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Out-of-school settings as a developmental context for children and youth

Deborah Lowe Vandell, Kim M Pierce, Kimberly Dadisman
Advances in Child Development and Behavior 2005, 33: 43-77
16101114
Since the 1990s, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of the out-of-school context for children and adolescents. Fueled in part by family demographics that include substantial numbers of employed mothers and single mothers, in part by concerns about poor academic performance and problem behaviors, and in part by intensified efforts to find ways to promote positive youth development, researchers and practitioners have focused their attention on two particular out-of-school settings: after-school programs and structured activities. The research findings pertaining to full-time (i.e., 5 days a week) after-school programs are mixed, which may reflect the substantial heterogeneity of the programs in terms of children being served, the types of activities offered, and the training and background of the staff. The federal funding of the 21st Century CLCs and various state and local initiatives has increased the numbers of low-income and English-learning students participating in after-school programs. A substantial number of programs are becoming more school-like. The available research suggests that (under some conditions) attending after-school programs is linked to improved social and academic outcomes. Children are more likely to show academic and social benefits when staff-child relationships are positive and nonconflictual, when programs offer a variety of age-appropriate activities from which children can select those of interest, and when children attend on a regular basis. The research findings about voluntary structured activities are more straightforward. Participation in these activities has been consistently linked to positive academic and social developmental outcomes in numerous studies. What appears to be key is that the activities are voluntary, are characterized by sustained engagement and effort, and provide opportunities to build or develop skills. Although the available research has begun to inform our understanding of the out-of-school context, further research is sorely needed. First, there is a need for research to identify the social, cognitive, and linguistic processes by which participation in programs and structured activities influences child and youth developmental outcomes. For example, researchers need to consider the competitiveness of sport activities in relation to children's social and emotional functioning. Researchers also might examine after-school experiences as settings in which complex thought processes can develop. Heath (1999) has conducted initial work in the area of language development by obtaining language samples during voluntary structured activities and analyzing their content. In the initial samples, students engaged in few sustained conversations on a topic and they frequently changed topics. After 3-4 weeks at the program, however, Heath noted substantial changes in the students' conversations and language. The use of conditionals (should, would, could) increased. She also noted increases in strategies to obtain clarifications from others and increases in the use of shifted registers and genres. Heath's (1999) linguistic analyses in conjunction with research that considers social and motivational processes underscore the broader point that the out-of-school context is complex and multi-layered and likely to be of substantial importance in the lives of children and youth. Research is needed to identify other important developmental processes in programs and structured activities. A promising procedure for identifying these processes is experience sampling (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987; Larson, 1989). Experience sampling methodology allows researchers to collect systematic data about an individual's activities, thoughts, and affective states by obtaining reports from participants at multiple randomly sampled points in time. Participants are signaled to provide a report in a variety of ways, such as with beepers or alarm watches. This record of experiences is not usually captured by other data collection methods. For example, program observations provide data on observed activities, interactions, and program climate, but do not offer insights into students' feelings and experiences within the after-school environment. Questionnaire and survey data are retrospective, asking respondents to recall past experiences and feelings regarding their after-school activities. Experience sampling could be used to examine any number of processes in after-school programs and structured activities. A better understanding of the effects of program content also is needed. Whether after-school programs should focus exclusively on enrichment activities or exclusively on academic activities, or include both enrichment and academic components, is the subject of heated debate. Some after-school scholars (Halpern, 1999; Heath, 1999; Eccles, in press) have argued forcefully that a focus on academics undermines the unique strengths and role of programs, and that programs should emphasize extracurricular enrichment activities. Others (Noam, 2004) have supported the move by policy makers and educators to make programs more academic, with an emphasis on homework help, tutoring, and preparation for academic achievement tests. The effects of different approaches to after-school programming have not been evaluated systematically. Research that describes, compares, and then tests effects of different program content models is needed to determine which types of programs are successful in attracting and keeping students (a necessary condition for programs to effect change), and to determine whether different types of programs are differentially associated with improvements in student outcomes such as school attendance, academic achievement, social competencies, and behavioral adjustment. A related question is whether structured activities that are obligatory or required have the same effects as voluntary structured activities do. Researchers also should further examine the impact of different attendance patterns on child developmental outcomes. We do not have solid information about optimal intensity and duration of attendance in terms of outcomes. There are suggestions in the literature that long-term, frequent attendance at programs is associated with positive outcomes for low-income children. Research needs to examine whether these results hold for middle-income children and youth as well. Finally, experimental studies should be conducted in which children and adolescents are randomly assigned to after-school programs and structured activities. All of the research to date on structured activities, and most of the research on after-school programs, has been nonexperimental, so questions about selection bias remain. Experimental studies in which children and adolescents are randomly assigned to participation in programs and activities would be a valuable next step in understanding relations between participation and child and youth outcomes. Such research should not be conducted until we have more information about the components of high-quality programming in terms of program content and developmental processes, however.

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