Before my oldest child started kindergarten, I joined an information session at his new school. Among the presenters was the director of the on-site after-school program, and a parent asked when registration would open. The response: It had been open for a while, and there was a waitlist.
The parent was understandably shocked, since kindergarten registration had only begun the month prior. I felt relief mixed with a pang of guilt, having already secured a spot for my son thanks to a tip from a friend with an older child. But there must be a better way to help parents find out about out-of-school-time care options as they navigate the transition to kindergarten.
The Importance of Before- and After-School Programs
Out-of-school-time programs, which include before- and after-school programs, are essential not only for enrichment and social-emotional development, but for the extended coverage they provide children of working parents. When their children are young, many working parents depend on full-day child-care programs to meet the needs of their work schedules. As their children transition to kindergarten, these parents depend on before- and after-school care to fill in coverage gaps left by the typical school schedule. A national survey by Afterschool Alliance found that 80 percent of working parents agreed that after-school programs help them keep their jobs.
There are many resources on supporting the transition to kindergarten that preschool teachers can share with parents. The Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center, for example, offers a wide array of transition-focused resources for parents and educators, as do Scholastic and the American Federation of Teachers.
Yet despite working parents’ reliance on before- and after-school programs, most resources omit this critically important piece of the transition puzzle. One notable exception is Navigating the Transition to Kindergarten and School-Age Care, put out by the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment, which offers a more expansive way of thinking about the transition to kindergarten that includes before- and after-school programs. The research brief is accompanied by a tip sheet for parents and caregivers. Tips include weighing different out-of-school-time program options against parents’ work schedule needs and the individual needs of their child, learning about financial assistance, and scheduling a time to visit the program, just as they might visit a kindergarten classroom as part of the transition process.
How Educators Can Help
Piecing together before- and after-school program arrangements can be daunting for families who are trying to navigate the transition to kindergarten. Educators and administrators can help ensure that out-of-school time care needs are addressed as part of a comprehensive approach to supporting parents and children during the transition to kindergarten.
Preschool teachers are in direct contact with children and families during the year before kindergarten begins, which means they are well-positioned to share information with families and help them make choices that meet the needs of their children. Kindergarten teachers and school administrators are positioned to know which before- and after-school programs serve the children at their school, and can share this information with incoming families via preschool teachers and kindergarten transition outreach efforts.
Elementary school administrators, kindergarten teachers, early childhood educators, and program directors can take specific steps to help families make informed decisions that serve their coverage requirements and their child’s needs.
Elementary school administrators:
- Learn about the before- and after-school programs operating at your school building as well as in the surrounding community.
- Include program contact information, registration processes, fees, and transportation options in kindergarten registration outreach and orientation materials.
- Keep in mind that this information is especially critical if your district operates on a choice model, where before- and after-school program options may affect working parents’ decisions about which school is the right fit for their child.
- Talk about out-of-school time programs when reaching out to early childhood teachers in your community and families of incoming kindergartners.
- Establish or maintain regular communication with the after-school program providers that serve the children in your classroom, especially those operating in your school building.
- Share information about what children are learning and doing in the classroom to help after-school providers build on those themes through program activities and develop stronger connections between the school day and after-school time. This type of continuity is especially important for kindergartners as they adjust to new and different settings and routines.
Early childhood educators:
- Ask parents about their before- and after-school care needs for kindergarten.
- Guide parents in evaluating options against both the needs of their work schedule and the needs of their child. For example, a child who tends to be anxious about new experiences may do best with an on-site after-school program. For a child attending a different elementary school than many preschool classmates, a community-based after-school program that serves multiple schools could be a way to remain connected with familiar peers.
- Keep in mind that children needing out-of-school-time care face a complex transition that goes beyond adjusting to the kindergarten classroom setting.
Early childhood program directors:
- Find out if local elementary schools have compiled information about the variety of before- and after-school program options in the community.
- Share program information with parents to give them time to register before programs fill up due to demand.
- Address before- and after-school program outreach and registration timelines with local elementary school administrators and include these considerations as part of your community’s collaborative approach to supporting children and families during the transition to kindergarten.
This past year has driven home how child care, school, and after-school programs are vital not only to children’s learning and growth, but to their parents’ ability to participate in the workforce—especially those who are not able to work from home.
I look ahead with optimism to the fall, in the hope that schools and after-school programs will begin to regain some semblance of normalcy. Yet it is clear that, as rising kindergartners prepare for a big change in their young lives, developing and sustaining a coordinated system to help parents access before- and after-school care as bookends to the school day has never been more important in transition efforts.