Continued from "Keep It Up: An Anti-List for 2009, part 1."
The end of the calendar year always encourages reflection, particularly in regards to what one wishes to change or improve. "I resolve to quit smoking," or "I resolve to lose weight" are common goals -- but how often do you hear "I resolve to make life more difficult for the children in my community?" My latest charge as an after school program site director has been the most challenging, yet the most rewarding responsibility I've ever had, and while the transition definitely defined 2008 as one of the most exciting years of my professional life, I aim to make 2009 the year of change everyone claims it's supposed to be.
A quick recap: When this school year began in August, I volunteered to fill the vacancy of director at our organization's most challenging site, an after school program facility in a public park. My previous site had been on the school campus as opposed to adjacent from it, relatively protected from outside elements by the sanctity of the campus, and this new (well, new to me) site was as vulnerable as they come, in a part of town known for gang activity, in a newly developed park attractive to playground-seeking soccer moms and slumbering homeless alike, in conjunction with a demanding school district and its understandably strict grant requirements. Staff turnover was abundant, and in its eight years the site had seen as many directors come and go. Who would want to work in a place with such a sullied reputation, with such a high potential for scrutiny and failure?
Four months later, am I kicking myself for being the answer to that hard question? Quite the opposite. In my opinion, the greater the challenge means the more fulfilling the smallest of accomplishments, the more reward in even the tiniest of baby steps toward what some would call "normalcy" for an after school program. I had a plan going into this program, a three-pronged strategy that has already revealed signs of success. The prongs of plan actually perpetually run concurrently, not in succession but alongside themselves, creating an air of change truly challenging for kids but ultimately friendly to families' needs as a whole. These are also my new year's resolutions, to continue what I've begun and strive toward the foundation of consistency this site really need:
1. Establish who rules the program. Every classroom and child care facility has at least one thing in common: a list of rules, specifically the things children cannot do there. "No fighting" and "no swearing" are common classroom/child care rules. I developed a philosophy about this necessary list a long time ago, namely that children should not be told what they can't do but rather should be empowered by what they can do. "Don't run" can easily be just as effectively communicated with "always walk." When you eradicate the word "no" from your list of rules, you're one step closer to getting rid of the behavior of no in your children.
Further, child development professionals often differ on the content of established rules, how long the list should be, etc. Some believe that ambiguity offers wiggle room for unexpected behaviors, while others target specific behaviors as unacceptable, i.e. bullying. I had a professor once explain that she only had two rules in her second grade classroom: (1.) We are here to learn, and (2.) We are here to help others learn. She dubbed this very comprehensive; for example, a student talking or passing notes is actually distracting himself from learning, thus breaking rule one. A student bullying kids on the playground created fear at school, effectively breaking rule two. She had reserved plenty of wiggle room to attack all negative behaviors.
Over the years I've developed a strategy that combines both schools of thoughts, creating a short, specifically ambiguous list students can follow. What's "specifically ambiguous" mean? My rules list targets a desired behavior through reinforcing positive behavior, so, aside from a few other aspects necessary for our program like "sign in" and "bring your membership card," I basically insist on these two standards: "Respect the program, its staff, and its equipment," and, "Respect each other." Thus, a child running inside runs the risk of knocking something over, disrespecting the program's equipment, and a child playing pool unfairly disrespects his opponent, etc. Using the word "respect" implies a responsibility for one's actions, a conscience effort to act wisely. Of course, my last rule is always "have fun," asserting that fun is as important as the safety derived from the other rules. After all, an involved child is one too occupied to find his own trouble.
