Collaborative Circle Blog

Why Are After-School Programs Important?

After more than 20 years of focusing on after-school programs, I have learned there are many things that make after-school time important. Some might be apparent, but others are less obvious. One go-to resource for me is This is Afterschool, from the Afterschool Alliance, which reminds us of all of the benefits of after-school programs. The support for after-school programs is overwhelming and demand is growing. Nationwide, 9 in 10 adults say after-school programs are important to their community—and more than 19 million kids are on waiting lists. “Decades of research prove after-school programs help kids attend school more often, get better grades, and build foundational skills like communication, teamwork, and problem-solving.”

This is Afterschool reveals the following data about students in after-school programs:

  • 1 in 2 students improve their math and reading grades
  • 60% of students improve their behavior in class
  • 68% of students improve their homework completion and class participation
  • More than 70% of students in STEM after-school programs express more interest in and knowledge about careers in science; they also build essential skills, such as perseverance and critical thinking

Research shows that school-age kids spend 80 percent of their waking hours outside of school. After-school and summer learning programs provide transformative learning experiences in unique settings that help young people discover what they love to do and reach their full potential. Students who regularly participate in quality after-school programs:

  • Develop strong social skills
  • Are excited about learning
  • Improve their work habits and grades
  • Improve school day attendance 
  • Have higher graduation rates 
  • Explore career paths and gain workforce skills

When children are exposed to inquiry-based and hands-on learning they are engaged in the work and understand what it is like to be a scientist or a mathematician. Because it is “after” school and not “more” school they have the time to roll up their sleeves and have fun while learning. It is a time they can “play” while building relationships, academic enrichment, and a sense of belonging to a “family.” This is truly integrating social and emotional learning into everything we do after school: “After-school programs promote young people’s social and emotional learning (SEL) skills—whether the programs use that term or not.” (Future of Children, Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, quoted in “Social and emotional learning: Making the case) Afterschool Alliance further adds, “After-school and summer learning programs are already doing a lot to help students develop social and emotional skills. Many after-school and summer learning programs have broad learning objectives for youth that include social, emotional, and character development. After-school and summer learning programs are a unique setting where youth can connect to positive adult mentors, feel safe to try new things, and have the opportunity to acquire new skills and develop mastery in an area.” (http://www.afterschoolalliance.org/sel-toolkit.cfm)

There is another important factor that makes after-school time so important: building relationships. The workforce of after-school leaders and staff reflects the diversity of the students they serve. These leaders often live in the neighborhoods where they work, and sometimes even attended that school. Unlike the school day leaders, who are more than 80% white and female, after-school leaders represent a much broader set of demographics. Research shows that students of color who have at least one teacher of color may do better on tests and be less likely to have disciplinary issues. Research also suggests that white students show improved problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity when they have diverse teachers. This representation leads to students often feeling that they have stronger relationships with their after-school leaders than their in-school teachers. This doesn’t only affect the children—parents also feel more comfortable being a part of the experience that after-school programming offers. 

To build this type of rich community the children need to have a voice; they need to be able to feel safe and take risks. Leaders have a key role in making this happen. I have learned in my work that what a leader is teaching is as important as how the leader facilitates the learning. The extra time we have after school, the fewer restrictions, the 1:20 leader/child ratios, and a more “club” or “family” feeling provide the opportunity for kids to do the thinking, talking, and learning. But they can’t get there alone. A successful day for after-school leaders is when they go home rested and the kids are exhausted from all of the thinking and collaborating! Being the “guide on the side” and talking less is something you can start tomorrow. With a few adjustments in the way you lead, you can enable the children to do the majority of the thinking and talking.

There are plenty of ways leaders can put kids in charge of the heavy lifting, but for many of us, it’s a change in  how we work. It may also be a new experience for the kids. As with anything new, allow everyone time to adjust to this new way of working together. Success won’t happen overnight, but with patience and practice, you will succeed and grow.

Here are some facilitation tips to keep in mind when you shift to this way of leading:

  • Ask open-ended questions. Avoid yes/no questions that provide little feedback. Think of what you will get from your kids if you ask an open-ended question like, “What would you like to do differently next time?” rather than “Should we do it differently next time?”
  • Use wait time. You may not get thoughtful responses if you don’t allow your children adequate time to think about their answers—you must wait for kids to answer. If you slowly count to 10 in your head, most of the time you will get an answer. It may seem awkward at first, but you and the kids will get used to it. Children appreciate the opportunity to be heard; be an active listener and you will be amazed by what you learn.
  • Give every child a chance to talk. It’s easy for a few confident, outgoing children to monopolize a discussion. To give all children ample opportunities to be heard, try some of these strategies and facilitation techniques during discussion or brainstorming time:
  • Think, Pair, Share: Use this technique after you have asked an open-ended question. First, give the children time to think, and then have them turn to the person next to them and discuss the answer to the question. Finally, have a group discussion. Watch an example of this being done in a classroom.
  • Think, Pair, Write: As in Think, Pair, Share, children think for a few minutes individually before talking with a partner. Then the children write their ideas down. Pairs may then be asked to share their writing with another pair or with the class.
  • Heads Together: In this exercise, groups of four students discuss a question among themselves. Groups may then share their thinking with the other groups.
  • Turn to Your Partner: Allow children to have a discussion with a partner to answer a question. By allowing each child to turn and talk to the person next to them, all the children get a chance to speak. Watch an example of this being done in a classroom.

See More Tips: Click here to access a PDF of the leader facilitation tips that were covered in this blog post.

Now it’s your turn. Ask yourself:
What makes my after-school program special?
Who is talking more, me or the kids?
Does my staff reflect the children we serve?
What are our biggest challenges in implementing the ideas in this post?
What do I feel proud of?
What am I going to try tomorrow?