Social and Identity Development in After-school Programs

mirrorJones, J.N., & Deutsch, N.L. (2013). Social and identity development in an after-school program: Changing experiences and shifting adolescent needs. Journal of Early Adolescence, 33(1), 17-43.

Introduction: Experiences afforded through a theprograms, activities and social interactions in after-school settings provide a context for positive social and identity development. This is particularly true for youth with limited resources in other contexts. Little is known; however, about the specific features  align with youth’s age-related needs, and and how they promote positive youth development.

Through a person-environment fit framework, which “recognizes the agency of the individual in concert with the affordances of the learning environment”(p.20), the current study explores youth’s perceptions of key attributes of after-school programs and the relationships within this setting that relate to youth’s emerging developmental needs.

Researchers were guided by the following questions (p.22):

  • How do the activities offered to youth at an urban after-school program relate to youths’ developmental needs?
  • How do the nature of adult-youth relationships and interactions at an urban after-school program shift as youth mature?
  • In what ways do these changing experiences influence adolescents’ social-emotional and identity development?

Methods: Qualitative methods highlighting an inductive and interpretive approach (i.e., no prior hypotheses) were used to explore the experiences of all youth and staff at a Boys & Girls Club in a lower-income neighborhood located in a small East Coast city in the United States. Researchers collected observations and in-depth field notes for one year. In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 17 youth who were between the ages of 11 and 18 years old, and who regularly attended the club throughout the year.

Results: Several themes emerged from the data relating to influential programmatic and interpersonal factors across three developmental groups:

  • Preadolescence
    •  Staff interactions with youth provided structure and routine
    • Youth were encouraged to establish peer connections during loosely structured, staff monitored time
    • Youth engaged in structured activities (e.g., tutoring)
  • Early adolescence
    • Staff interactions with youth modeled prosocial behavior and encouraged autonomy
    • Youth were allotted more opportunities for peer interactions
    • Youth activities balanced between structured and unstructured time, and also included gender-specific programs
  • Mid-adolescence
    • Staff interactions with youth were less hierarchical, encouraged increasing autonomy (e.g., own teen space at the center) and responsibility via leadership roles.
    • Youth reported increasing support and greater identification with staff
    • Youth programs focused on goal setting, college and career transitional planning


Conclusion and Implications: This study explored programmatic and interpersonal factors that aligned with youth’s changing, age-related developmental needs in an after-school setting. Researcher observations and youth interviews revealed the ways in which structured and unstructured time within the after-school setting, along with changing relationships with program staff influenced youths’ emerging social and identity development.

This study highlights the significance of relationships with non-parental figures in after-school settings. Similar to relationships in after-school programs, formal mentoring programs facilitate the formation of quality relationships between youth and non-parental adults. Mentoring programs can draw upon some of the features of after-school settings, particularly structural aspects including flexible, developmentally appropriate activities that mentors and mentees can engage in to foster greater relational connections.

Reviewed by Stella Kanchewa, doctoral student in clinical psychology at UMass Boston.