The importance of engagement for adolescents in afterschool programs

Sjogren, A. L., Zumbrunn, S., Broda, M., Bae, C. L., & Deutsch, N. L. (2022). Understanding afterschool engagement: Investigating developmental outcomes for adolescents. American Journal of Community Psychology, 69, 169– 182.

Summarized by Charlotte Styron and Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Evidence suggests that participating in high-quality after-school programs promotes positive youth development & academic outcomes.
  • It also indicates that youths’ willingness to engage determines the effectiveness of after-school programs.
  • Given how many existing studies assess youth engagement in the classroom, it is imperative to understand it within the context of after-school programs. This is coupled with the fact that engagement is measured inconsistently.
  • This study examined how middle school students engaged in an afterschool program based on the four dimensions of engagement (affective, behavioral, cognitive, and social).
    • It also assessed how after-school engagement connected to targeted academic and positive youth outcomes in after-school programs.
  • Findings indicate that after-school programs can engage their students on an affective, behavioral, cognitive, and social level.
  • After-school engagement positively correlated with academic achievement in mathematics and positive youth development.
  • There weren’t any significant correlations between engagement and English achievement.
  • This study offers a valid, easy-to-use tool for measuring after-school engagement in a multifaceted manner.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Though student engagement is hypothesized to be a factor in explaining student level differences in afterschool programs, the measurement of student engagement in this context is inconsistent, and findings from the small number of studies about how engagement impacts developmental and academic outcomes are mixed. In this study, we tested the factor structure of Wang and colleagues’ school engagement scale with a sample of middle school students (N= 197) who attended an afterschool program in an urban setting. Results suggest that a bifactor model of engagement best fits the data, meaning that engagement consists of four specific factors (affective, behavioral, cognitive, social) and a global factor. We then used structural equation modeling to examine the relationship between engagement, academic outcomes, and positive youth development (PYD). Results also showed positive associations with student mathematics achievement and PYD, but no significant associations were found between engagement and English Achievement. This study provides a theoretically aligned way to measure engagement and evidence to support engagement as a key factor in predicting youth outcomes in an out‐of‐school context.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Although engagement is proposed to be a critical student‐level factor related to afterschool  outcomes (Ehrlichet al., 2017; Fredricks et al., 2014), engagement is measured inconsistently in the field. Measurement consistency is necessary to accurately understand not only students’ experiences of engagement in afterschool programs, but also outcomes related to their engagement (Lester &Furman, 2020; Fredricks et al., 2017). This study addresses this gap by examining levels of different types of engagement in a middle school afterschool program, validating a survey of afterschool engagement that includes all four hypothesized dimensions as presented in the latest framework (Fredricks et al., 2016; Wang et al., 2016), and exploring the relationship between engagement and academic achievement, as well as engagement and PYD.

Dimensions of engagement

Middle school students in this sample reported being highly engaged in their afterschool program along all four dimensions, suggesting that afterschool programs can cognitively, affectively, behaviorally, and socially engage the students they serve. The presence of high levels of cognitive engagement highlights how the informal educational context of an afterschool program can extend time on valuable learning activities, serving as an addendum to school day instruction (Kauh, 2011; Mahoney et al., 2005). Specifically, afterschool settings allow students to cognitively engage in academic content that they are not otherwise exposed to such as music mixing, coding, and the development of financial literacy. The Starters program allows students  to select specific after school classes, meaning students are participating in activities in which they presumably have some intrinsic motivation or interest going into the program. This practice of providing student choice over activities is aligned with the developmental needs of early adolescents for autonomy (NASEM, 2019), and thus may be particularly promotive of engagement and exploration of identities and interests for middle schoolers. Further, the small class sizes of this particular program allow students to more closely cognitively engage with the content and instructors.

The addition of the social dimension of engagement is novel to the engagement literature at large, but particularly relevant in afterschool spaces where social ties to peers and staff have been reported as drivers to participation decisions (Akiva & Horner, 2016). Further, the social and affective dimensions of engagement are critical to understanding how programs can support middle school‐aged youth given the importance of peers and increased autonomy in afterschool decision making during adolescence (Akiva & Horner, 2016). By investigating the presence of these two dimensions in tandem, our findings offer a more complete understanding of how adolescent social ties influence engagement and belonging in educational contexts.

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