Public/Private Ventures (P/PV)
Youth workers may be scrambling to keep up with the avalanche of recent research on the characteristics of high-quality after-school programs. Should those programs civically enlighten youth? Raise test scores? Teach social or athletic skills? Prepare youth for employment? Or all of the above?
One thing is certain: Their quality depends on keeping youth actively and happily engaged in the programs, which is a fundamental challenge.
According to surveys and interviews conducted by P/PV with nearly 450 youth and staff members from five Philadelphia-based Beacon Centers, the two most effective ways for youth workers to accomplish that are to “effectively manage groups” and “positively support learning.”
During the 2004-05 academic year, P/PV asked youth in the Beacon programs how much they were interested in, challenged by and engaged in various activities. They surveyed staff members about their demographic backgrounds, experience and training and conducted more than 50 on-site observations of adult/youth/peer relationships, instructional and presentation methods, behavior management and youth input.
Researchers ignored traditional outcome measures, such as mastery of specific tasks, to focus on some of the more enigmatic properties of high-quality programming by asking:
• What conditions compel youth to want to attend an activity?
• What aspects of an after-school activity, such as staff behaviors or the activity’s structure, lead youth to be highly engaged?
• What conditions make youth feel that they have learned something through an activity?
Researchers found that when youth rated an activity as “well managed,” they also said they “got more” from it. They enjoyed the activity more, were more engaged and felt they learned more than youth who rated activities as poorly managed.
Through observations, researchers were able to pinpoint four effective strategies for managing behavior in groups of youth: setting reasonable ground rules; providing ongoing positive reinforcement through encouragement and praise; being consistent and fair in reinforcing expectations; and remaining firm, but not harsh, when ground rules were broken.
Secondly, P/PV found that when positive adult support was provided, youth also reported higher levels of enjoyment, engagement and learning. Support was observed to be both emotional, such as adults learning about youth culture and talking with individual youth about special needs, and instructional, such as one-on-one adult instruction that offered a balance of positive reinforcement and critical assessment.
While “liking their peers” increased a feeling of learning among elementary school youth and a desire to attend an activity among middle schoolers, it played no role for high school teens. All youth, however, reacted positively to encouragement by staff to work with peers.
Staffers facilitated positive peer interactions by intervening to ensure that all youth got along, placing youth in collaborative pairs or small groups, and placing youth in formal peer tutoring and mentoring relationships with more experienced youth.
Finally, the more influence that participants felt they had in shaping an activity, the more engaged they felt and the more they liked the activity. However, having input did not increase perceived learning or desire to take part in an activity.
Youth input was best integrated when youth workers set clear expectations, removed themselves from decision-making, then stepped back into the process to recognize progress and support next steps.
“Ultimately,” the study authors concluded, “good instructors provide just enough structure to help activities run well, and remain calm and consistent when presented with challenges.”