Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Addressing the Needs of Girls in Afterschool


By Sam Piha

While afterschool programs are designed to serve all youth, we have learned over the years that the social context that youth experience are very important to acknowledge and, in some cases, design specific activities. We are seeing programs designed for girls, programs for boys, as well as ones for youth of color, undocumented youth, and LGBTQ youth. We think this is essential to our efforts to promote critical social emotional skills.

In this blog we focus on addressing the needs of girls in afterschool. Below we offer an interview with Allison Dymnicki, researcher at American Institutes for Research (AIR), who recently published her study about promoting the healthy development of girls at Girls Inc.

Allison Dymnicki, AIR
Q: Can you provide a brief overview on the research you did with Girls, Inc?
A: Girls Inc. and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) partnered on a 2-year evaluation to understand the relationship between a high-quality Girls Inc. Experience and academic, behavioral, and “Strong, Smart, and Bold” outcomes for girls and young women. As part of the evaluation, we compared Girls Inc. participants and the comparison group of girls on Strong, Smart, and Bold, and school-related outcomes for two different years (2017–18, 2018–19), totaling more than 3,000 girls.

Q: What does research say about the specific supports girls and young women need in order to be successful in the short- and long-term?
A: Research shows that all young people have inherent strengths, and these can be bolstered through supportive, trusting relationships with peers and adults. In the case of Girls Inc., such relationships allow girls to ask questions and navigate challenging personal situations, inspire girls' creativity, and give them a trusted adult to partner with as they figure out their passions.

Additionally, youth benefit from a supportive environment that makes them feel safe both physically and emotionally. High-quality programming provides safe, supportive spaces for girls and young women to develop their own social and emotional competencies, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, ask questions, and discover things for themselves, with support. This allows girls to realize their short- and long-term potential.

Source: Go Girls Camp
Q: Why is the afterschool setting a good place to accomplish this?
A: Afterschool is one of many settings that can foster young people’s strengths and provide opportunities to build supportive, trusting relationship with others. Research suggests that all people—children, youth, and adults—thrive in safe, supportive environments that are developmentally rich and identity-safe, characterized by positive relationships and relevant opportunities to learn and grow and this is what afterschool is all about. Opportunities for creativity and flexibility not often afforded by the structure of the school day mean more time to explore interests and engage with peers in ways that promote positive development.

Q: What are the most important findings from AIR’s evaluation of the Girls Inc. program?
A: Overall, we found that girls participating in Girls Inc. were more likely to engage in activities and express beliefs that lead to physical and mental well-being, academic achievement, and the development of leadership skills.

More specifically, Girls Inc. girls had consistently higher math test scores than the comparison group of girls. Second, Girls Inc. girls reported more positive attitudes and behaviors than the comparison group of girls across the majority of survey responses.  These responses measure knowledge, skills, and attitudes in areas such as being excited about going to college, engaging in physical activity, and seeing themselves as a leader.

It’s important to note that there were benefits for participating in Girls Inc., regardless of how many hours of programming girls received. This is an important contribution to the field, as it helps build the case that high-quality youth development programs support many aspects of well-being.

Q: How do in- and out-of-school time programming for girls, like Girls Inc., aim to help them succeed in school and life?
A: High-quality programming, like Girls Inc., provides girls with the opportunity to build academic, social, and emotional competencies, and it promotes physical health and wellbeing.

Girls Inc.'s “Strong, Smart, and Bold” outcomes include building skills related to leadership, curiosity, problem-solving, and smart decision-making, such as not skipping school or engaging with illicit drugs or alcohol. Such skills are critical for girls to be able to graduate from high school, go to college, have successful careers, and become citizens who make meaningful contributions to society.

Source: Girls Inc.

Q: Do you think it is helpful to have groups or activities that are gender specific, i.e. only have girls participating? If so, why?
A: We think it’s important to have a range of activities and opportunities available to young people that allow them to feel safe and comfortable to explore their self-identity, interests, and passions. Gender specific programming is a critical part of those offerings and can afford girls and boys a unique opportunity to grow and thrive.

Q: What do you think educators and local policymakers can do to help girls
succeed both inside and outside of school?
A: We are encouraged by programs and other approaches that acknowledge the whole person, by supporting participation in activities focused on academic success and career aspirations, physical and mental health, and social and emotional skills and competencies. The body of research into adolescent development suggests that such an approach is effective in supporting youth to thrive.

We encourage youth-serving organizations and education agencies to focus on evidence-based practices and strategies that support the whole person in safe and supportive environments, where relationships can flourish, and with a focus on high quality and engaging opportunities for learning and development. Practically, this means investing in building staff capacity, creating career pathways that promote retention, and establishing structures that support program quality. Now more than ever, we need to support the essential staff who are dedicated to fostering youth learning and development and the organizations that have spent years building these supportive systems.

It’s important to acknowledge that young people do not exist in just one system; they participate in many systems, such as school, sports teams or clubs, the justice system, and so on.

Through our work on the Interagency Working Group for Youth Programs and the Readiness Projects, we aim to foster meaningful cross-sector connections to ensure that young people, and the staff who support them, can navigate their experiences in a coordinated way. Girls Inc. is one example of how cross-sector coordination, with school partners and other community-based organizations, can have a positive impact on girls. We can do so much more in this area to support youth learning and development.


Allison B. Dymnicki is a principal researcher at AIR with extensive expertise in youth development, implementation science and systems change. She has particular expertise in research on school and community-based programs. Her work has helped to advance understanding of how schools and communities can facilitate positive youth development and prevent engagement in risky behaviors. She has also helped develop social-emotional learning, school climate, and readiness assessments. Dymnicki has conducted prevention and intervention research at the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, the Ounce of Prevention, and the Institute of Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has published over 25 articles and book chapters.

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