What makes after-school programs successful?

There’s been some debate out there about whether or not after school programs are actually effective. Some policy makers that decided they were going to argue for withdrawing funds for such organizations, because they don’t find them to be having any evidence yielding desired results.

There was a great study that worked on this exact question. It came out on 2010 and it studied about 7 after-school programs and this is what they found:

  • After-school programs can be effective and promoting social emotional as well as academic outcomes for youth

  • After-school programs that fit certain criteria - that had a certain set of characteristics represented by the acronym “SAFE” - were in particularly effective.

SAFE stands for Sequenced, Active, Focused and Explicit.

Being Explicit

Authors use the term “explicit” to suggest that programs need to be really specific about a particular outcome, especially social emotional outcomes. They also need to be explicit about that throughout the entire program.

When talking about social emotional skills, a lot of times it can be kind of vague. When we want to help students to develop the skills they need to succeed in school or to have positive role models,

After school programs need to be very specific about the types of skills they intend to develop, Say, for example, you want to help students in an elementary school setting manage and identify emotions, try to find ways to negotiate conflict and difference, or have empathy and concern for others. Being explicit then allows you to take steps back and design programming curricula to answer those type of questions.


The second thing is that programs are also sequenced. Sequenced means that there is certain set of activities that are leading towards a particular outcome or goal. If you want to be focused on particular social and emotional skills, identifying what those skills are and using step-by-step building blocks that help you develop skills overtime that can be really important.

Sometimes we think that social skills are softer than academic skills, so you kind of jump around a little bit with those conversations. Sometimes it is a little bit harder to be very specific about what type of skills you want to develop.

For the example of resolving conflicts - resolving conflicts is a very complex skill, you first need to be able to identify how are you feeling, your emotions, how are those affecting you, you have to be able to do some perspective taking and take the perspective of another, to identify how somebody else might feel in a particular situation, and then you have to go through the whole process of negotiating conflicts (e.g. what is the language that you can use to help negotiate that in a positive way). Resolving conflict may be a great thing for many of you, and could reduce a whole lot of involvement school discipline. But to be able to do that we have to have a sequence set of activities leading up to that rather complex social skill for you to develop.


There’s also the active component. This is really critical. You might of heard the term “Active Learning” in the education space - all of this is trying to say that we have to shift the focus of what’s going on from teachers, from educators, from practitioners, from program directors down to students. We have to say we are going to talk about the particular skill or activity we want, but the idea is that we have to prepare right opportunities for youth and for students to practice it.

The more the programs create that space for students often times the more effective the outcomes can be, so as you are working in maybe the after school space and you are trying to convince funders and others to fund your work, this is a great study from 2010 that provides some evidence for you to use to say “hey, these programs when we do them in this particularly way it can be very positive for youth.

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Andrew Reynolds