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Nationwide, more than 15 million children are on their own after school is dismissed. Among them are more than 1 million students in grades K through five who are not involved in afterschool activities due to lack of programs, funding, or transportation issues.

But new research shows the increasing importance of afterschool activities in boosting academic performance and work habits, especially for children from low-income families.

Afterschool activities
Deborah Vandell (Photo: Nicole Del Castillo/ UC Irvine Communications) Reproduction not permitted.

In a series of reports, Deborah Lowe Vandell, dean of the School of Education at the University of California Irvine, found that children who participated consistently in afterschool activities posted significant math achievement gains by fifth grade. Furthermore, when afterschool participation was high, the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students was eliminated.

The Hechinger Report spoke to Vandell about her recent findings and the closer attention being placed by policymakers on extended learning and longer school days.

Q: Your recent study found participation in afterschool activities improves achievement for students from low-income families. But the study states that several factors need to be present. What are they?

A: The first factor is the quality of those activities. By quality, we are really talking about the quality of interactions with adults, the quality of interactions with peers and the interest that the young people have in the activities. So, for activities to have the beneficial effects, one important aspect is quality.

The other two factors are duration and intensity of those activities.

By duration, we’re looking at experiences over time…what that really means, too, is that while one-time activities may spark an interest, going to a baseball game is not going to be life transformative. Going to a symphony one time is not going to be life transformative. What they really need is sustained participation.

When we’re talking intensity, we’re seeing one hour a week is not as good as two hours, is not as good as three hours.So in some of these programs for low-income children, the opportunity to attend those activities for two or three hours in the afternoon, after school, that comes out to about 15 hours a week. We are finding that they are deriving benefits from that.

Q: Why are results so much more significant for low-income students than for middle- or upper-class students?

A: Our research suggests that children derive benefits from afterschool activities, over and above the experience that they have with their family, and the experiences that they have at school. Low-income children, in general, have less access to activities. We are also seeing that they may be deriving greater benefits in some areas. We find that everyone benefits in some areas such as mathematics. Low-income children benefit more.

Q: So is it because the experience is so much more than what they normally have access to?

I think so. I think that they’re getting access to experience that they may not have otherwise.

Q: With growing research in afterschool activities, there is a need for better methods to measure program effectiveness. Tell us about the “California Afterschool Outcome Measures Online Toolbox.”

A: The toolbox was developed in cooperation and collaboration with the state of California. California has publicly funded after-school programs for low-income children, about $500 million a year goes to afterschool programs.

As part of that legislation, there was some accountability part that focused on what are they doing in the development of 21st century skills, things like teamwork, persistence, working well with others. So the state needed a way of assessing those activities. We developed a toolbox that is an online measure of [afterschool activities]. Then we provide that information back to the program, so that they can use that.

We’re hoping that what programs will start to do is to use this information to help guide them in improving their programs. What we also find is that when youth are reporting higher quality experiences in the program, classroom teachers and program staff are reporting greater gains in youth outcome.

Q: So, you see the need for more thought and planning into these afterschool activities?

A: Schools have not spent as much attention as we should, on this quality of relationships with teachers, students’ interest in the activities that are going on, the quality of what’s happening with peers. Those are important parts of student learning. I’m hoping that we reach a point where schools say, you know what, we should be asking the kids about what’s happening in school, as well as out of school.

Q: Your research also shows different activities impact different areas of academics?

A: We find some effects associated with types of activities. For example, we find gains in mathematics with sports activities, as well as more academic activity.

But that’s not the primary driver. The primary driver is that youth are in activities that they are interested in. So different types of activities are important because that enables us to find a good match between what young people are interested in and the activity.

Q: Your research found that unsupervised time with peers was associated with lower GPA and more school absences. What is that attributed to?

A: There is a large body of work that finds the same findings in unsupervised time with peers. What young people can do when they are with each other is they can reinforce deviant behaviors. They can reinforce one another’s risk-taking, showing off kind of stuff. It’s quite different than what they can do with peers when there is an adult supervising.

And particularly, there is an opportunity for young people to develop relationships with adults who care about them, who respect them, who have a similar interest, be it sports or music or art. So, it’s this relationship with adults that is a really important part of organized afterschool activities.

Q: It has been 25 years since your first study of afterschool programs. Are you surprised at how large this area of research has grown?

A: I am delighted that the importance of afterschool time is now on the radar screen of policy makers and schools. I think that many parents who have the resources have known how important these afterschool activities are.

They had a sense that it was important and were doing it, and the children who were precluded were the families who really didn’t have the resources to pay for the activity.

I think that’s been a huge source of inequity in this country.

It used to be that schools had extra-curricular activities after school. And that was one of the areas that got cut in many public schools because they thought it wasn’t part of their core mission. And I think it is part of their core mission.

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Letters to the Editor

3 Letters

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  1. I personally am so thankful that I had plenty of “unsupervised time with peers” growing up, that I learned from consequence when engaged in “deviant behaviors,” that I was allowed to take risks and even show off on occasion (even when it resulted in physical pain). I am sorry that yet another individual is advocating that kids must always have adult supervision, that they can’t learn on their own, that time with their friends is a waste. Thanks mom and dad for not wanting to supervise me 24/7 (and putting up with the results so that I could learn some very valuable life lessons).

  2. David — I agree, to a point. Have you worked in an area that has high-poverty and a high rate of fatherlessness? We have for the last 3.5 years, and I tell you that there is a need for positive after school programs. I especially agree with the point of having meaningful relationships with adults. A lot of kids in this community don’t have that.

  3. Is it one million or is it 15 million? If the facts are not consistent, why should anyone trust the conclusions. In one urban ghetto school district about half of the poorest children always fail and about half always succeed academically. Prof Vandell’s strangely qualified “success” (quality interaction with adults and subjects that interest the children) ignores the fact that children tend strongly to succeed or to fail as a result of the lives they lead during the 91 percent of each childhood that is spent some place other than in a formal classroom. Parents – poor or affluent – who see to it that their children have “high participation” in an after school program are simply better parents than those who allow their children to have “low participation.” Better parents -poor or affluent – tend strongly to produce more successful children. We have endured an endless string of reports about how formal pedagogy can miraculously overcome the developmental damage that is inflicted on children by bad families. After five uninterrupted decades of the failure of all such miracles, we ought to be sufficiently honest to admit that the academic success or failure of children is a mainly result of the of the quality of their lives between conception and kindergarten. The cause is not hiding in our formal pedagogical programs. It is living openly in our inadequate households.

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