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January 24, 2019

Happy new year! Chances are, you already have several program activities, meetings, appointments, deadlines and to-do lists on your new calendar. Before all the blank space is filled, here’s a reminder: Don’t forget to put yourself on the calendar! Taking time for personal and professional renewal is important to your success and well-being. Here’s some advice:

Look both ways. As a child, you probably heard this line often from the crossing guard and from Mom as you approached busy intersections. It’s also good advice for crossing into the new year. First, look back at the past year, and reflect: What went well? What didn’t? Which habits, activities and goals do you want to keep? Which will you ditch? Then look forward and consider what you’d like to have, do and be in the coming year. What habits, activities and goals will get you there? A SWOT analysis can help you “look both ways” and consider your options. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Put on your own oxygen mask first. This pre-takeoff advice from flight attendants reminds us we can’t help others if we ignore our own needs. Sure, you’d love to spark students’ interest in reading and math, and help them prepare for successful college and career experiences. But maybe you first need to build your skills through training and tools in those areas. The links in this paragraph can help. See Y4Y’s professionalization resources for other ideas you can use to build your skills and your resume.

Keep your balance. The examples above focus on professional renewal, but time for personal goals and interests is equally important. Maybe you love nature photography or trips with family or friends but haven’t taken a photo or a trip for months. Or maybe you daydream about an afternoon of downtime. Decide what you need, and put yourself on the calendar. Seeking work-life balance and taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. It’s essential.



January 24, 2019

Now that reindeer games and year-end holidays are over, it’s time to get serious — about fun and games! With forethought, games can be a terrific way to engage students in meaningful learning in a relaxed and supportive environment. Here are three ideas:

Play with numbers. Some students feel anxious just thinking about math. Structured play with numbers might be just what they need! Y4Y’s Afterschool Training Toolkit has math game tips, templates and examples for targeting areas where your students could use extra help, whether it’s fractions, problem-solving skills, or big ideas like symbols and patterns. Math games can be competitive or cooperative, single-player or multiplayer. Math play could be part of a treasure hunt (reading x and y coordinates on a treasure map), a foot race (timing the race and ranking the finishers), a bake-off (measuring ingredients and using a rating scale) or an art project (finding geometric shapes in paintings). Finding math in everyday activities isn’t hard, once you know where to look! Considering an online math game, or a game related to financial literacy? Guidelines in the Afterschool Training Toolkit can help you choose wisely.

Play with words. Creating and performing poems, raps, riddles, jokes and jingles feels like play, but these activities build mental muscle. It’s OK to start small: Let’s see how many words your team can list in 60 seconds that rhyme with “hat.” The Y4Y Literacy course has ideas for playing with sounds. It also has ideas for improving vocabulary. For example, you could award points to students “caught” using a word of the day in conversation or in writing. You could start by introducing words they might hear on TV (like endgame) or at school (like theory), and everyday words with multiple meanings (like cloud). Look for opportunities to make this a natural part of regular program activities, such as homework time and field trips. You could also check with school-day teachers for vocabulary ideas. Be sure to play along by using the word of the day yourself!           

Play “what if.” Scientists and researchers play the “what if” game for a living. For example, what if you’re landing a spacecraft on another planet, and you need to slow down to avoid a crash landing? If you’re a NASA engineer, solving problems like this is part of your job. NASA’s “Parachuting Onto Mars” engineering design challenge invites students to think like an engineer by creating and testing possible solutions. Working in teams, they’ll practice problem-solving, math and collaboration skills as they compete against other teams for the honor of saying “We did it!”

Purposeful play can build students’ confidence and skills. It can offer new angles on subjects they’re learning about in school. It’s easy to get started. Many of the ideas described above can add an element of fun to what you’re already doing. Talk it over with your team, and see what they think!



March 22, 2018

You already know that questions are an important tool for learning. In the classroom, they can help improve students’ reading comprehension and drive project-based learning. But questioning is also a strategy you can use to support your program staff. Here are three ways you can use questions to become a better leader.
 
Ask Questions That Focus Attention and Stimulate Thinking 
Some questions you ask staff members are very basic, and are necessary to routine program activities: Are the art supplies ready for today’s activity? How many students will have their artwork ready for next week’s showing? Did you send the invitations to parents today? These questions ask for facts. They can usually be answered without much thought.
 
Questions that focus attention and stimulate thinking ask for ideas: How did you think today’s art activity went? What are your thoughts about ways we can make tomorrow’s activity less chaotic? They go beyond asking “What do you know about X?” to ask, “What do you think about X?”
 
Listen to Your Staff
If staff members wait a few seconds before responding to a question, that’s good! It means they’re thinking about what you said. Be quiet and give them time to process their thoughts. 
 
When staff members speak, listen for content and tone If someone says, “I think it would be good to put three students at each table instead of four during the art activity,” that person has identified overcrowding at each table as a possible cause for the chaos and offered a solution. If someone says, “I guess I could stay up the night before and plan things better,” that person might be feeling overworked, stressed or perhaps blamed for the problem. 
 
Respond with Respect 
To show that you heard what the person said, you might paraphrase the response (“So you’re suggesting fewer students per table”) or ask a probing question (“Do you think having three students share art supplies instead of four will be sufficient, or do we need to consider other strategies as well?”). Sometimes, it may be appropriate to acknowledge the underlying tone of a response (“It sounds like you found the situation stressful”) and provide support (“Let’s figure this out as a team. I don’t want any of us losing sleep over this!).
 
Try it!
Don’t overlook questioning as a tool for leading and coaching your staff. Effective questions can enhance everyday interactions — and professional development. What are some ways asking, listening and responding to your staff as described above might lead to tangible improvements in your program? What’s the first step you’ll take to make questioning part of your leadership strategy?


