Does Your After School Program Have a Zombie Problem?

"zombie" in letterpress text blocks


It’s very possible that you have a zombie problem and they are shambling after your lovely after school program with yellow chompers and arms waving weirdly! The moans of “braaains” fills the air as your adorable tots ‘n tweens gather each day with their admirable program leaders, yet no one notices as the wretched creatures seize on victim after victim.

What on earth am I talking about?

Decision fatigue, of course!

What did you think I meant?

The zombies I’m talking about are your program leaders, teachers, volunteers, site coordinators and…maybe even, you! Feeling a little punky lately?

If you want to take a buzz saw to this zombie problem of yours, you should read this fantastic essay on the latest practical research findings on decision fatigue from the New York Times.

You might feel like you don’t have time to read the essay. (Which suggests your zombie problem might be fairly active today, eh?) Or perhaps you just want to cut to the chase on what decision fatigue implies for your program management efforts for awesome quality after school and/or camps.

But if you have 30 extra seconds, at least read over this excerpt before you jump down to how I think this new research translates to our after school world and how you can defeat your zombies!

“Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time…This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening.

It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.

It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways.

One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?)

The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.

You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.”

So what does decision fatigue mean for you and your program?

I have to say I’ve seen plenty of after school staff react in exactly these two ways described in the essay excerpt above… either abandoning boundaries and routines so the kids run wild or going the other way in “shutting down” with heavy-handed attempts to script the rest of the day and nix any new decisions before pick-up time.

Heck, I’ve been guilty of these myself! More so when I was new to working with children. On the bad days. The zombie days.

How to defeat the zombies of decision fatigue for curriculum implementation in after school programs!

After school staff commonly arrive to work after hours of intense school or other jobs (often decision-heavy, often children-oriented as well) which means their reservoir of decision-making elements are likely low, or even empty!

The characteristics of decision fatigue are not well known. So staff inadvertently become zombies!

After school staff (and volunteers, etc.) should be educated on the dynamics of decision fatigue and the top three killers of its zombie traits! Which are…

  • Zombie Killer #1 AWARENESS: As simple as passing out copies of this terrific essay or just a ten minute introduction and discussion with their supervisor and co-workers.
  • Zombie Killer #2 ROUTINES: The more each staff person has their day grounded in clear routines and consequences…the fewer decisions they have to make. Thus reducing the chances of zombie infection! Anything that happens more than once a month should have a set and known routine.
  • Zombie Killer #3 SNACK: It’s not just for the kids! The science on decision fatigue shows glucose has a role in helping us “re-set” our ability to hear information well and make rational decisions. All staff should be required to eat a small snack before their work with kids. They can eat the program’s offering or bring their own but eat they must!

Ready to slay your after school program zombies now? Go to it!

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