Monday, July 13, 2009

Home alone: When is your child ready?

One spring afternoon, 12-year-old Jack Bazemore decided to stay home alone for a couple of hours to finish his homework while his mother took his younger sister to practice for the school play. Shortly after the pair parted, he heard tornado sirens.

“I put the dogs in their crates and covered them with blankets,” he said. “I grabbed my weather radio, my cell phone and some pillows, put on my bicycle helmet and got in the closet under the stairs.”

Bazemore drew on the skills he learned in Boy Scouts and acted based on family discussions on what to do in case of a tornado. He proved he was ready to be home alone.

How do you know if your child is ready to be home alone or still needs afterschool care? University of Georgia experts say answering that question means knowing your child.

“First, the child should really want to be home alone,” said Diane Bales, a UGA Cooperative Extension child development specialist in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “Deciding if you allow it should depend on the child’s personality, maturity and many other factors.”

Before they’re ready to stay at home alone after school, children need to show that they can take care of themselves, have the judgment to make good decisions and are ready to handle any emergencies or unexpected events that come up, she said.

Bales offers this check list as a guide. Answering “yes” to these questions may mean your child is ready to be home alone. Can the child:

• Give his address and directions to home?

• Repeat and dial the home phone number?

• Explain how to handle first aid for cuts and scrapes, burns, nosebleeds, poisonings, bites, choking and eye injuries, and find needed supplies?

• Identify two escape routes in case of a fire?

• Handle telephone calls or strangers at the door properly?

• Reach parents or other responsible adults by phone?

• Name two adults to contact in case of an emergency?

• Tell parents or child-care providers about daily events without prompting?

• Locate safe shelter during a storm?

• Name five household rules and identify which ones were followed last week?

• Decide what the right thing to do is, without adult input?

• Feel safe when alone and fears (such as darkness) or nightmares are minimal when adults aren’t around?

Other considerations might be whether the child completes household chores and homework, is responsible and asks for help when needed.

Experts generally agree that a structured after-school care program is a better long-term option even if the child is ready to be home alone. Choosing the right program can be difficult. Some schools offer in-school aftercare. Others contract with local day care facilities to provide after-school care.

These programs have advantages and disadvantages. “It’s convenient, and parents don’t have to worry about how the child will be transported from school to the program,” Bales said. “Also, children are well-supervised by responsible adults.”

Some other advantages include help with homework, time to play with peers, ability to participate in extracurricular activities and access to playgrounds. Many school-age programs also provide care during summers and school holidays to help parents who work.

Some disadvantages of in-school care are the added expense for parents, high turnover in staff resulting in less consistency for children and “some programs are so structured that the children don’t get enough time to play and relax,” she said.

When choosing an after-school care program, Bales recommends looking for a program that is safe, reliable and developmentally appropriate for your child’s needs, provides plenty of time for play, employs consistent, well-educated adults who understand the development of school-age children and offers appropriate opportunities for children to make some decisions about how they spend their time in the program.

Also, confirm the program is certified. “School-age care programs are required to be licensed by Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning under the same rules and regulations that license all child care centers,” Bales said. Find the complete licensing rules online at http://decal.ga.gov/documents/attachments/CCLCRulesandRegulations.pdf .

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

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