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Pro Tips for Engaging Youth in Virtual Programs

Y4Y recently caught up with Jen Siaca Curry, E.D., a subject matter expert in virtual learning.

Dr. Curry and the team she founded at Change Impact have trained over 4,500 educators and designed organizational and program strategies for more than 20 nonprofits, school districts and universities. She has experience with innovative future-of-work training programming, and in designing and operating afterschool programs. Dr. Curry has served as a featured author and speaker on equity in youth work for the National AfterSchool Association, Afterschool Alliance, and Afterschool Matters journal. She is vice president of the New York State Network for Youth Success board of directors and an adjunct professor in youth studies at the City University of New York School for Professional Studies. [Podcast]

Y4Y: Dr. Curry, you’ve been working overtime to help afterschool professionals adjust to a virtual or partially virtual environment. What’s your rough estimate of how many programs are fully virtual, operating in a hybrid fashion or supporting students in person through their school day?

JC: This is a tough question to answer because program structures are changing weekly in response to community needs and COVID trends. I would say the majority of programs with which I work or provide training have delivered some form of virtual programming since March [2020]. In some cases, it’s to provide activities for children who are attending school remotely, and in others it’s to bridge gaps while schools are shut down. We also know many family engagement activities have shifted to videoconference and webinar formats.

Y4Y: In broad strokes, what are the most significant challenges to this current virtual world, and what should afterschool professionals keep at the top of their minds when addressing these challenges?

JC: The biggest challenge is that everyone is tired and stressed, at best, and unfortunately in many cases, kids, families, and program staff have experienced trauma, loss, and isolation. On top of this, programs have had to pivot to a brand-new service modality and are expected to do so seamlessly. The most important thing for afterschool professionals to do is recognize the gravity of the moment and give themselves and others grace. The importance of self-care cannot be underestimated right now; you truly do have to take care of your own physical and mental health before you can show up for young people.

Y4Y: Let’s dive into some of the “pro tips” for engaging youth in virtual programs that you’ve been sharing with afterschool staff. What do you think is the role of structure in afterschool activities? How does virtual delivery affect decisions about structuring time and activities?

JC: Structure is critical in all afterschool programs, and we would argue it’s even more important in virtual settings. It would be a mistake to think virtual activities are easier and can be thrown together quickly. We recommend using a detailed lesson plan template that accounts for explicit objectives, materials needed and the hook to get young people engaged from the start. It’s an opportunity to consider how to take advantage of the virtual setting and use web resources in your activities, too. You can also use your activity plans to think about evaluation — how will you know participants are engaged, learning and developing? Feedback loops and continuous improvement are just as important in virtual programs as they are in person.

Y4Y: What do transitions ideally look like in virtual programming?

JC: In person, transitions are a time for informal peer socializing and conversations between staff and kids. In virtual programs, transitions are super boring! Waiting even just five minutes for an activity to start can be too long — you’ll lose kids to distractions on their computers or at home. We recommend having short, flexible activities prepared for every transition. Think of games like “spot the difference” between two photos or word searches, dance breaks and mindfulness exercises. There’s nothing like a good “Would you rather…” question to keep kids chatting while they wait for the next activity to start.

Y4Y: You might say 2020 was all about “contingency.” How should programs prepare backup plans, going forward?

JC: For virtual programs, you need to have Plan A, B and C — at a minimum. Test your technology. Test it again. Assign a second staff person to every virtual room you’re running, and make sure they have the lesson plan so they can jump in if the activity leader gets kicked offline. Have extension activities ready to go for kids who finish early, or in case an activity flops.

Y4Y: How can programs hold inclusion and equity as priorities in a virtual environment?

JC: This is a must. Without explicitly focusing on equity and inclusion, we run the risk of retraumatizing young people in programs that are supposed to support and nurture them. Any efforts made in person, like using culturally responsive practices and ensuring staff are trained on implicit bias, have to carry over to virtual programs. And, leaders should review and amend program policies for virtual settings. For example, accessibility looks different in a virtual activity, and staff should use universal design principles and technology tools to maximize young people’s ability to participate (things like using closed captioning are easy to implement on most videoconference platforms). As another example, while we know how great it is for young people to have their video on so we can see their expressions and check on engagement, having video on can be a hardship for some young people due to family circumstances or even their religion. Flexible policies will enable more kids to participate in ways that work for them.

Y4Y: Do you have any last words of advice — maybe common missteps you’ve encountered and helped programs solve — about virtual programming that might be relevant both during school shutdowns and going forward as the country looks at this brave new world?

JC: (Virtual) practice makes perfect. It’s very hard for a staff member to get thrown into running virtual programming without a bit of preparation and opportunities to test out their activities. The kids will feel their nerves, and it makes it hard to have a successful program. I highly recommend investing in staff training on virtual programming so the team feels comfortable and prepared.