Out of School Time Programs: Inclusive Care for ALL Children

Learn why inclusive and welcoming environments are a critical component to creating high-quality out of school time (OST) programs for every child.

As schools across the country have begun a new academic year filled with excitement, learning, and new experiences, it’s also important to recognize the crucial role of inclusive care in Out of School Time (OST) programs. These programs, which open their doors before classroom hours begin or after they close, play a critical role in nurturing the growth and development of millions of children nationwide.

According to the 2023 “America After 3PM” report by the Afterschool Alliance, 7.7 million children in the United States participate in afterschool programs, and it’s not difficult to see why. Over the years, these programs have proven to benefit not only children, but their families, as well. 

The CDC highlights the significant advantages families have gained from participating in OST programs, including increased self-esteem, independence, and a greater interest in learning. Research also indicates that children with disabilities and specific behavioral needs can benefit just as much from OST programs.

Despite a temporary decline in participation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent data reveals a persistent and growing demand for OST programs. Families rely upon and actively seek out program options that offer flexibility and opportunities to engage with diverse providers, recognizing the value these programs bring to their children’s lives.

We invite you to delve into the significance of OST programs and particularly the inclusivity they can foster. We aim to shed light on the transformative potential of these programs to create environments where every child can thrive. Moreover, we’ll provide practical insights and resources from Kids Included Together (KIT), including links to online courses tailored specifically for OST and afterschool program providers. These resources are designed to empower you to enhance or initiate inclusion efforts within your program. Our ultimate goal is to equip you with a go-to guide that will help you establish inclusive environments that cater to the unique needs of every child.

Benefits of Inclusive Out of School Time Care

Inclusive OST programs mean that all children can meaningfully participate without exception. 

This is especially important for children with disabilities, who face disproportionately high rates of exclusion from mainstream educational and social programs. These young individuals stand to gain immensely from the unique educational opportunities and socialization skills that inclusive OST programs provide. They play a pivotal role in addressing the concerning global statistics that underscore the pervasive exclusion of children with disabilities:

  • According to a report by UNICEF, children with disabilities are consistently disadvantaged compared to their peers without disabilities across various measures of child well-being.
  • A fact sheet from the United Nations reveals UNESCO’s alarming estimate that in developing countries, a staggering 98% of children with disabilities do not have access to formal education, while an astounding 99% of girls with disabilities remain illiterate.
  • Furthermore, a report by Humanity & Inclusion underscores that even in low- and middle-income countries, approximately 50% of children with disabilities are not enrolled in school.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics provides additional insight, reporting that 3% of students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are enrolled in separate schools—either public or private—designed exclusively for students with disabilities. 

The benefits of inclusive OST programming extend far beyond the typical academic concerns. Numerous studies have demonstrated that inclusive environments promote social engagement and increase self-confidence in all children. This means that inclusive OST programs are more than just a place where kids go before or after school; they are safe spaces where kids learn how to interact, make friends, learn new skills, and become part of a larger community. Specifically, inclusive OST programming accomplishes the following:

  • Teaches and Models Diversity and Acceptance

When children with disabilities are included in OST program activities, it encourages acceptance of differences from an early age. This promotes a more inclusive society allowing all children to learn how to appreciate each other’s unique qualities and abilities.

  • Fosters Social and Emotional Growth

OST programs provide a structured setting for children to build essential social and emotional skills. Children with disabilities benefit from opportunities for interaction and relationship-building with same-age peers. They get every chance to form friendships, develop empathy, and enhance their communication skills – all crucial for their overall development.

  • Supports Academic Achievement

Inclusion in OST programs contributes to improved academic outcomes for children with disabilities. These programs often offer homework assistance and educational activities that cater to diverse learning needs. When children receive this additional support, they are better equipped to succeed academically, providing opportunities to bridge learning gaps.

