When the bell rings at the end of the school day, students run from the classroom to a host of different activities. Some will work with adults to build on the lessons they learned in the classroom. Others will join a sports team, orchestra or art club. And another group will explore an array of educational, arts, and health and wellness activities at local Boys & Girls Clubs.
Together, these represent just a few of the after-school programs youth can participate in this fall. Study after study shows that these programs are associated with increased academic engagement, significant gains in test scores, and improved social and emotional outcomes.
And in high-poverty and under-served neighborhoods, after-school opportunities not only provide a safe haven — but also access to enriching activities and supportive relationships that some youth may not otherwise have access to.
However, an often unnoticed, but incredibly important, aspect of after-school programs is the supportive relationships that our children develop with program staff. These adults are often young adults themselves, and how they relate to, work with and mentor youth contribute greatly to the power of these programs.
We should be asking ourselves how to best support and guide program staff and mentors in their work. The answer may lie in focusing on one of the most unheralded aspects of quality after-school programs: the unstructured interaction.
Take, for example, a parent and child on the car ride to school or at the dinner table. Such encounters offer the opportunity for a parent to proactively initiate conversations with their children around an activity they particularly enjoyed, current events or ideas for resolving a dispute with a classmate. These brief, daily exchanges lay the groundwork for strong relationships.
How can we ensure that the creation of strong, healthy relationships in our after-school settings is not the result of happy accidents but is proactively and intentionally planned? How can we ensure that after-school program staff members have the time to explore new activities with youth, offer solutions to difficult conflicts and learn from one another?
Group mentoring, in which multiple adults and youth come together either formally or informally, may be a useful model for more after-school programs. One example is the Young Women Leaders Program, based at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It offers a combination of group activities and individual mentoring, which empowers middle school girls to support one another and improve themselves, including their social and relational skills.
YWLP ensures that its diverse college-age female mentors, across an array of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, learn from one another as they support the youths and model positive social and relational skills.
The structured group and individual activities embedded in the curriculum are designed to support relationship-building. Studies of the program, now in 12 sites across the globe, show that mentors and mentees demonstrate greater tolerance, empathy and confidence in navigating conflicts, among other outcomes.
I noticed this at a YWLP session where a group of girls gathered in a circle to discuss their highs and lows from the week. One teen, who was socially isolated at school, shared that several classmates — friends of those assembled in the circle — bullied her.
Rather than just discuss this, the group acted. The next day, the mentors and girls from the group showed up in the lunchroom and sat with the girl who had been bullied. This seemingly small gesture represented a bold statement of support at an otherwise vulnerable time for many teenagers.
But this joint action relied on the trusting relationships that had already been built in the group — relationships that grew through facilitated and unstructured discussions over time. It also relied on the collaboration among multiple mentors, who could intervene in the peer dynamics by drawing on the trust they had built with the girls.
By supporting similar after-school programs, we can offer youth more opportunities for developing positive relationships with adults. These relationships help keep youth engaged in after-school activities, and provide extra support and outlets for long-term positive outcomes.
Let’s place an emphasis on relationship-building along with sports, arts and academic activities. Let’s provide staff with the time to learn about their mentees’ experiences and work together to address the issues that they may encounter outside the after-school setting. Let’s train our mentors to model effective conflict resolution and active listening in their programs. And let’s ensure that our teens engage with multiple adults.
This piece was originally written for and posted in the Virginian Pilot. Click here to access the article.