June 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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Family, School, and Community Involvement in School-age Child Care Programs: Best Practices

Extension has provided supplementary funding and program resources to work with children, youth and families determined as high risk due to their low socio-economic status, complacent or permissive community laws, low neighborhood attachment, and generally negative media influences (Bogenschneider et al.,1990). The purpose of this study was to determine the best interaction methods and practices while working school-age children and their families through child care programs. A questionnaire to identify "best practices" was mailed to 30 USDA grant-funded school-age sites that focus efforts on children in communities identified as at-risk. School-age care programs in this study created a common thread of interest among these families. Respondents agreed that families as well as children need a range of community services including safe and positive opportunities from which to choose. Safe programs draw the child and family into the protective community adding an extra element of support to family survival and success.

Karen DeBord
Assistant Professor
Extension State Specialist
Child Development
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina
Internet address: kdebord@amaroq.ces.ncsu.edu

Marilyn Martin
Cooperative Extension Educator
Children, Youth and Family Programs
University of Rhode Island - Providence Center
Cooperative Extension Service
Providence, Rhode Island
Internet address: mmartin@uriacc.uri.edu

Tony Mallilo
Associate Professor
Agricultural and Extension Education
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, Rhode Island
Internet address: tonym@uriacc.uri.edu

Nationally there are 21.2 million children in need of child care because their parents work (Casper, Hawkins, & O'Connell, 1994). Primarily children age 5-to-14 comprise the school-age child care population with a reported 1.7 million enrolled in before and after school programs (Department of Education, 1993) and about 1.6 million reported to be in self-care (Casper, Hawkins, & O'Connell, 1994).

Children in self-care present some concerns for parents and communities. According to research evidence, children at home alone reportedly are more bored, lonely, isolated (Long & Long, 1982), have lower academic achievement, are less social adjusted (Woods, 1972), and are more vulnerable to people from the outside taking advantage of them (Kraizer, Witte, Fryer, and Miyoshi, 1990). Limited community support and complex family characteristics compound these elements to create vulnerability in school-age children.

Bogenschneider, Small, & Riley, (1990) identified poor parental monitoring, uninvolved parents, and unclear expectations by other significant adults to be risk factors for children. These factors coupled with low socio-economic status, low neighborhood attachment, and community disorganization place children at risk of school failure and social turmoil.

What types of communities shield children from these risk elements? Research (Bogenschneider, Small, & Riley, 1990) has found that programs focusing on protection factors such as coping and problem-solving skills contribute to creating both family and child resiliency. Programs that build intellectual competence, create an environment where children feel as if they belong, create positive experiences, and develop opportunities for children to contribute in a positive manner supports children's development creating a protective community. However, this cannot happen in isolation.

A community is comprised of individuals connected by some common thread of interest, proximity, or characteristic. Distinctively, communities vary in a range of individual factors -- ages, ethnicities, family sizes. They also vary by the services available, economic conditions, job opportunities, health, and child care options. But within communities, there is commonality -- what Bronfenbrenner, Moen, & Garbarino (1984) term as "interlocking or integrated functional subsystems" (pp. 286). Understanding the culture of families and community systems is critical to building protective communities.

To address concerns for children located in high risk communities, the Extension Service-USDA in cooperation with multiple land grant universities across the nation examined the interlocking sub-systems of family and community. Extension made it a priority to work in high risk communities to build protective environments for school-age children. High risk is defined as communities that have one or more of the following factors: low socio-economic status, complacent or permissive community laws, low neighborhood attachment, and generally negative media influences (Bogenschneider et al.,1990).

Using federal dollars for community-based school-age child care programs, local efforts to build partnerships between school, families, and communities were started in 30 projects across the nation. Each project was designed to serve families defined as "at-risk" using the Bogenschneider et al. (1990) definition. A national evaluation of these projects to identify effective practices and document the three-year impact of these programs was initiated.

Project directors of the 30 Extension school-age child care programs were asked to participate in the evaluation to collect a set of recommended practices for use by others interested in establishing programs to create protective communities for school -age children. Directors were asked to identify practices they found successful in working with high risk children and families that enhance child care program support and foster involvement of the school, the family, and the community.

Method and Sample

A survey questionnaire was developed, edited, and reviewed by an evaluation committee of the National Network for Child Care (NNCC), a national partnership connecting Extension professionals sharing information and resources to strengthen the national impact of child care. The questionnaire was mailed to all 30 USDA funded school-age sites. A recognition certificate accompanied the survey as an incentive to return the questionnaire.

Project directors were asked what they had learned meeting the needs of high risk youth and families and they were asked to list three effective practices or lessons they had learned while working with high risk children and their families through school -age care programs. The questions were divided into three sections: practices to facilitate family involvement, practices that enhance school investment, and practices to encourage community ownership.

Eighty-three percent of the 30 school-age care program site directors responded to the survey. Predominately, the sites serve children age 5-to-14 years of age. Over half the sites serve 50- 200 high risk families. Most (17) service fewer than five schools and communities.


