Education Opinion

Home Alone

By Susan Graham — October 09, 2009 4 min read
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I walk my last class back down the sixth grade hall at 2:40 and if I really hustle I can go to the bathroom, gather up a set of papers to grade, and still make it to the back stairwell before first load bus riders are dismissed. For the next half hour or so, I’m on hall duty, monitoring the departure of the eighth graders. Every teacher knows that supervision is an integral part of teaching. From the time they get off the bus to the time they go home, we keep a close watch over our kids at my school coming and going and in between.

But at the end of the day, we load them on to the bus and send them home to empty houses and apartments. Far too many of our children spend long, unstructured afternoon hours without a grown up around; and while Hollywood cashed in on the idea as hilarious, there is actually nothing funny about the number of middle school students who go Home Alone. Education Week reported that

Roughly 15 million school-age children are left unattended after school--up from 14 million in 2004, says a report released Tuesday by the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance.

One might surmise that most of these children are economically disadvantaged, but they are not. It seems dealing with the latchkey child issue is an equal opportunity problem for working parents. On Sunday, I read the confession of a Washington Post staff writer who shared the dilemma of what to do about the after school supervision of her own middle school son. At eleven he is too old for day care, but she realizes that he is still rather young to face the afternoon alone. Her situation is not unusual. Parents who have always been thoughtful and careful about childcare arrangements are often stymied when their children reach middle school because most after school care is designed for elementary age children.

Often with great concern and guilt, parents grudgingly give their middle schoolers a key, make them promise to call the minute they get in the door, and send them home alone. But research indicates that

The afternoon hours are the peak time for juvenile crime. In the last 11 years, juvenile crime has increased 48%. The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development found that 8th graders who are alone 11 hours a week are twice as likely to abuse drugs as adolescents who are busy after school. The Council also found that teens who have sexual intercourse do it in the afternoon in the home of boys whose parents work. Unsupervised children are more likely to become depressed, smoke cigarettes and marijuana and drink alcohol. They are also more likely to be the victims of crimes. When home alone latchkey children generally watch television, eat snacks, play with pets and fight with siblings.

While most parents would prefer their children be supervised, finding an after school care solution for older kids isn’t easy. According to the Afterschool Alliance, parents want their kids to enjoy the program, for it to be conveniently located, and for it be affordable, in that order. But middle schoolers don’t enjoy being supervised unless it is by choice and unless it is purposeful supervision. As a result, there is a huge demand for after school sports, performing arts, tutoring and enrichment classes that are delivered as an extension of the school day. Because, what could be a more convenient and what could be more economical than supervision than just having them stay at school for some structured activity?

While some argue that in house afterschool programs distract from the educational mission of school; others support an extended day as a viable tool to enhance student learning. But an extended day makes heavy demands on limited school resources and requires thoughtful design. Of course it is expensive. It has logistical complications. But perhaps most problematic is staffing. If the kids stay at school, who will be there with them? Most teachers sincerely care about their students, but they also care about their own children and a twelve hour day, regardless of compensation, is just not realistic.

Even if there were unlimited personnel and unlimited funds, in-house after school programs are not the answer for all middle schoolers. What about those adolescents who don’t make the team or don’t want to be in the band or drama club or yearbook staff or any other organized activity offered at school? What about the child who is not an extrovert and who really needs quiet time after six hours at school? What about the one who needs some help with homework? What about the twelve year old who goes home to the responsibility of caring for younger siblings? What about the one spends the afternoon alone, locked inside, because the neighborhood, where there are lots of latchkey kids, is a breeding ground for bullying and peer pressure?

I wouldn’t want this to get around, but I sort of enjoy afternoon hall duty. Secretly I love watching the spontaneity of kids who laugh too loud and act a little silly. They jump down the last three steps or break into run the minute they hit the door; and even when I have to say, “Hold it down!” or “I heard that!” or “Go back up the stairs and come back down again and this time walk, please!” I envy their boundless energy. I admit savoring the gossipy “OMG, Mrs. G, you will not believe..” or “Guess what I made on my Algebra test?” or “I am going to be so busted!” as they confide the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat of early adolescence.

In the back stairwell, I keep a watch out for anger, anxiety, tension, and over-excitement because thirteen-year-olds may look like young adults, but they are still children on the inside. They lack the maturity required to self regulate without any support and it is often an unfair burden to transfer onto their shoulders. After seven hours of constant structure and supervision, being turned loose to go home alone is often it’s more freedom than they can handle. Sometimes they need a grownup as a touchstone with whom to connect with on the way out the door because sometimes freedom’s just another word for nothing else to lose. And I worry, that when their home alone, some of them are in danger of losing it.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.