Understanding and Improving After-school Settings for Youths

by Thomas Akiva

After-school program participation has grown dramatically in the United States over the past two decades. In fact, participation has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, and today an estimated 10.2 million, or 18 percent, of the children and youths in the country participate regularly in after-school programs. This rapid growth reflects a buildup in infrastructure that’s been built to deliver this programming—both in school buildings and via community- based organizations.

And although there is abundant evidence that after-school programs can yield a whole range of positive outcomes in terms of youth development and learning, there also is considerable evidence that the quality of programming varies and that many programs do not produce the outcomes they strive for. My research team, composed of graduate students, addresses these topics. In particular, we seek to understand how youth-adult interactions play out in programs while developing strategies for helping programs meet their potential.

In one such study, we investigated urban youths’ motivation to attend neighborhood-based programs. Previous research shows that these programs can be quite beneficial to participants but often struggle with retention. Meanwhile, the program we studied, a Pittsburgh teen program that provides educational and leadership activities for high-risk youths in underserved communities, is unusually successful with engagement, with hundreds of youths participating across multiple sites.

Through interviews with and surveys of 148 participants, we asked youths what drives their attendance by focusing on the categories of peers, program adults, and the content of activities (e.g., attending to participate in a job skills workshop versus to play basketball). Forty-eight percent reported attending primarily for content-related reasons, while 23 percent said they attended for their peers and 18 percent said they attended for the staff. But when forced to choose one reason, the majority chose youth-adult and peer relationships over content, 82 percent to 18 percent. Several youths also stressed the important point that content and interaction are intertwined; if content is good, it is usually because the staff set it up to be good.

Because these youth-adult relationships are at the heart of what makes youth programs function, it is important to understand more about specific interactions. To this end, colleagues and I collected 240 short (one-to-three-minute) video clips of teachers or youth workers interacting with elementary-age children—half from after-school and half from in-school settings. We coded the interactions that happened in these clips, looking at things like reciprocity (i.e., whether there is a back-and-forth conversation or the adults do all the talking). Again, we found that staff interaction and content were intertwined. For example, in an electricity workshop, the group learned about circuits through comfortable, friendly interactions with the adult leader. The clips with the highest scores for interaction tended to be those that had clearly defined content, whether that content was circuits, math, weather, or even learning about feelings.

So if staff members are important and content is important, what content should staff members promote in after-school programs? Although our country’s current preoccupation with academic achievement has affected after-school programs, the preponderance of research suggests that helping struggling children to do better in school—also known as academic remediation—is probably not where the potential of after-school programs lies. People have disagreed on the purpose of after-school programs since their emergence more than 100 years ago, and they still do today. When we asked 40 adult leaders from seven programs in Pittsburgh what they want for kids in their program, 34 percent said social-emotional learning, 24 percent said that youths should have a positive adult in their lives, and only 7 percent mentioned anything academic (they said they want to help kids complete their homework). Indeed, we have seen that the after-school programs most engaging to young people are those that they are least likely to encounter in school.

One emerging type of after-school programming that does not focus on academic content consists of programs that support youth-led social change and justice, also known as youth organizing. My team is currently engaged in a three- year research study of eight youth organizing programs in Pittsburgh as part of a Heinz Endowments initiative. In these types of programs—of which there are more than a dozen in Pittsburgh—youths address topics like the school-to-prison pipeline; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality; and environmental justice.

Last year, for example, youths from the A+ Schools TeenBloc program worked together to produce a students’ bill of rights for the school board to consider adopting. This document asked for things like the “right to participate in decisions that affect our education” and the “right to equitable academic resources.” Rather than focusing on the youths and their development in society, these programs turn participants toward larger problems of society, support them as they grapple with these issues, and engage them in developing a voice in a public arena.

Finally, besides learning more about youth-adult interaction and development, my research group also is engaged in supporting staff practices in the field. We have developed and tested an extremely simple professional development workshop program that employs inexpensive video technology to stimulate critical conversations about child-adult relationships (see simpleinteractions.org). And unlike most improvement models, we do not identify what’s wrong and try to fix it; rather, we identify what’s working well and help the staff to amplify it. The process is efficient—when adults see themselves and their colleagues interacting with youths in their program, the conversation tends to move forward very quickly. After the workshops, adults tend to build better connections with children, have more back-and-forth conversations, and actively encourage all youths to participate. We are currently investigating this approach further in a larger study with about 100 staff members in Pittsburgh youth programs and a rigorous, randomized control trial design.

Much is left to learn about motivation, interaction, and development in youth programs; however, the potential of after-school programs likely is not going to be reached by individual programs working on their own to improve. Rather, citywide or community- wide initiatives hold the greatest promise. The current cohort of youth organizing programs is one such initiative, and there are many more operating or forming in Pittsburgh. As digital technology and other societal trends push us to reconceptualize what education looks like in the 21st century, cohorts of after-school an out-of-school programs will continue to grow as an important component of learning. The University of Pittsburgh School of Education is poised to be an important contributor to this ongoing work.

Thomas Akiva is an assistant professor.