March 16, 2017

Phillip A. Collazo, MSEd., Education & Training Specialist, Kids Included Together

Knowing a little about biology and brain chemistry can make a big difference in helping students lower their stress levels. Here’s a promise: You won’t need to memorize formulas or spend hours in special classes. As 21st CCLC practitioners, you work in the ideal environment to build pleasure into learning.

What Research Says

According to research conducted by Dr. Stuart Shanker, stress ranks as one of the greatest barriers to learning. He wrote extensively about decline in the mental and physical well-being of U.S. children due to stress. 

When humans experience stress, our bodies produce cortisol, which some call the “stress hormone.” High levels of cortisol have been linked to “increased anxiety, depression and challenging behaviors in children and youth” (Ruttle et al., 2011), and to “higher risk for developing learning difficulties or impaired cognitive abilities” (Suor et al., 2015).

Our bodies can balance the negative effects of stress by producing endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals. Fun, active and engaging activities that also encourage positive social interactions are some of the easiest and healthiest ways to activate endorphins and reduce classroom stress. Both exercise and relaxation can help. 

In an ideal world, children and youth would spend their days learning at their own pace, while also having fun in and out of school. In reality, curriculums, learning objectives and high-stakes tests often control the content and pace of the school day. How can we help children reduce stress and make learning more fun? Here are two strategies that work well together.

Stress Reduction Part 1: Manage Time to Match Focus

This solution involves managing time by strategically grouping content — what Preston (2013) calls “activity chunking.” Many educators have successfully used versions of this strategy for years. 

Start by setting realistic and achievable expectations. Consider your students’ natural attention span, and chunk activities accordingly. Preston recommends calculating the average focus time of students by adding five minutes to their age. For example, the average six-year-old should be able to attend to an 11-minute lesson. Psychologists, scientists and researchers hold varied opinions on attention span, with estimates ranging between 15 and 40 minutes (Briggs, 2014).

For tasks that can complement academic content while still giving students a chance for a break, incorporate activity centers into your program. With common classroom materials you can plan quick exercises that develop key STEM and literacy skills. With these suggested STEM and reading activities, you can “chunk” in as needed to help students refocus.

Stress Reduction Part 2: Activate Senses to Feel Good

Plan activities that capture your learners’ interests, and then play to their strengths. According to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1991), we all have “a unique blend of capabilities and skills (intelligences).” Plan activities and short breaks that use a “six-sense” approach. Look for ways to get students to use their eyes, ears/voice, fingers, muscles, balance and social skills. End it all by encouraging the group to take two deep breaths together. The sensory activities release those feel-good endorphins and help students refocus for their next learning activity.

Here are a few ideas for building the senses into activities and breaks:

- Ask young students to act out characters when they read a story aloud. Older students may enjoy dramatic readings of poetry or plays. Don’t be shy: add a musical soundtrack with some group humming to keep the beat.
- Stand up and “shake your wiggles out” now and then.
- Play a creative game of Acrobat-Simon-Says, use call-and-response chants, or create finger play songs.
- For older students, include time for meaningful socializing by encouraging share-outs, group polling or content debates.
- Play games like “I Spy” or practice yoga poses. See “Tips for Helping Your Child Focus and Concentrate” from PBS Parents for more ideas.​

Everyone Benefits

Fun, active and engaging activities that benefit students can also benefit the adults in your program. Chunking activities can help you organize so you provide better support to help students meet academic goals. Managing time frames and achieving small goals increases educators’ sense of accomplishment, just like for students. Best of all, these strategies work for students of all abilities and can help make your program more inclusive. 


Resources
For information on creating an inclusive setting that welcomes students with disabilities, visit the Implementation Guides section of Y4Y to find resources on addressing individual needs, engaging all learners, supporting social-emotional development and other topics.

References
Briggs, S. (2014). The science of attention: How to capture and hold the attention of easily distracted students. Retrieved from opencolleges.edu
Northern Illinois University, Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. (2009). Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Summary. Retrieved from facdev.niu.edu
Preston, J. (2013). Increasing attention span and engagement in the classroom through chunking: A method that works for all grades. Retrieved from brighthubeducation.com
Ruttle, P. L., Shirtcliff, E. A., Serbin, L. A., Fisher, D. B., Stack, D. M., & Schwartzman, A. E. (2011). Disentangling psychobiological mechanisms underlying internalizing and externalizing behaviors in youth: Longitudinal and concurrent associations with cortisol. Hormones and Behaviors 59 (1), pp. 123-132.
Suor, J. H., Sturge-Apple, M. L., Davies, P. T., Cicchetti, D., & Manning, L. G. (2015). Tracing differential pathways of risk: Associations among family adversity, cortisol, and cognitive functioning in childhood. Child Development 86 (4), pp. 1142-1158. 


September 19, 2016

What were your favorite books as a child? Did you stay up late imagining the fantastical worlds of A Wrinkle in Time or Bridge to Terabithia? Did you scare yourself silly courtesy of Stephen King or Edgar Allen Poe? Maybe you laughed your head off at The Cat in the Hat, or cried your eyes out at Where the Red Fern Grows.

Whatever books you loved, there’s a good chance your local libraries helped put them in your hands. Libraries make indispensable partners for educators because they provide support as children build literacy skills and develop a love of reading. We hope you’ll participate in the American Library Association’s Library Card Sign-up Month. Help children in your program find their local libraries, and encourage them and their families to get library cards today!

Libraries also support the free Open eBooks program. This piece of the White House ConnectED Initiative starts with educators, program leaders and librarians who work with in-need youth. These adults can register free; then, every child in the program can get a personal access code to download up to 10 eBooks at a time.