Study after study shows the improvement in children’s lives made by effective afterschool programs. In many communities, an afterschool program is the only chance for enrichment available. The value of providing homework assistance and opportunities to experience other activities cannot be overstated. A national evaluation found that 40 percent of students attending 21st Century Community Learning Center programs improved their reading and math grades
If you are developing an afterschool program at a school or other local facility, you may be wondering what makes a good program and how you can make yours a success. If you are considering such a program, you already know why the program is essential. Let's take a look at what makes it successful.
The definition of an effective afterschool program
There is no consensus about the definition or structure of an effective or successful program. However, there is some agreement about various elements that can go into creating one.
- Programs that take a developmental approach show a relationship between program attendance and improved school performance and behavior.
- Those programs with the most holistic approach also have academic benefits.
- Afterschool music and art enrichment programs for younger children help them develop concentration and other skills that improve academic performance.
It appears that programs following a strictly academic approach do not address all the needs of the students in attendance. An effective program considers the whole child, not just his or her scholastic achievement.
Read more about how to start an afterschool program.
The elements of a successful program
Most afterschool programs are expected to promote academic performance, and indeed, a good program will do so. Such programs improve children’s attitudes toward school and increase their attendance rates. They have fewer tardies, lower drop-out rates, and achieve higher test scores and grades.
However, as shown above, an effective program takes a holistic approach.
- A social-emotional development approach focuses on improving social skills, self-concept issues, initiative, and leadership skills. Results include better social and communication skills, improved relationships with peers and teachers, and increased self-sufficiency, self-esteem, and self-confidence. Depression and anxiety are reduced as are behavioral problems.
- Crime, drug, and sex prevention programs acknowledge that the hours between the end of school and the end of the parent’s workday are peak hours for juvenile crime and victimization. Participation in an afterschool program takes children and teens off the streets and places them in a safe environment where they can learn how to avoid negative outcomes.
- Programs promoting health and wellness work on reducing childhood obesity by modeling and teaching general health and fitness behaviors. These programs keep children active and teach better food choices, reducing their body mass index and blood pressure.
The neighborhood school is an essential part of the village helping to raise those children who have fewer resources. Afterschool programs in communities with more supports in place for children and teens are still a welcome addition to their overall health and social learning.
A study performed by Milbry McLaughlin, Ph.D., the David Jacks Professor of Education and Public Service at Stanford University, showed that a cohort of students maintained good grades, avoided drugs and crime, and was focused on the future, despite a problematic background. McLaughlin's research determined that these teens were self-selecting programs from the YMCA, sports programs, or local dance troupes, where they received the appropriate support, structure, and challenge.
Tips to achieve a successful afterschool program
The best model for an effective afterschool program has a youth development framework rather than a deficit-based or risk-behavior model. Like most youth, children and teens respond best to positive reinforcement and being told what they can do better than they react to being told what not to do.
Tip: The #1 rule is being fair at all times
Children and teens have a finely-honed sense of fairness. It only takes one perception of what they see as an “unfair” act to damage their trust in the adults of the program. Be as transparent as you can when explaining any exceptions to rules and why the rules are not being followed in any situation.
- Prepare detailed rules and game objectives, ensuring all participants understand the expectations of behavior.
- Develop necessary modifications for each activity to ensure safety and provide the ability for any participant to take part.
- Have plenty of space for the activity. Tag in a small room is not safe.
- Group children as equally as you can to level the playing field and keep from giving one team an overwhelming advantage.
- Use non-toxic art supplies.
Activity selection tips
- Choose games that foster friendship and collaboration over highly competitive games.
- Choose small group activities most of the time to create more opportunities for active participation.
- Allow participants to suggest new activities for the group.
- Ask for feedback about an activity at the end to measure engagement. Ask what worked, what didn’t work, and what everyone learned about themselves.
- For art activities, never use anything that creates a permanent mark or stain. The parents will thank you.
Participation encouragement tips
- Reduce the emphasis on winning.
- Encourage questions about the rules and how the activity is performed.
- Have pre-activity ice-breakers to foster relationships before the activity begins.
- Participate in the activity yourself to show interest and observe the group’s interaction.
- Encourage older participants to take leadership roles, model and encourage participation, and gather feedback.
- Allow children to decide whether and when to participate.
- Emphasize the value of trying something outside the participant’s comfort zone if there is hesitance.
- Engage children at every step of the activity to eliminate distractions during periods of waiting.
- Reward cooperative and polite behavior. Handle conflicts and negative behavior in a positive manner.
- When explaining a new activity, limit distractions from noise and use plain language. Demonstrate as you go.
- Provide opportunities for brief problem-solving activities the group must work toward together.
- Set realistic goals for each child and reinforce with positive communication.
- Post the daily schedule and provide reminders about transitions throughout the period to prepare everyone for the change.
- Model skills and behaviors you wish to see. Encourage older participants to be models, too.
- Do not single out participants for their actions in a negative way and praise everyone after the activity is complete.
- Reduce wait times during individual activities to mitigate anxiety from social comparisons.
- Work in small groups and divide the space into stations to make more effective use of time and materials.
- Develop flexible space with a variety of options for leisure activity so children can find a spot comfortable for them to decompress.
- Have the participants clean up after themselves to encourage responsibility.
- End activities at their peak to maintain interest and engagement. The activity will be all the more welcome the next time you offer it.
An effective and successful afterschool program engages the whole child or teen. It promotes health and wellness and social-emotional development as well as academics. The participants should feel included and respected, encouraged to self-advocate, and brought into the activity decision-making process when possible.
Online afterschool management software can help you track attendance and plan activities with calendar-based scheduling. Cloud-based solutions are often integrated with online registration and tuition payment options. You can pull reports to show the growth in attendance for your extended day program and the related financials.
Afterschool programs exist to provide more than a safe haven for students. They are also places to help students continue to grow and learn outside a classroom setting.