Low school achievement and a spate of research showing that risky teen behavior occurs most often between 3 and 6 p.m. has policy-makers focused on the "best" ways youth should fill afterschool hours.

In an effort to find solutions, policy-makers are eyeing psychological research, which has found that afterschool activities such as playing soccer, learning violin or volunteering at nursing homes keep adolescents from experimenting with sex, drugs and other risky behaviors, and help produce happier, healthier, more productive adults (see January Monitor).

The problem is that there's no consensus on what makes for a "good" afterschool program.

"Different kinds of programs are like different fruit--some have lots of A, some lots of C, while others are fairly empty of vitamins," says Jean Grossman, PhD, an economist and senior vice president for research at Public/Private Ventures, a national think tank that focuses on helping youth and young adults thrive.

Debates between researchers and policy-makers range from whether programs should target disadvantaged youth or all youth, to whether they should focus strictly on academics or on "enrichment activities" such as music, art and sports. Politicians tend to support an academic focus because grades are easy to measure and national competitiveness is a top concern. Psychologists and social scientists, on the other hand, take a developmental approach: For them, the whole child is what matters and they are hopeful that if communities systematically apply more holistic models of youth development, academic benefits will follow.

And, indeed, some developmentally based youth programs already show a relationship between program attendance and positive school performance and behavior. A recent synthesis study of 15 youth development programs, for instance, finds that those with the most holistic, least targeted approaches also benefit kids academically, while a long-term study of 120 community youth programs likewise shows school-related benefits.

Meanwhile, studies of younger children by University of Wisconsin­ Madison psychologist Deborah Lowe Vandell, PhD, also find that afterschool "enrichment activities" such as music and art help children to develop skills such as concentration that can help them perform better in school (see related story).

What makes a good program

A recently released policy report written by Columbia University psychologists Jodie Roth, PhD, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, concluded that good afterschool programs "are best characterized by their approach to youth as resources to be developed rather than as problems to be managed."

According to the report, "What Do Adolescents Need for Healthy Development? Implications for Youth Policy," good programs should:

  • Help young people develop strong, positive relationships with adults.

  • Build on the young person's strengths rather than focus on his or her weaknesses.

  • Provide an environment that helps young people develop positive relationships with peers.

  • Give youth challenges they can rise to.

  • Provide enriching, creative activities they can participate in.

  • Give youth opportunities to develop leadership and decision-making skills.

  • Focus on the developmental needs of young people by nurturing teens' autonomy at the same time the programs lend them guidance.

  • Provide all of these opportunities over the long term.

Many of those elements came together in a long-term study by community researcher and political scientist Milbrey McLaughlin, PhD, the David Jacks Professor of Education and Public Policy at Stanford University. For the past 12 years, McLaughlin has run a project called "Community Counts," which has grown to study 120 youth-based organizations in 34 cities. She and her research team have observed some 800 youngsters, following 60 of them intensively.

The team began from a perspective that embodies the spirit of youth development: with the kids themselves.

"In the course of doing community-based work in the early 1980s, I ran into kids from really challenging backgrounds, all of whom were doing quite well," McLaughlin recalls. "Despite terrible odds, they were still in school, they weren't on drugs and they had positive feelings about the future."

When she investigated why this was so, it turned out the teens were self-selecting programs--whether it was YMCAs, sports programs or the local dance troupe--that were structured, supportive and challenging.

"These kids didn't want to be in 'let's just hang out and have fun' kinds of places," McLaughlin says. Instead, they chose situations that were the opposite of those in their troubled homes and neighborhoods, places of learning, growth, structure and safety. It was almost as if they unconsciously chose what they needed for psychosocial health, she believes.

One feature many programs shared was a tendency to be "assessment-centered"--focused on giving feedback to kids in a variety of arenas. The young people were constantly asking program adults for feedback on their performances, and the adults were continually supplying it.

McLaughlin also noticed the presence of an "embedded curriculum"--a holistic, life-oriented teaching approach that went beyond the subject at hand. The teachers weren't just showing kids how to dunk a basketball or act in a play. They were also coaching them on life skills such as good table manners or how to interact with peers--basically, being great mentors.

The long-term follow-up of 60 of the study's youth shows how well these programs served them. At age 25, all but four were doing well in life, holding good jobs and actively participating in their communities. The young people fared well on self-reported academic measures, too: 26 percent were more likely to report having received recognition for good grades than American youth generally, and those who attended the programs frequently were more than twice as likely to report such recognition.

The study "contradicts the conventional wisdom on teens that they don't want to be part of wholesome, organized activities, but would rather hang out and become part of gangs," McLaughlin believes. "That's the wrong conclusion. They do want to join these kinds of organizations--there just aren't enough of them."

Strengths of a model

A recent synthesis of youth-development program evaluations suggests McLaughlin may be right. The synthesis concludes that such programs are scarce or at least poorly evaluated, and that those with the best outcomes for kids are those employing a youth-development framework rather than a deficit-based or risk-behavior model.

In that study, conducted by Columbia University researchers Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Lawrence Murray, PhD, and William Foster, PhD, the team examined the characteristics of 15 community-based programs that serve youth. Six of the 15 programs were based on a holistic youth-development model; six were aimed at helping youth avoid specific problem behaviors like alcohol abuse or teen pregnancy; and three sought to teach youth specific skills for avoiding risk-taking behaviors such as assertive training, planning for the future and learning how to resist peer influence.

The study authors found that young people involved in programs that used the youth-development model--including Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Quantum Opportunities Programs and Woodrock Inc.--tended to have more positive outcomes in a wider variety of domains than those in the programs that offered targeted or specific focuses. Youth in the broader programs showed gains in academic, social and risk-taking arenas.

By contrast, youth in the more targeted programs only showed improvement in the areas the programs aimed to change. A program at Girls, Incorporated that taught peer resistance, for instance, lowered drinking rates among participants who already drank and delayed the onset of drinking among those who hadn't drank previously. Findings from the study can be found in the Journal of Research on Adolescence (Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 423­459).

Where from here?

Now that psychology has provided some evidence of what might work among youth development programs, "we need to know whether we package them in programs, whether kids come to them, and whether those programs actually make a difference," says Grossman of Public/Private Ventures.

Fortunately, the youth development field is full of enthusiastic researchers ready to find out. Many large-scale evaluations of innovative programs are under way, including the U.S. Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the Wallace Readers' Digest's Extended Service Schools, The After-School Corporation and the Beacons programs.

In addition, a National Research Council panel, which includes eminent adolescent researcher Jacquelynne Eccles, PhD, is bringing the state of community-based programs for youth up-to-date and will a release report this spring. To gather enough good studies to examine, the panel had to draw heavily from the youth prevention literature, says Eccles, who is Wilbert McKeachie Collegiate Professor of Psychology, Education and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan.

These combined efforts are all starting to point to the possible merits of programs that can help youth reach their potential, Grossman notes.

"We live in a society that believes people should be left alone to follow their own path without the help of 'programs,'" she says. "But the problem with teens is they haven't yet found a path."

Good afterschool programs, she says, may help them find that path in ways larger than mere academics.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

Further Reading

"What Do Adolescents Need for Healthy Development? Implications for Youth Policy," is available on the Web at www.srcd.org/spr.html.