When the bell rings at the end of the school day, 10.2 million children file into afterschool programs to participate in fun and enriching learning experiences. Unfortunately, many children - including those with disabilities - miss out on the benefits that afterschool offers.
Creating an inclusive afterschool program can help, as it can increase access for children with additional needs. Even more, it yields positive benefits for participants with and without disabilities. Students with disabilities have higher levels of social development and academic achievement in inclusive environments. They also have higher aspirations, build more meaningful relationships and make better progress on Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals. Additionally, inclusive, supportive environments teach all students to appreciate and accept individual differences and respect others, regardless of ability.
It’s possible to create an inclusive afterschool environment that serves every student. And to prove it, we’ve highlighted a few organizations and programs that are promoting inclusion for all.
1. Girls on the Run
Everyone needs physical activity to support good health. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children ages 6 and older do at least one hour of physical activity daily. But according to the CDC, many children are not meeting the daily recommendation, and the lack of physical activity only increases for youth with a disability. In fact, obesity rates are 35% higher for youth with a disability compared to those without.
Girls on the Run, a nonprofit committed to empowering young girls, is looking to change that with its new inclusion program. The program, which is being tested in 14 councils across the US, aims to recruit girls with motor, intellectual, and sensory disabilities. To do this, the organization partnered with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) to create an inclusive curriculum that can be adapted to serve every girl - regardless of her abilities. Not only does this increase accessibility to physical activity, but it also gives every girl with a disability a sense of belonging and acceptance.
CATCH Kids Club (CKC), a physical activity and nutrition education program, is equally committed to making physical activity more inclusive for all. The organization, which offers afterschool and summer programming, recently partnered with Lakeshore Foundation, NCHPAD and Special Olympics International to launch the Guide for Inclusion of Youth with Disability.
The goal is to make physical activity programs more inclusive of children with physical, sensory and intellectual disabilities. Using the GRAIDS tool, the guide includes evidence-based recommendations and adaptations that make physical activity fun and accessible for children of all abilities. It covers the importance of including all abilities; where adaptations may be needed and how to adapt physical activities, recipes, handouts and more for youth with a disability. With this guide, afterschool programs can help eliminate the barriers these children face when performing physical activity.
3. The Friendship Circle of Brooklyn
Social development is important for all youth, but especially those with a disability. Children with additional needs are at a greater risk of mental health difficulties and disorders - like low-self esteem and depression - due to experiences of social isolation or exclusion. However, studies show that children with special needs who participate in afterschool programs have improved social competence - among other benefits.
The Friendship Circle of Brooklyn allows all participants to learn and play side-by-side - despite any special needs or disabilities. Through its inclusive afterschool program, children can participate in karate, ballet and cooking classes, while building important social skills. It focuses on integrating youth with disabilities into regular activities and programs to promote a sense of belonging and make them feel like simply “one of the kids.” According to a behavioral analyst that consults for the program, the feeling of belonging can boost skill development and motivate youth to learn and try new things. For the Friendship Circle, it starts with providing a positive social environment for children with special needs “where all distinctions are lost”.
4. Kids Included Together
Creating a more inclusive afterschool program typically involves additional staff training and policy development. That’s where Kids Included Together (KIT) comes in. KIT focuses on disability inclusion and provides leadership, best practices, training and support for people and organizations who serve children. The organization is built on the belief that everyone benefits in inclusive environments where no one is excluded.
Today, KIT educates 20,000 learners a year on inclusive practices, while driving the national conversation on inclusion for child and youth programs. Visit KIT.org to learn about on-site and online training, coaching and consulting and training and support packages that can help you better serve children of all abilities.
Inclusion is not just something nice to have. It can yield positive benefits in the lives of students with and without disabilities in a way that changes the trajectory of their lives. As program leader, you also have the opportunity to provide students with special needs with a feeling of belonging and acceptance, while teaching all students to respect the differences in others.