Academic journal article The Future of Children

SEL-Focused After-School Programs

Academic journal article The Future of Children

SEL-Focused After-School Programs

Article excerpt


After-school programs offer young people opportunities for self-expression, exploring their talents, and forming relationships with supportive adults. That is, after-school programs promote young people's social and emotional learning (SEL) skills--whether the programs use that term or not.

Despite these programs' potential, Noelle Hurd and Nancy Deutsch write, they have yet to make a big impact on the field of SEL. One reason is that studying them poses many problems for researchers--for example, attendance isn't mandatory, meaning that it can be hard to separate a program's effects from young people's personal characteristics that led them to choose the program in the first place. Still, research shows that after-school programs can promote many desirable SEL outcomes, and Hurd and Deutsch outline the factors that make high-quality programs stand out.

How could policy help after-school programs promote SEL more effectively? First, positive youth-staff relationships are crucial to effective programs, and competent adult staff are the linchpin of effective after-school programs targeting SEL outcomes. Yet the after-school work force is poorly paid, and turnover is high. Hurd and Deutsch suggest several ways to professionalize after-school work--for example, by boosting professional development and creating more opportunities for career advancement.

Second, as schools have become more focused on standardized test scores, funders and policymakers have pushed after-school programs, too, to demonstrate their academic impact. Hurd and Deutsch write that this approach is misguided: overemphasizing academic outcomes leads to neglect of SEL outcomes that can help young people become productive and engaged citizens. They argue for expanding the criteria used to determine whether after-school programs are effective to include SEL. More broadly, they write, high-stakes evaluations create a disincentive for programs to undertake the difficult work of assessing and improving their own practices. A better approach to evaluation would focus less on whether programs "work" and instead seek ways to make them work better.

Out-of-school settings, such as after-school programs and community organizations, are natural sites for social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions. Because these programs and organizations don't have schools' curricular demands and often have broader developmental goals and missions, they can focus on SEL skills and outcomes to a greater extent than schools can. Many of the types of skills that SEL interventions target are also implicit or explicit in the missions and objectives of out-of-school programs. Yet despite their potential to strongly influence SEL, out-ofschool programs generally have had limited impact on the field of SEL, possibly because of their diversity--they range from afterschool and summer programs to family- and community-level interventions--or the challenges of evaluating interventions in such settings. In this article, we examine research specific to SEL interventions that occur outside of school hours. But rather than consider all out-of-school contexts, we limit our scope to after-school programs, defined as adult-structured programs for students that are offered during the school year between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 p.m. (1) Moreover, we review only programs that explicitly target what we define as SEL skills, whether the program uses the term SEL or not. This narrowed focus lets us be more thorough. In any case, most of the research on SEL interventions in out-ofschool contexts has taken place in afterschool programs rather than other settings. Thus research on after-school programs also offers the best opportunity to learn what works.

Even though SEL goals are common in programs that operate outside of school time (a history we review below), only one extensive review has examined whether after-school programs that focus on social and personal development hold promise for boosting students' SEL development. …

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