Strategies for getting them in that are well worth a try
For Solo Moms, after-school programs are more than just some extra time for ourselves; they can be the difference between being able to provide for our families or not.
After-school programs allow Solo Moms to work a full day knowing that their children are safe and supervised. For those of us who have kids with special needs, after-school programs are not always willing or able to accept our children.
Public schools are required by law to provide a free, appropriate education for all kids. But after-school programs are not technically “school”; they are considered child care, and as such, schools can deny our kids access to them. But before they can say no, they have to try to provide “reasonable accommodations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Section 504. For a list of accommodations that are reasonable to expect from any of these programs, refer to the individualized education program (IEP)—although IEPs are not part of after-school programs, they can give helpful information to parents and the people who run these programs.
So what can we Solo Moms do to get our kids with special needs into an after-school program and stay there?
Start with a relationship. Fear of the unknown is a major reason why our kids are denied entry. If the after-school program is at your child’s school, visit, be helpful, say nice things, and also start to list ways in which the program is organized that will work for your child; also include areas where there might be an issue.
When Elizabeth Lichtenstein, blog writer of The Upside, planned for her then five-year-old son, Raphael (who has Down syndrome), to attend the after-school program at her local recreation center, she came prepared. She gave them lots of advance warning (which they ignored) and very specific suggestions. She provided instructions on things such as assigning someone to be close by while he eats and climbs on the playground, making sure he goes to the bathroom, and having someone help him button his pants.
They gave him a three-week trial, and his mom had to go with him.
Lichtenstein wrote on her blog, “Some interesting things happened during the trial period. I watched how children in the program took Raphael’s hand to show him the way, invited him to sit with them for snack, and modified their play to include him because kids are great at being natural peer supporters when adults don’t interfere. The young, barely above-minimum-wage-earning women who instructed the kids even started to include Raphael more.”
Even though Raphael could have been included in the program, the recreation center said no, he couldn’t come.
“There is an injustice whenever a person, because of his harmless differences, is excluded,” Lichtenstein wrote. “And when that person is a gentle, fun-loving, cooperative six-year-old, it’s just absurd.”
This is often the reality for us Solo Moms with kids with special needs. They are not always welcome in after-school programs. There are some things we can and should try, but they don’t always work. Lichtenstein ended up in front of the city council with a whole bunch of speakers asking for a change in policy. Her city is working on it, but as for now, her son is still not allowed to participate.
Lichtenstein did everything right. She prepared the staff with specific solutions, she came and showed them how to care for her son, and when she had to really step up and advocate, she did so with kindness, compassion, and a deep desire to ally with the staff and not make them out to be the “bad guys.”
In addition to starting her blog, she organized speakers and did interviews for the local papers to help spread awareness.
We can learn from her gentle approach:
- Focus on the relationship with the staff and not on “being right.”
- Show them in natural, easy ways how to work with your child.
- Offer a one-page summary of strategies that work.
- Keep meticulous notes about every phone call, e-mail, and conversation.
- Be willing to take it up the hierarchy and meet with the director.
- Do not bash the center if it is reluctant or says no.
- Stay positive and be respectful.
- Ask staff and directors what they think would help.
Although it could be argued that the recreation center was never really planning to keep the child and just went through the motions, it would be hard to prove, since it did offer the three-week trial.
Like many Solo Moms, sometimes we have to look for other options:
- Look into YMCA programs at schools or centers.
- Organize with other parents to hire a caregiver for a small group.
- Get a group of five or six parents together, and each one can take the kids after school one day a week.
- Hire an after-school sitter.
- Check out local recreation centers or programs that might be available.
- Research churches or other religious centers for after-school programs.
- See if your family or friends might be able to help out.
- Consider respite or caregiving services. Kids with significant support needs may qualify for these.
Another thing to consider is what to do when kids enter middle school. Most after-school programs end, and yet our kids may still need direct supervision. The most common solution is hiring a high school or college student to pick them up from school and take care of them for a couple of hours. Doing so can sometimes be expensive.
After-school options for kids with special needs seem to be less than what a parent can find for kids without behavioral or medical issues. It shouldn’t be that way, but it sometimes is, and although we tend to expect programs to include our kids, they sometimes don’t.
Lichtenstein also wrote that “In his short three weeks there, Raphael added a lot of benefit to the program. He has that tendency to help people be better at being people.”
And that could be an unexpected perk for the staff when they look after your own kid with special needs—whether they know it or not.
Curious how other Solo Moms with children with special needs handle specific situations? Sister Chat is a confidential place to ask other Solo Moms the hard questions.
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.