Research says OST may be the key to post-pandemic recovery

Fall is here, with it, a return for many to in-person learning after more than a year of disruption and uncertainty. Over the past six months, the current administration has prioritized strategies that accelerate learning, from comprehensive summer programming to enriching afterschool programming this fall. This influx of funding is exciting and, as we have written elsewhere, represents an opportunity to engage young people (and hopefully a lot of them!) in engaging and creative learning experiences during the hours they would be out-of-school. In light of these priorities, we wanted to share what we know about how afterschool and summer programs support learning and development. We offer one pathway, in particular, that describes how this happens and why it is more important than ever to prioritize social, emotional, and academic development.

What do we know about effective afterschool and summer programs? There is a growing evidence base that suggests afterschool and summer learning programs can have a positive influence on young people under the right conditions. Studies of afterschool and summer programs have demonstrated a number of positive outcomes – increased engagement in school, improved school-day attendance, fewer unexcused absences, fewer disciplinary referrals, improved academic performance, reduced behavior problems, and improved social and emotional competencies (read these guides for a recent research synthesis).

Of all these outcomes, social and emotional development may be more important than ever. Decades of research across many fields, including psychology, social science, and brain science, demonstrates how social and emotional competence enables youth to succeed in many aspects of their lives – in school academically and out of school in their personal lives and at work.

How do afterschool and summer programs support learning and development? We offer a potential pathway for how learning and development happens in quality afterschool and summer programs. In this pathway, we emphasize three key competencies – relationship skills, a sense of agency (an individual’s ability to think and act independently), and identity development – that research suggests can facilitate learning and development in other areas, including academic content areas like reading and mathematics.

Relationships and relationship skills. Perhaps one of the most important ways afterschool and summer programs support youth learning and development is through the power of relationships. Well-designed and well-implemented afterschool and summer programs are designed to create safe and supportive spaces for learning, to foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie (Akiva, Cortina, Eccles, & Smith, 2013; Larson & Dawes, 2015). Relationships can support broader school engagement which could later lead to improved achievement.

Sense of agency. Many afterschool and summer programs are also designed to provide opportunities for youth to experience a sense of agency by encouraging autonomy during programming (Beymer et al., 2018; Larson & Angus, 2011; Naftzger & Sniegowski, 2018; Nagaoka, 2016). In studies we have conducted, findings suggest that, when programs provide youth with opportunities to experience a sense of agency, this significantly predicts stronger levels of youth engagement and better performance on youth development outcomes (Naftzger et al., 2018; Naftzger & Sniegowski, 2018).

Identity development. Afterschool and summer programs also have the potential to help young people grow their sense of identity by developing their interests. When young people can experience new things – a hallmark of quality afterschool and summer programs – this helps them to make sense of themselves and the world around them, and they may also begin to develop new interests in content areas, such as STEM or the arts. Interest development is a critical part of growing up and has been linked to motivation and learning by improving goal-directed behavior, self-efficacy, self-regulation, and achievement value (Renninger & Hidi, 2011). These are all competencies that can ultimately support academic, social, and emotional development.

What youth have experienced during the last 18 months warrants support for whole child development – attention to their social, emotional, physical, spiritual, and academic needs – not just an emphasis on interventions that seek to promote short-term gains in reading and mathematics. As this pathway suggests, focusing on the whole child by supporting social and emotional development may very well support academic learning and development at the same time.

As we rebuild, the need to develop social, emotional, and academic skills is paramount and afterschool and summer programs afford young people the opportunity to do that. No matter what, we need to recognize and elevate the critical role that afterschool and summer programs play in supporting youth learning, development, and reengagement. These programs have historically taken a whole child approach, putting the science of learning and development into practice to foster social, emotional, and academic learning. Afterschool and summer programs work when all people—children, youth, and adults—have the opportunity to thrive in safe, supportive environments that are developmentally rich and identity-safe, characterized by positive relationships and relevant opportunities to learn and grow. This is the power of afterschool. Our field has the opportunity to support all young people, to ensure they thrive and that they reengage across learning settings. Are you ready?

For more information on the research we highlight here as well as key questions and resources to help prepare for effective afterschool and summer programs, read our new research brief.

From Afterschool Alliance