enjoy a mental and physical restart, you can introduce more focused activities and bring their energy down to listen and learn. Repeat the cycle of active and focused activities, with a change every 15 minutes. This will keep them continuously engaged, also eliminating behavior challenges and making the time fly for them.
Be sure to vary the activities from one day to the next. Children quickly get bored once they figure out the “pattern.” While the formula of rotating from active-to-focused energy levels remains the same, the activities themselves should be always fresh and challenging.
3. Find activities that matter to them
Children, especially older children, need to feel that their time is being spent wisely. Regularly schedule high-interest activities where the children are curious and eager. When you discover a new winning activity, make a note and add it to your list of winners. Keep them interested and they will naturally focus and stay engaged.
Discover topics of high interest to your children. Listen to them. What do they talk about with friends? What excites them? Write down the questions they ask. Their curiosity is a window into their internal world. Capture it. Encourage dialogue with thought-provoking questions to the group. Play the Game of Five [Why, What, Where, When, How] to expand the conversation and dig deeper to discover what lights them up.
It is a simple yet profound concept that your children’s innate love of discovery will motivate them to excel in every area—once you tap into that wealth of energy and excitement. This is where the magic happens, and it will transform your After-School Program.
4. Engage the children and youth in conversation
Talk with them about their life, their community, world issues, and their school community. A simple conversation creates an opportunity for the children to develop language and communication skills in a safe setting. Children have few opportunities for positive child-adult conversations, so it is especially important to capture those moments when they appear.
Communication involves both speaking and listening. The give and take of the moment lends itself to many benefits to both the staff member and the child. This is another space where topics of high interest will come to light. Personal development concepts and insights will also surface. Taking note of these, the After-School Program will also benefit as themes and emphasis points take shape. This is child-based learning that feels effortless to them as well as interesting and fulfilling. And the ratings on the After-School Program will rise as a result.
The most important tip today is to have a plan
Set up a daily timeline in 15 minute segments. List out your activities and have that list ready within easy view so the paper doesn’t appear within the children’s line of sight. Write in large letters so a quick glance keeps the activities rolling.
Move smoothly from one activity to the next with no gaps. Even 30 seconds of lag time while reading notes or thinking of how to begin provides a window for behavior issues to blossom and grow. Restoring order is much more difficult than maintaining the flow. When one activity is over, the next breath should be announcing the next activity. This goes back to #1. Keep them moving.
Understanding the children’s body clock, varying their activities, and tapping into topics that fascinate them—these simple tools will keep your After-School children engaged. To maintain this type of scheduling and structure takes planning. It takes resources. And it takes full-out engagement by Staff and Youth Workers. The good news is that it’s completely doable and it works.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, vauvau.