  • Boosts Self-Esteem and Confidence

Being part of an inclusive OST program can have a profound impact on a child’s self-esteem and confidence. When children with disabilities actively participate in activities alongside their peers, they experience a sense of belonging and accomplishment. This positive self-perception extends beyond the program and can influence their overall well-being.

  • Empowers Families

OST programs can be a critical resource in bridging gaps in care, especially for children whose parents work long hours or outside the standard 9 to 5. Parents and caregivers gain peace of mind knowing their children are in an environment that promotes acceptance and support. This allows working parents to focus on their jobs and responsibilities with confidence, knowing their children are in a safe and inclusive space.

  • Builds Lifelong Values

Through inclusion, children learn the values of belonging, respect, and teamwork. These values are not only crucial in their formative years but also carry forward into adulthood, making them more inclusive and compassionate individuals.

OST vs. Afterschool: What’s the Difference?

Even if OST and afterschool programs both provide children with support and opportunities beyond regular school hours and the terms are often used interchangeably, they differ in their approaches and offerings:

  • “Out of School Time” is a more encompassing term that includes a wide range of programs and activities. 

Examples of popular organizations that provide OST programs include the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, 4-H Clubs, Scouting Organizations (such as the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA), and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, among many others.

Many smaller providers like local faith organizations and community centers are also critical resources for OST programs. Local libraries, as well, provide OST reading programs.

Some OST programs also offer before-school and track-out sessions, which allow parents to drop their kids off early or stay late to finish necessary work, and summer programs that keep kids safe and engaged. For kids with disabilities, many schools and organizations offer seasonal or year-round OST programs such as therapeutic recreation centers, autism-specific programs, or speech and occupational therapy.

  • Afterschool programs, on the other hand, are a subset of OST programs that specifically focus on the hours immediately following the school day. 

These programs often offer academic support, tutoring, and enrichment activities such as sports, arts, and music.

For a more detailed comparison of common distinctions between OST vs. afterschool programs check out the table below:

Meeting the Demand

According to an April 2023 report from IBIS World, there are currently 96,572 afterschool program providers in the US, which is a dip of -3.9% from 2022. Despite this decline, demand remains high. Each year, millions of children actively participate in OST programs, with 4 children waiting for every 1 child enrolled

This statistic highlights the importance and popularity of OST programs among families. Here’s a quick look at the most recent data.

  • Number of Children in Afterschool Programs

Youth.gov reports that annually, close to 10.2 million children actively participate in afterschool programs. This figure includes 10 million participants in summer camps and an additional 6 million in 4-H programs. It’s also important to note that more than 7.6 million children are left unsupervised and alone after school, underscoring the crucial role that after-school programs play in providing care and support.

  • Families Depend on Afterschool Programs

For working families, afterschool programs are a lifeline. A remarkable 78% of parents with a child in an afterschool program agree that it enables them to maintain their jobs or work additional hours. Overall, 83% of parents acknowledge that after-school programs offer working parents peace of mind.

  • Voters Overwhelmingly Agree that Afterschool Programs are Essential for their Communities

The Afterschool Alliance released highlights of a recent survey that illustrated the critical role that afterschool programs play in ensuring that students are well-cared for and supported, particularly outside of regular school hours. 

Conducted in 2022, the survey polled 1,400 registered voters and found that 81% of respondents agree that afterschool programs are an absolute necessity. In addition, support for increased funding for afterschool programs is at an all-time high, and a substantial amount of voters are in agreement that newly elected federal, state, and local officials should provide more funding to these programs.

Tips for Meaningful Inclusion in OST Programs

While some OST programs already have inclusive practices, many more could be doing more to create a welcoming environment for all kids. Simply providing accessible space for children with disabilities isn’t enough to achieve true inclusion.

Inclusion isn’t a mere “add-on” listed on an OST program’s brochure; it’s a fundamental cornerstone that defines a high-quality OST program. Inclusion signifies the commitment to warmly welcome and wholly embrace every child within every facet of the program.

When we make inclusion a top priority, it doesn’t just elevate the experience for children with behavior needs, disabilities (visible, invisible, or learning disabilities), or identified complex needs; it also fosters an environment that catalyzes the collective growth and positive development of all participants.