Lessons learned about the child and family

The greatest number of "lessons learned" related to the child and the family. Directors affirmed that parents from families considered at-risk have diverse needs. Not all families have the same resource needs nor participation needs. Families cannot always attend meetings because they need transportation, need child care for younger children, have inflexible work schedules, or have court disputes. Directors noted that most of the families are distrustful of anyone on the school staff. Numerous families were identified as pre-occupied or "not educationally, socially, financially, or interpersonally equipped" to provide for child's needs.

Parents require a variety of resource and developmental needs to perform their job as parents. Program staff quickly learned that the term "parenting classes" is unpopular and instead camouflaged educational efforts with creative titles and scheduled them at the most convenient times for parents often packaging them as family activities such as family video and popcorn nights or theme (i.e., costume parties or children's parades) events.

Even though directors originally targeted specific protection factors for the children, these foundations were validated consistently by the staff. First was the underlying realization that the home environment affects learning. Children come to the program with multiple pre-existing problems and concerns (divorce, violence, blended families, few resources) from home. Directors noted that children proved to be very adept at accepting home and school challenges. When staff realized the complexity of children's stressors, they responded by devoting time to developing trust between the child and the staff members, presenting children with challenges while giving them opportunities to practice making decisions under the guidance and support of a concerned adult.

Lessons learned about community involvement

Program directors indicate that community school-age care programs need human and financial resources in order to influence change. To be effective, an investment of time, energy and resource sharing is essential. A recommended practice is to establish a network or support group of related agencies and organizational representatives, educators, local decision makers, and business members to develop a network of support. People in the larger community must be informed about the benefits the program contributes to citizens of the community. Often citizens are unaware of the barriers faced by families and do not appreciate prevention or service programs. Creating public awareness by speaking to community organizations, and using the media to inform the public, is recommended.

To establish a successful school-based program, cooperation with school administration and school staff was described as a necessity. Program directors recommend including school officials on the advisory task force in addition to meeting frequently with the school administrators in the initial stages. Keeping school officials and decision-makers informed and inviting them to visit the program seems to assure understanding of and support for the effort. Making additional efforts to visit with school staff and solicit their input into the program creates goodwill and builds additional public awareness and support. With multiple stakeholders, good record keeping and regular evaluations of the program are essential elements. This allows for continued improvements to serve the needs of the audience.

Recommended practices from program directors focused on practices to build parent involvement to the extent possible. By offering options such as a parent advisory board, obtaining letters of program endorsement from parents, holding open houses, and establishing a parent volunteer program, parents may opt into program activities where they are most comfortable.

Offering a high quality program is essential to serve as a model of interaction between adults and children and to garner support from all factions. In order to continue to learn and improve environments for children, frequent evaluation of the program is necessary. Evaluations can lead to improvements to keep the program vibrant.

These lessons are inter-related and dependent upon actions by other functioning systems. That is, action in the community affects the school and action in the school program affects the family and subsequently the child.


Understanding the interlocking subsystems of the community, school, and family can assure that programs indeed place the child at the center of focus. The school-age care programs in this study were the common thread of interest among these families. This common thread strengthens the community as well as the family system for the child. Understanding the needs of the family in addition to the uniqueness of the community contributes to the success of the program and enhances quality.

To encourage public ownership, parent involvement and family trust, it is essential to present an array of options for involvement, offer supportive youth practice in decision making, and maintain a flow of information to the families and community. An established sense of trust contributes to the public understanding and value in the program and may add the program's life while understanding the needs of the family and integrating these needs with the uniqueness of each community contributes to the success and quality of the program.

Early childhood educators profess that children need to learn how to make choices and develop decision making skills. By offering a range of opportunities where personal control can be exercised, children and families will become more empowered.


Bogenschneider, K. Small, S., Riley, D. (1990). An ecological risk-focused approach for addressing youth-at-risk issues. Presentation National Extension Youth at Risk Summit, Washington, DC.

Bronfenbrenner, U., Moen, P. & Garbarino, J. (1984). Children, family, and community. In R. Parke (Ed.), The family: Review of child development research (Vol. 7, pp.283-328). New York:Sage.

Casper, L.M., Hawkins, M. & O'Connell, M. (1994). Who's minding the kids? Child care arrangements:Fall, 1991, U.S. Bureau of Census, Current Population Reports, P70-36, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Department of Education (1993). National Study of Before and After School Programs Final Report. RMC Research Corporation.

Kraizer, S, Witte, S, Fryer, G.E. & Miyoshi, T. (1990). Children in self-care:A new perspective, Child Welfare, 69 (6), 571-581.

Long, L. & Long, T. (1982) Latchkey children: The child's view of self-care"Washington, DC:Catholic University of America (ED 211 229)

Woods, M. B. (1972). The unsupervised child of the working mother, Developmental Psychology. 14-25.

The Network for Child Care (NNCC) integrates the expertise of the cooperative extension system with appropriate external partners to support at-risk children, youth, and families. University Extension representatives from 42 out of 53 states and territories have joined in the discussion of the National Network for Child Care. For more information about NNCC, send an electronic inquiry to NNCCINFO@mes.umn.edu or call Karen DeBord North Carolina State University 919-515-2770 or Ina McClain University of Missouri 314-882-4319.