Tips and Strategies for OST Lesson Plan Integration

Written by Patrick Freeland, Quality Improvement Manager, Prime Time Palm Beach County

Lesson plans can play a vital role in an afterschool program’s efforts to provide intentional opportunities for high quality programming.  Often times, afterschool practitioners have less time than needed for developing lesson plans and infusing them into activities, while some are able to give their staff paid planning time to do this, other organizations do not have the same capacity or the resources to give their staff members the paid planning time they need.  Due to the nature of regular staff turnover, organizational onboarding, local training requirements and other program specific needs, program directors understandably do not always have the opportunity to place lesson plan implementation at the top of their team’s developmental priority list.  As a result, practitioners often learn to swim in ocean of lesson plan implementation by doing the best they can with little to no coaching given these competing priorities. 

While understanding that unstructured, leisure time is an important element for every youth’s development, a total lack of activity structure (or no lesson plans) also impacts a youth’s development and the quality of the experience a child may receive during afterschool and summer hours.  Striking the right balance can help a program thrive and help staff members grow in their work.  In my experience with coaching, drafting and evaluating lesson plans, measuring fidelity and having conversations with staff about the lesson-planning process, I have come to categorize practices into three overlapping patterns of lesson-plan implementation.  These patterns come at the crossroads of a practitioner’s knowledge, skill, training, experience and natural talent.  These patterns are fluid (not static), ever changing (not fixed), and constantly under development.  The three categories are:

1) Lesson plan users.

2) Lesson plan adjusters.

3) Lesson plan maximizers. 

Allow me to elaborate.

Lesson Plan Users

What I call the lesson plan user is a staff member who may or may not have been given a lesson plan to implement but they are willing.  The implementation of a lesson plan they have been given may or may not be implemented as intended (i.e., with fidelity), but they generally follow the script or process to some degree.  The lesson plan user may take mental notes about something they want to do in their activity, but even if they do, they do not necessarily follow through with it consistently for whatever reason.  Within this level, practitioners rarely draft their own lesson plans , but they may write a few sticky notes to help remember certain points or processes.  Most often, users are simply given a plan and they do their best to implement it.  

Lesson Plan Adjusters

The lesson plan adjuster is a moderately experienced staff member who has some knowledge and skill in knowing how to implement a lesson plan with fidelity; however, they can also tweak a lesson plan to meet the needs of the youth they are serving.  The lesson plan adjuster understands the need, due to group size, perception of youths’ engagement, limited time and a number of other unplanned reasons that warrant additional attention (i.e., conflicts, extended discussion, or negative behaviors).  Adjusters are actively growing in their skills of perceiving opportunities to teach life skills through the lesson planning process and they know somewhat how to adjust their approach so that they can accomplish the lesson plan objectives.  Adjusters have experience writing lesson plans for themselves mostly, and they can infuse some quality elements (i.e., PBC-PQA items) that they have learned in trainings.  They can also implement good mental plans by drawing upon their previous experience.

Lesson Plan Maximizers

The lesson plan maximizer is a master at taking almost any activity or existing lesson plan and bolstering the cognitive, social and emotional learning opportunities for youth.  The maximizer is a more seasoned practitioner who is most often intentional about how, when and why functionally they do what they do within an activity.  Writing lesson plans for others and implementing lesson plan with fidelity for themselves is minimally difficult for a maximizer as they attempt to match an activity’s impact with its intent.  Additionally, maximizers can confidently infuse multiple quality elements (i.e., PBC-PQA items) into their own plans and can perceive where additional elements could be infused into existing plans to further increase youth engagement levels.  Maximizers have higher levels of self and social awareness, and they use this awareness of themselves and others to manage their activities, teaching points and interactions.

Ok, So What?

I believe it is helpful for afterschool and summer program directors, managers and staff to understand where their team fits into this categorization and to simply be aware of it without judgement.  Practitioners do not need to be a “maximizer” to be effective working with children, but it would help for them to know where they are developmentally and seek strategies to improve.  With this knowledge, directors can assess their staff’s skill level and provide them with an equitable amount of support, professional development and experience.  I would like to offer 14 tips and strategies to consider for lesson plan integration:

  • Have staff members self-assess their skills at implementing lesson plans by reviewing the above framework.  Strive for self-awareness only…no judging.
  • Work with their Prime Time quality advisor to assist with reviewing various lesson plan formats for consideration of what may work for each program.
  • Conduct the Observation Reflection Process (from Prime Time’s Quality Coaching training) and focus follow-up discussions on lesson plan fidelity, implementation and perceiving opportunities to teach youth about critical life skills.
  • Attend Prime Time’s Navigating the Lesson Plan training.
  • Work with Prime Time’s career advisor to set personal goals pertaining to lesson plan implementation.
  • During staff supervision or individual check-in, review and reflect upon how the lesson plans are landing with youth (i.e., engagement levels).
  • During staff meetings, set up role plays and talk about why, when, if and how to deviate from a set lesson plan based upon group dynamics and circumstances.  
  • Ask staff to evaluate their perception on how they are implementing lesson plans with fidelity and to journal about their growth, experience, successes and frustrations.
  • If your program does not have the time it needs to regularly draft lesson plans in advance, select a curriculum that you believe would work for your youth and would touch upon the quality processes you want to provide them.  Make adjustments to it as needed and able.
  • Review any curriculum being used in the program and how it aligns with existing goals and the Quality Improvement System (QIS) framework as a team .
  • If you have  “lesson plan maximizer” talk with about how they can get more involved in developing staff members.
  • Initiate a process whereby a perceived “lesson plan user” is paired together with a “lesson plan adjuster” for mentoring, feedback and/or shadowing.
  • Place a “lesson plan utilizer” with a group of youth who are not “too difficult” to engage, but also not “too easy.”  People learn best with the right amount of challenge and the right amount of support.
  • If you have many “lesson plan utilizers” in your program, encourage them or give them time to draft lesson plan in advance that touch upon QIS program goals.