Finally, the process through which these rules are established and displayed is just as important as their implementation. In recent years, I don't actually call this list "the rules" anymore, but rather have titled them, "Who RULES the Program?" The point is convincing the kids that they can enforce these procedures as much as, if not more than, the staff, since they're usually right there when a rule is broken anyway. "Hey, don't argue! That's disrespectful!" Okay, a kid might not say it like that, but the feeling of empowerment goes a long way on the peer-to-peer level. Also, I allow the kids in an assembly format to tell me what the rules should be, and I mold their suggestions into my mentally pre-established list. For instance, a kid might offer, "Keep your hands and feet to yourself," since that rule is an old classroom standard. I usually thoughtfully reply, "But what if we're playing two-hand touch football? Why don't we just put 'respect each other,' for times when we shouldn't touch someone." Sure, that's my rule, but the child's thought is acknowledged, and he can always think he came up with it first. He rules!
This short list is transferred from the white board from my assembly to a colorful poster board -- preferably with a cartoon on it, so kids like seeing it, so it blends into the already colorful decor. If these rules should be a natural part of the children's behavior, the rules poster should be a natural part of the building, neither bland or more flamboyant than the other posters, on par with the image of, say, Michael Jordan making a slam dunk. The message is that playing sports is right next to playing fairly -- visually, literally.
2. Meet the child's comprehensive needs. The most common misconception about my job is that I'm a babysitter. I haven't "babysat" since I was a teenager, but from I can remember a babysitter comes to your house and watches children play with their own toys, watch their own videos, etc., essentially making sure the children don't kill themselves in the process. A quality after school program does the exact opposite -- no, we aren't letting kids kill themselves. The contrast is in the kids coming to us, to our facility, where we have resources families don't have at home. A pool table, or computers, or crayons, and stuff like that are the first resources that come to mind, but assuming parents are at work after school, the most important resource they appreciate is a staff of responsible adults that can provide the supervision a working mother or father can't from three to six o'clock. In turn, the staff's passion and ingenuity in cooperation with the program and its facility trump the typical bubble gum-smacking, telephone-hogging babysitter any day.
As my site's eighth director in eight years, you can imagine the skepticism I've faced from the oldest kids and their families -- doubts about my dedication and durability. I realized from the very beginning that firmness and distance would be key in my efforts to make a comprehensive first impression: firmness in discipline, and distance to establish my position as the leader first. When we interview staff applicants, we always ask, "Is it more important for you to be liked or respected by the kids, and why?" Of course, the right answer is a little of both, but a great applicant will note that respect should precede friendship, lest children feel that they have the right to take advantage of you. "Don't run inside? Aw, that staff doesn't care -- he's my buddy!"
Especially in the first few weeks, I put my foot down just as firmly for running in our gamesroom as I did name-calling or bullying, presumably more detrimental behavior, and I didn't hesitate to follow threats of time-out or suspension with statements like, "Start making better choices, kid, because I'm going to be here awhile." Sure, I came across as a meany, but the proud proclamation was meant to plant seeds of stability. I wanted kids, especially the most challenging ones, to think, "What if he is here for awhile? I won't get away with anything again!" Surely this is a thought they hadn't much considered in the context of high staff turnover. Interestingly, I had similar conversations with parents, and I could tell that adults had the same reaction!
Further, a language barrier separates me from many of the families, so I've had to depend on my staff to communicate these harsh messages for me. I made it very clear to them from the beginning that their interpretations shouldn't be in the third person, i.e., "Russ says your child's behavior is unacceptable," because I sound like the enemy. Discipline, specifically expectations of positive behavior, should be a cooperative effort -- the singular goal any diverse group of youth development professionals shares. Many parents feel overwhelmed by their child's behavior, and in my experience I've received more thanks for pushing kids toward positive behavior than criticism -- when they understand my intentions. It is a power trip, but not mine; families should feel empowered by what the after school program has to offer, that their decision to trust us with their children is the right one.
Yet discipline is only one-part of meeting the family's needs. While I'm putting my foot down, I'm putting a hand out, asking parents what they need and utilizing my organization's resources to help. Tutoring is the most common need; every parent wants his child to get good grades. After snack, our homework program is the first thing our members do; the hope is that the sanctity of the classroom still lingers in their minds and that they'll sit quietly for an hour or so despite the pool table or board games just at their fingertips. It's also indicative of our priorities: homework first. School first. My first year as a director, I decided to give the children thirty minutes to "unwind" after school before homework time. Reeling them in physically and mentally after that taste of recreation was the hardest part of the day, and by then some kids had already been picked up and missed out on the help our tutors offer. Business before pleasure applies to all stages in life.