Here are some practical tips to ensure meaningful inclusion for all children:

  • Training Staff

Provide comprehensive training to staff members on inclusive practices, disability awareness, and behavior support to build their confidence. Equip them with the skills and knowledge to create an inclusive atmosphere where every child feels supported and valued. Ongoing professional development ensures that staff can adapt to the diverse needs of the children they serve.

Bonus read: Why is inclusion training critical? Read our blog to learn more.

  • Individualized Support Plans

Develop individualized support plans for children with disabilities, outlining their unique needs and strategies for support. These plans should take into account each child’s strengths, challenges, and specific accommodations or modifications required. Individualized support plans ensure that each child receives the necessary assistance and resources to maximize their participation.

  • Creating a Welcoming Environment

Ensure the physical space is accessible and welcoming to children of all abilities. Consider making modifications, such as installing ramps, creating sensory-friendly spaces, providing assistive technology, or implementing other necessary accessibility features. Creating a physically inclusive environment ensures that all children can fully engage in the program. Also consider reviewing your materials and policies to ensure they are welcoming and inclusive to all children and youth.

  • Fostering Peer Relationships

Encourage peer interactions and friendships among all children. Provide opportunities for structured activities that promote collaboration, teamwork, and understanding among participants. Through intentional programming, all children learn from and support each other, building a culture of inclusivity.

  • Communication with Parents and Caregivers

Actively involve parents and caregivers in the planning and decision-making process and provide regular updates on their child’s progress. Creating a safe and inclusive space for parents to raise any concerns or share valuable insights fosters strong partnerships and ensures that the program is meeting the needs of all children. Check out this quick video on the KIT Tip Sheet “5 Questions for Families” to learn ways to introduce yourself to families or caregivers, and to learn more about the child’s strengths and how best to support them in your program..

  • Adapting Activities

Modify activities and materials to accommodate diverse needs. This may involve providing alternative options, using assistive technology, adapting rules, or providing additional support. When your program proactively considers the needs of all children, you can develop an inclusive environment where everyone can participate.

  • Celebrating Diversity

Promote a culture of acceptance, diversity, and understanding within the OST program. Organize events, activities, and discussions that celebrate and honor various cultures, backgrounds, and disabilities. Where diversity is valued, an atmosphere is created where all children feel seen, heard, and valued.

In all of the above, KIT can help. Explore recommended KIT courses and start developing OST programs that make inclusion its top priority.

  • Inclusion Basics – Explore courses that offer a fundamental understanding of inclusive practices, offering insights into the principles and strategies necessary to creating inclusive OST programs.
  • Inclusion Toolkit – Bolster your program toolkit with practical tools and resources to implement inclusive practices effectively, fostering a welcoming environment for all children.
  • Management Resources – Find essential resources for program management and behavior support, as well as best practices to ensure your OST program runs smoothly.
  • Program Environment – Discover courses designed to help create an inclusive physical and emotional environment within your program, addressing aspects such as accessibility, safety, and building a supportive community.
  • Social-Emotional Learning/Support – Dive into the importance of social-emotional learning and support in OST programs, providing strategies for nurturing children’s emotional growth and well-being.
  • Staff Resources – Equip program staff with the knowledge and skills they need to support inclusive practices. Explore courses that offer training on how to effectively engage and support all children in the program






Build Inclusive Futures With KIT: Empowering OST Program Providers for Success

As out of school time programs expand across the country and serve even more children, inclusive care programs are critical to making sure that providers are equipped with the tools they need to teach, model, and implement inclusion. Being prepared and trained means staff are less stressed and more confident welcoming children of all abilities and differences.

Ensuring that all young people have access to inclusive care outside of regular school hours means a future where all young people can flourish, have an opportunity for success, and grow up to be productive members of their community.

Need more help? Contact KIT and our experienced staff will work with you to create a program that meets your specific needs!