Can after-school programs foster positive youth development? New study has answers

Goodman, A. C., Ouellette, R. R., D’Agostino, E. M., Hansen, E., Lee, T., & Frazier, S. L. (2021). Promoting healthy trajectories for urban middle school youth through county-funded, parks-based after-school programming. Journal of Community Psychology.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Early adolescence is a critical time where risky decisions can lead to consequences, especially for youths from marginalized communities. 
  • Although after-school programs are an effective way to foster positive youth trajectories, not many studies examine whether this also applies to middle school after-school programs. 
  • This study examined Fit2Lead Youth Enrichment and Sports (YES), a county‐funded, parks‐based after‐school collaboration for middle schoolers that merges mental health and recreation to promote healthy trajectories.
  • There were no significant changes in self-efficacy, emotion regulation, risks for depression, and risks for anxiety over time.
  • There were no differences for children of various risk levels from the beginning to the end of the school year.  
  • Individual, caregiver, and community level risks didn’t moderate the study’s trends. 
  • The lack of significant change in this study reflects findings from preventative research, where absences of notable deterioration highlight the potential of programs. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Ongoing pressure for public schools to prioritize academics has increased attention on after‐school settings as a critical space for social‐emotional learning (SEL). After‐school programs are uniquely positioned to build protective and promotive factors that contribute to positive future orientation, especially within communities where systemic inequities create barriers to high school graduation, higher education, employment, and earnings. This study examines Fit2Lead Youth Enrichment and Sports (YES), a county‐funded, parks‐based after‐school collaboration for middle schoolers that merges mental health and recreation to promote healthy trajectories. Eight Miami neighborhood parks were selected based on county data indicating high rates of violence. An open trial design (N = 9 parks, 198 youth; ages 9–15; 40.5% female; 66.5% Black/African American, 24.9% Hispanic/Latinx, and 76.3% low‐income) tested hypotheses that participation for adolescents exposed to community violence would disrupt a commonly reported decline in self‐regulation and self‐efficacy, and mitigate risk for anxiety and depression. Youth completed questionnaires at the beginning and end of one school year. Paired t‐tests revealed no changes from pre to post, and no differences by baseline levels of youth and parent mental health. Findings highlight the promise of prevention programs to disrupt downward trajectories for youth during the risky time of early adolescence.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

We examined a county‐funded after‐school program for middle schoolers that infuses socioemotional skills common to prevention programs (communication, emotion literacy, and problem solving) into sports and recreation. Consistent with predictions, there was no evidence of statistically significant change over time in emotion regulation, self‐efficacy, risk for anxiety, or risk for depression. There were also no differences from beginning to end of the school year for youth at various levels of risk represented by baseline levels of individual mental health need, parent anxiety or depression, and youth exposure to violence, trauma, and adversity. Reliable change analyses of clinical significance revealed modest changes in risk for depression, such that 7% of youth reported improvement and 8% of youth reported deterioration.

Fit2Lead YES is a park‐based after‐school program, and we predicted no change in outcomes from beginning to end of the school year, expecting the program may disrupt a downward trajectory of academic, social, and emotional problems seen often during early adolescence, and particularly in communities where systemic inequities elevate risks and restrict access to resources and opportunities. Indeed, the absence of change over time supports a robust body of work in prevention, where it is the lack of any significant deterioration that speaks to the promise and opportunity of prevention programs (e.g., Cardemil et al., 2002; Patel et al., 2007). The lack of declines here demonstrates the promise of the program, while the lack of gains demonstrates a possible need for both: (1) modified measures used for program evaluation; and (2) additions to programming (e.g., explicit focus on future orientation through junior leadership positions).

Internalizing outcomes

Related to the distal outcomes of anxiety and depression, there was no evidence of change over time in youth risk. Findings contribute to a small body of work examining the role of after‐school programs on youth mental health, with mixed results. Fauth et al. (2007), through a multi‐level, longitudinal study, examined the relationship between after‐school activity participation and developmental outcomes such as anxiety and depression over the course of six years for youth (N = 1315; ages 9 and 12; 50.4% male; 49.2% Latino and 35.8% Black) in 80 Chicago neighborhoods. Whereas overall youth anxiety/depression increased linearly over time, youth who participated in after‐school time maintained average scores rather than increases. Though results varied by activity type and neighborhood, one particularly relevant finding revealed an association between sports and symptoms, such that youth who engaged in sports endorsed fewer anxious/depressed symptoms. This finding supports a large and robust literature linking exercise and physical activity to mental health (Ahn & Fedewa, 2011), and another connecting green space to mental health (Barton & Pretty, 2010).

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