Still, many youth organizations specialize in tutoring. Food for Thanksgiving, toys for Christmas . . . when you work for a nationally recognized youth-oriented non-profit organization, even in the midst of a troubled economy, donations come in regularly around the holidays. (If only everyone realized that these families are needy the other ten months of the year, too, but I digress.) Parents certainly titled heads in confusion when the same guy that suspended their son for two days for running inside asked what that boy might want for Christmas, but that was also the moment it clicked. See, someone out to make a kid's day a living hell wouldn't ask about Christmas, but conversely the intention of help retrospectively explains that firm assertion of authority. "He's really trying to make things better!"
The next time I suspend that kid, his parents will slap him upside the head. "Why are you disrespecting the nice man? He gave you Christmas!" Speaking of which . . .
3. Establish and maintain tradition. My organization takes pride in providing a facility for children to attend and ultimately call a second home. As after school programs have become more prevalent, thanks to political trends like No Child Left Behind, ASPs have utilized classroom space, which actually ironically creates a greater rift between the school day and the program for a few simple reasons. (Calling NCLB a "trend" is a topic in itself, but, in short, I guarantee that as funding depletes so does the critical attention 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. really deserves.) First of all, while the point of the program is to give children a safe place to hang out after school, how many kids want to leave school only to return to school? It creates a philosophical disconnection that encourages student truancy and drop-out from the program.
Additionally, teachers are notoriously possessive, and rightly so since many things in their classrooms are purchased out of pocket or subject to a limited budget. So, while having an entire classroom at your disposal might seem like an invaluable resource, most likely teachers demand that the children don't touch anything. Pencils, books, even board games . . . at arm's reach, but ultimately unavailable. Try explaining to a student why using the pencil sharpener was okay at 2:59, but not at 3:01!
Fortunately, I don't have to worry about these things, since I have a little facility! Still, having the building is only half of the battle. What are you going to do with those four walls? What will happen there that makes the kids want to come back every day? In addition to our daily activities, considering the high staff and supervisor turnover, I decided to implement special events and activities that would instill in our families a sense of tradition -- indeed, the spirit of a second home.
Special events don't need a reason to be special, but I like to tie evening activities to the calendar somehow and create the illusion that we're fulfilling parents' needs. For instance, my staff and I host "Parents Nights Out" from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on various Fridays throughout the year. While we would definitely get a good turnout if we hosted PNOs once a month, the most successful ones have always been around Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day. The idea that we're giving parents a fun, safe place to leave their children while they shop or go on a date meets a need and offers something special to their children all at the same time.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, the holidays demand extra attention since they often expose families' greatest needs in contrast to society's expectations of good cheer and gift giving. In this vein, my organization offers haunted houses at Halloween, a free community-wide Thanksgiving dinner, and last year several toy giveaways -- all under the pretense that we'd like our families to spend the holidays with us. We emphasize our need for attendance and participation rather than any families' presumed need for food or toys; avoiding insult always opens hardened hearts to charity!
Now, in the past four months, I've facilitated a few site-specific activities like this to see how our corner of the community would take to evening events or such charity. When I made the transition to the new site, I told my boss that I'd commit three years; in my estimation, that gives me one year to implement what I know from my previous site, one year to adapt to the new demographic, then one year to assure families that what they've seen before is now set in stone, improved for them.
Of course, I'm not limiting myself to the three years, but if I do move on then, my successor will have momentum on his side, something I couldn't find in the files of the fellows that came before me. My message to them would be the same treatise I've been telling myself for the new year. Don't downplay the importance of discipline, stability, and tradition. Keep it up.