• For more information on the study, "The Impact of After-School Programs That Promote Personal and Social Skills," check the CASEL Web site at www.casel.org.
When it comes to organized after-school centers, not all programs are created equal, says a study by a research group based at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning group (CASEL), studied 73 after-school programs across the country.
While many people probably think of after-school centers as just a place for kids to get help with their homework, CASEL was interested in how after-school programs also help kids improve their personal and social skills.
According to the researchers, there is a strong need for this kind of training. Many children—about seven million kids nationwide—have little or no adult supervision after school, putting them at greater risk for behavioral problems and drug use. But just attending an after-school program doesn’t necessarily reduce this risk, it depends on the nature of the program.
The researchers reviewed after-school programs that focused on one or more personal or social skills including problem solving, self-control, leadership and enhanced self-esteem.
The study found that programs with planned curriculum have a much better success rate than those that are unstructured, like informal drop-in centers. Kids who participated in programs that used this approach improved significantly in at least three areas: feelings and attitudes, behavior and school performance.
"These results are important because they show that some, but not all, after-school programs are beneficial," says Roger P. Weissberg, University of Chicago psychology professor, director of CASEL and one of the study’s authors. "Participation in well-run and well-designed after-school programs improved children’s social behavior, attitudes about school, grades and achievement test scores," he says. "It also reduced problem behaviors like aggression and drug use."
SAFE makes the difference
But what constitutes a good program?
Weissberg and co-author Joseph A. Durlak, professor of clinical psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, stress that a program needs to have several specific components:
n A sequenced set of learning activities is important—there should be an established curriculum.
n The learning should be active—something kids actually do.
n The program should have at least one component focused on developing personal and social skills.
n There should be explicit, specific skills targeted, such as problem-solving, conflict resolution and self-control.
The best way for parents to evaluate a particular program is to see the program in action. The first question parents should ask: What do I want my child to get out of this program? For kids who otherwise would be home alone after school, safety might be the first priority.
Other goals might include having positive peer experiences, learning new skills in non-academic areas such as sports or the arts, making friends and improving social skills. Then ask the program director about the curriculum. Does the program address these objectives? How do you plan to accomplish this? What are the planned activities?
"The program’s directors should, first of all, be open to having parents come and observe," Weissberg says, "and what you would hope to see is that the children are engaged in activities that look positive."
The environment shouldn’t be chaotic—there should be little negative or aggressive behavior and the adults should appear to have good control of the group and interact positively with the children.
A program that’s effective in improving children’s personal and social skills will have planned, scheduled activities that meet regularly over a period of several months in order to provide continuity. Many programs also include a parent participation component, where parents are kept up-to-date on program activities. Sometimes the program provides suggested activities for parents and children to do at home, too.
Asking other parents—and kids—about the program is also a useful tool, Weissberg says.
"Listen to what the kids and their parents have to say. How excited are they about this program?" he says.
Phyllis Nutkis is a writer and former preschool teacher. She and her husband have three grown children and two grandchildren.