After-School Programs

After-school programs (ASPs) are those programs available to children 6 to 18 years of age that are characterized by structure, adult supervision, and an emphasis on skill building. ASPs tend to be voluntary, hold regular and scheduled meetings, and emphasize developmentally based expectations and rules for the participants. In most cases, ASPs are organized around developing particular skills and achieving goals. The challenge and complexity of the program activities increase with the participants’ developing abilities.

The range of ASPs available to children and adolescents in the United States is substantial. In general, ASPs can be viewed at one of three levels: (1) nationally sponsored youth organizations and federally funded programs (e.g., Boys and Girls Clubs of America, YMCA, YWCA, 21st-Century Community Learning Centers, 4-H, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, Camp Fire); (2) community, school, and local sponsorship, including grassroots youth developmental organizations, faith-based youth organizations, and public sector institutions (e.g., school-sponsored extracurricular activities, museums, libraries, youth centers, youth sports organizations, and community service programs); and (3) individual activities or types of activities (e.g., sports, music, hobby clubs, social clubs, religious and service activities), which can be differentiated on the basis of specific goals, atmosphere, and content.

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Because school-age children in the United States and other Western nations spend about half of their waking hours in discretionary activities outside of school, there has been a growing interest in understanding how ASP participation may influence the development of young people. Indeed, several reports have  been  published  that  underscore  the  critical role of after-school time for young people (e.g., the Packard Foundation’s 1999 report, “When School Is Out”; the National Research Council’s 2002 report, “Community Programs to Promote Youth Development”; the Public/Private Ventures 2002 report, “Multiple Choices After School”; the 2003 National Research Council’s report, “Working Families and Growing Kids: Caring for Children and Adolescents”; the 2003 Nellie Mae Foundation report, “Critical Hours”; and the forthcoming volume, “Organized Activities as Contexts of Development”). The opportunities and risks associated with after-school time are detailed in these reports.

In the light of a rapid historical increase in maternal employment, perhaps the most basic opportunity provided by ASPs is the provision of a safe and supervised context for young people while their parents are working. However, such programs are frequently implemented with a range of additional goals indicating the increased interest in viewing after-school time as an opportunity for young people to develop competencies  that  complement  learning  experiences  in the school classroom. These include (1) reducing the risks associated with unsupervised and unstructured leisure time; (2) promoting social-emotional competence, school attachment, civic engagement, and educational attainment; (3) addressing racial or ethnic and income disparity in school achievement and social adjustment; and (4) preparing young people for the transition to adulthood, higher education, and employment. In other words, ASPs allow young people to capitalize on their personal interests, abilities, and environmental resources to both reduce risks for developing problem behaviors and build competencies that increase the likelihood for healthy adjustment in the future.

The foregoing discussion implies that participation in organized after-school programs may promote positive development. But, does the available research support this assertion? The next section summarizes findings from several studies that have examined the link  between ASP  participation  and  adjustment  in young people. The focus is on two types of ASPs: formal programs for school-age children, and extracurricular activities and after-school community programs for adolescents.

After-School Programs For School-Age Children

Owing in large part to increases in maternal employment, ASPs now provide child care and adult supervision for more than 8 million American children with working parents. These programs are oriented to children in the elementary and middle school years.

Several studies of after-school program participation and child adjustment have found both academic and social benefits for participating children compared with nonparticipants, or compared with children in alternative after-school arrangements such as self-care or relative care. Benefits are most apparent for disadvantaged children  and  for  at-risk  students  whose  parents  are not native English speakers. Positive changes in school bonding, parent involvement, and school attendance appear to mediate the program-related growth in social academic competence. However, the benefits of ASPs for children may be limited to quality programs that are regularly attended by students.

After-School Programs For Adolescents

Involvement in ASPs such as sports teams, lessons, and clubs is relatively common during adolescence. For example, among youth ages 12 to 17 from the 1997 National Survey of Families, 57% participated on a sports team, 29% participated in lessons, and 60% participated in clubs or organizations after school or on weekends during the last year. Recent reviews support the conclusion that participation in ASPs helps promotes several forms of competence during adolescence and beyond.

Increased Educational Attainment and Achievement

Participation in extracurricular activities and afterschool community programs is associated with increased education attainment. This includes low rates of school failure and dropout, high rates of postsecondary school education, and good school achievement. Increases in school engagement and attendance, better academic performance and interpersonal competence, and higher aspirations for the future partly explain the long-term educational benefits.

Reduced Problem Behaviors

Several studies have found that participation in adolescent ASPs is associated with reduced behavior problems. This includes an associated reduction in developing problems with alcohol and drugs, aggression, antisocial behavior and crime, or becoming a teenage parent. Activity-related affiliations with nondeviant  peers,  mentoring  from  adult  activity  leaders, and conventional time use are the main explanations why organized activities protect against problem behaviors.

Heightened Psychosocial Competencies

ASP participation is positively associated with psychosocial adjustment in a number of areas. For instance, participation is related to low levels of negative emotions, such as depressed mood and anxiety during adolescence, and to high levels of self-esteem. Moreover, ASP participation appears to promote initiative, which involves  the  application  of  extended effort to reach long-term goals and fosters civic identity development. The unique combination of psychological features and opportunities for positive social relationships and belonging in ASPs are salient factors thought to affect these psychosocial processes.

Promising And Problematic Practices

With reference to ASPs, scholars appointed by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine recently evaluated the features of developmental contexts that promote positive outcomes for young people. The committee derived the following list of eight key features that facilitate positive development: physical and psychological safety, appropriate structure, supportive relationships, opportunities for belonging, positive social norms, support for efficacy and mattering, opportunities for skill building, and integration of family, school, and community. The research on ASP participation indicates that programs incorporating these features do confer benefits for the participants. However, we do not yet know which features are most important or which combination of features may be optimal to promote positive adjustment for different young people.

To be sure, not all ASPs have been shown to benefit participants, and some are organized in ways that do not facilitate positive development and may be harmful. An example involves participation in youth recreation centers that provide relatively low structure, provide limited adult guidance, and lack skill-building aims. Regular involvement in these settings appears to facilitate deviant peer relationships during adolescence and leads to persistent criminal behavior into adulthood. Mentoring programs provide a second example. Volunteer mentors are often a valuable resource in providing adult guidance for adolescents and can facilitate perceived self-esteem and school achievement. However, the programs may pose a risk if the mentoring relationship is short lived or fails.


ASPs are important contexts that help young people build competencies and successfully negotiate important developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence. Participation tends to be associated with academic success, mental health, positive social relationships and behaviors, identity development, and civic engagement. These benefits, in turn, pave the way for long-term educational success and help prepare young people for the transition to adulthood. Although the research findings are generally positive, variations across the types of programs and the participants suggest the need for researchers to differentiate the features of programs that facilitate development and the conditions under which the benefits is most likely to occur. Accordingly, current and future research must continue to examine what types of programs best serve the needs of different young people in the short and long terms.


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