Susan Houser’s son struggles in loud, unstructured situations. Finding an after-school program where he could be comfortable and thrive despite his learning differences proved frustrating, and he was asked to leave several programs.
“He has lost opportunities to be with his same-age peers because of the nature of after-school activities,” she said.
Houser happens to be the chief knowledge officer of Assessment Intervention Management (A.I.M.), a firm of special education experts that helps families access resources in public schools. She knows personally and professionally the kind of challenges that come with serving those with special social, emotional, or learning needs.
In seeking the best educational and enrichment match for their family – whether it be based on location, doctrine, curriculum, or price – parents find their choices narrow quickly when they are looking for an after-school program built to serve children with learning differences.
Houser acknowledged that while there may be some programs out there, she stopped looking after a string of bad experiences. Because she had the flexibility to take her children home after school, her family gave up on after-school care. But she had to scale back her work schedule, and her other children had to change their after-school activities. For her family, it was an adjustment that had to be made, but for some families the dilemma is far more consequential. Forfeiting after-school care means parents lose hours of work or a job altogether.
The YMCA of Greater San Antonio wants to change that experience for families like the Housers. They have partnered with A.I.M. to train after-school staff in best practices for serving children with learning differences.
“We don’t want to contribute to doors being slammed in people’s faces,” YMCA Youth Development Director Abby Nash said. “We want to get better at being able to fill that need.”
A.I.M. works with service providers in schools, so they have a good grasp on what challenges students experience throughout the day. The training helped after-school care staff understand what children with dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and other differences need after the school day ends.
Because the YMCA's after-school programs are often housed in large, open rooms such as gyms or cafeterias, the staff learned how to create structure within those spaces and mitigate factors that could lead some children to experience anxiety or become over-stimulated.
Children who learn differently benefit from clear expectations, healthy snacks served during a blood sugar drop, strategic breaks to move or to be quiet, and consistent language. There are small things an after-school care provider can do to set those children up for success.
“We’re giving them common tools and language that are accessible to any staff,” A.I.M. CEO Zach Salesman said.
YMCA staff will not diagnose or label students, Nash said. The hope is to build the kind of program where differences that are not readily apparent – emotional and social disorders, for example – can in some ways remain invisible because students will have what they need to succeed alongside their peers.
Some students have disabilities that don’t become obvious until they are in a group setting, be it school, day care, or a program like the one at the YMCA. When the differences – diagnosed or undiagnosed – require extra attention or a modification, staff wants to have tools that can work in a situation where the child's diagnosis is unknown. For example, when a child comes into after-school care in an emotionally volatile state, the team will be able to assess whether an immediate snack, quiet time, or another activity would most effectively help the child stabilize.
Many of those tools, Houser explained, are simply best practices for all children. Every child benefits from a certain amount of structure and clarity. One way to understand learning differences in the context of after-school is to think about children’s resilience. A chaotic situation will put stress on a lot of kids, not just those with learning differences or social/emotional challenges.
While many children can mask their anxiety or cope with a certain amount of chaos that often comes with an after-school program, their peers with learning differences cannot. In some ways these children can serve as instructional examples for after-school providers, identifying areas in their program that could benefit from improvement.
If transitions between activities are unmonitored and jarring, best practices put in place to accommodate children with autism or ADHD – such as setting timers before the transition, talking about “what’s next,” or giving students specific instructions – will likely make the process better for all, Houser said.
That improvement is a high priority for Nash. YMCA currently serves 4,400 students throughout San Antonio. While long considered an affordable option for after-school care, with accessible locations across the city, Nash wants to see the brand associated with the highest-quality care.
Through Excel Beyond the Bell, a coalition of out-of-school-time service providers, Nash is working toward professionalizing after-school care programs. YMCA won a Pre-K 4 SA grant to pursue certification for its programs and is now looking for more partners to “buck the trend of just saying no” to students with different needs, Nash said.
The training with A.I.M enables YMCA to advertise itself as an option for families who might otherwise not have any.
“If what happens today lets one kid stay in after-school care, then that mom can stay in that job, the brother can stay in soccer,” Houser said. That ripple effect will allow more children to access more activities across the board, activities shown to greatly improve educational outcomes.