UCI grad student Maria Parente, once a "latchkey kid" herself, hopes to determine the optimal after-school setting for children of working parents. "Self-care is the only after-school option for many families," she says, "and I'd like to zero in on which settings are most beneficial." Daniel A. Anderson, University Communications

Growing up in Connecticut with working parents, education doctoral candidate Maria Parente had a well-defined after-school routine: “I’m from a strict Italian family,” she says. “My mother and father told me to come home, sit on the couch and not move until they returned.”

According to the 2005 U.S. Census, 5.2 million children ages 5 to 14 regularly experience unsupervised time outside school. With a $10,000 Public Impact Fellowship from UC Irvine’s Graduate Division, Parente is studying the effect of this on children’s academic performance and behavior. The award funds research that could benefit local, national or global communities.

Parente will draw upon a representative sample of thousands of U.S. children to evaluate unsupervised settings and track outcomes. There is a perception that so-called latchkey kids are destined to behave badly and do poorly in school, she notes, but spending time alone may have an upside.

“In certain situations, self-care may be appropriate and teach kids how to be independent and responsible,” says Parente.

Joseph Mahoney, education associate professor, says Parente’s research will help policymakers and parents make better decisions about the after-school environment.

“So much of our knowledge on self-care stems from research that is weak and outdated,” says Mahoney. “Maria’s research will address the developmental stages and conditions in which self-care is, or is not, likely to compromise healthy development.”

“Many kinds of self-care settings exist, from a child who goes straight home to one who spends time at a friend’s house or with peers in the neighborhood,” Parente says. “My goal is to find which setting is healthiest for a child.”