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Secrets of Successful Afterschool Programs

A decade of evaluation studies provide a basis to assess the educational potential of afterschool programs and to identify promising practices
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The United States is engaged in an ongoing, public discussion about how to best expand afterschool time and opportunities for children and youth, to support their learning and development across the day, throughout the year, and from kindergarten through high school. Debate continues about the range of academic, social, and other types of knowledge and skills that young people will need to succeed as workers, citizens, and family and community members in a global world.

To build the knowledge base, and to support efforts to improve quality in this field, the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) has developed and maintains an accessible national database of evaluations of hundreds of afterschool programs. In 2008, HFRP issued a review of these studies to address two fundamental questions: Does participation in after school programs make a difference, and if so, what conditions appear to be necessary to achieve positive results?

The verdict: a decade of research and evaluation studies confirms that children and youth who participate in afterschool programs can reap a host of positive benefits in a number of interrelated outcome areas — academic, social-emotional, prevention, and health and wellness. These are the skills that many suggest are necessary for youth to succeed in the 21st century global economy and world.

Academic performance

Participation in afterschool programs is influencing academic performance in a number of ways, including better attitudes toward school and higher educational aspirations; higher school attendance rates and lower tardiness rates; less disciplinary action, such as suspension; lower dropout rates; better performance in school, as measured by achievement test scores and grades; significant gains in academic achievement test scores; greater on-time promotion; improved homework completion; and deeper engagement in learning.

Dozens of studies of afterschool programs repeatedly underscore the powerful impact of supporting a range of positive learning outcomes, including academic achievement, by affording children and youth opportunities to practice new skills through hands-on, experiential learning in project-based after school programs.

Another common thread among all of these studies is that successful programs focus not just on academic support, but also offer other enrichment activities. Thus, balancing academic support with a variety of structured, engaging, and enjoyable extracurricular activities appears to improve academic performance.

Social-emotional development

Many afterschool programs focus less on academics and more on improving young people’s social and developmental challenges, such as social skills, self-esteem and self-concept issues, initiative, and leadership skills. Research has shown that participation in these programs is associated with decreased behavioral problems, improved social and communication skills, better relationships with peers and teachers, increased self-confidence, self-esteem and self-efficiency, lower levels of depression and anxiety, development of initiative, and improved feelings and attitudes toward self and school.

Crime, drug, and sex prevention

The hours from 3 to 6 p.m. are the peak time for juvenile crime and victimization, and the time period when teens ages 16-17 are most likely to be involved in a car crash. Also, youth left unsupervised for a certain number of hours per week are more likely to be sexually active, and at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. Participation in an afterschool programs gets children and youth off the streets, under supervision, and potentially prevents some risky behaviors. But beyond offering a safe haven, research and evaluation studies have demonstrated that the programs can have a positive effect on a range of prevention outcomes, such as avoidance of drug and alcohol use, decreases in delinquency and violent behavior, increased knowledge of safe sex, avoidance of sexual activity, and reduction in juvenile crime.

Promoting health and wellness

Afterschool programs can help tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity among our nation’s children and youth. The studies point to the programs’ potential power to promote the general health, fitness, and wellness of young people by keeping them active, fostering the importance of healthy behaviors, and providing healthy snacks. Students learn to make better food choices, and increase their physical activity, as well as their knowledge of nutrition and health practices. This leads to a reduction in body mass index, improved blood pressure, and improved body image.

Critical factors to achieve successful outcomes

Afterschool programs can promote positive learning and developmental outcomes, but some programs are not maximizing their potential. Research and evaluation point to three factors that are critical for creating constructive settings that can achieve these results with youth.

  1. Access to and sustained participation in programs
    Young people experience greater gains if they participate in afterschool programs with greater frequency and in a more sustained manner. They also benefit from programs tailored to their interests, needs, and schedules, as well as from those providing exposure to new ideas, challenges, and people.
  2. Quality programming and staffing
    Developing programs intentionally, with a focus on promoting target outcomes through well-organized and engaging activities, is a critical component for achieving high quality afterschool settings. It entails having a clear vision and goals for the program from the start, as well as strong, directed leadership and sustained training and support to staff.

Also, youth benefit by developing positive relationships with the program’s staff, who in turn model good behavior, actively promote student mastery of skills or concepts in activities, listen attentively, provide feedback and guidance, and establish clear expectations for mature, respectful interactions with peers. Children who attend these well-supervised afterschool programs display better work habits, task persistence, social skills, pro-social behaviors, academic performance, and less aggressive behavior at the end of the school year.

  1. Strong partnerships
    High-quality programs effectively leverage partnerships with a variety of stakeholders, especially families, schools and communities.

In summary

Well-implemented, quality afterschool programs can support healthy learning and development when the key factors described above are addressed. They also demonstrate how complex it is to provide excellent, effective supports for youth and their families. As national conversations turn toward reframing the traditional school day and year, there remains much to be gleaned from 10 years of research and evaluation about what works to support student learning and success.

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