Beyond the Classroom

How After-School Programs Keep Teens Engaged and Optimistic

Posted Jul 29, 2011

Is Your Teenager Thriving?

The research is clear. After-school programs can increase your teenager's long-term outlook on life and improve their potential to thrive as adults. But helping them find meaningful after-school programs can be challenging.  There are so many choices -- sports, community service, theatre, art, music, school clubs and much more.  Helping find the perfect fit is an important role for parents, teachers, and youth mentors. Offering your advice can make a difference - pointing teens to activities that are not only fun but also offer opportunities to develop character strengths, skills, and abilities that will last a lifetime.

As children grow to middle and high school age, they seek more autonomy and independence.  They naturally react against authority and the kinds of structure found in programs for younger children. Research studies that have evaluated programs for teenagers consistently highlight three things that attract teens and keep them engaged over time. When young people have opportunities for 1) leadership, 2) understanding, and 3) friendship, it can help them navigate adolescence in ways that advance their skills and help them believe in themselves.

After-school programs for teenagers help prepare older adolescents for a variety of roles they assume as they reach college-age and the workforce.  When helping middle and high school students evaluate extra-curricular activities, encourage them to follow their interests. Then, ask the following three questions:

Are there Opportunities for Leadership?

One of the most important aspects of programs for older youth is whether they offer young people the opportunity to learn leadership skills.  In particular, research suggests that adolescents should be provided with meaningful ways to assist in leading activities, contribute to program decision-making, and play an active role in making the program a success.  When this occurs, young people learn to overcome challenges in the real world, like how to communicate and collaborate with others outside of their families and close circle of friends.

Victor, age 19, participated in numerous youth programs and volunteer activities during high school, including working in a hospital emergency room, at a petting zoo, and tutoring children. He also took advantage of Kiwanis programs and became a Key Club leader.  Reflecting on these experiences, he said: "I believe that having the opportunities to both serve and lead at many levels had a strong shaping effect on who I am as a leader and a person today."

Are there Opportunities for Understanding?

Opportunities for Understanding?

Teenagers need to be understood and appreciated for who they are, not just for their grades or how well they do in sports and other activities.  Research shows that older youth respond best to programs that are guided by an intentional process of mutual learning and respect. That is, they like structure that encourages interaction between them and program staff where staff take the time to get to know them in depth, learn about their interests, and appreciate them as individuals. These nurturing relationships help young people believe in themselves and foster the development of identity.

Scott, age 20 reinforces the importance of having adults who understand youth. Speaking of a program he started in middle school, he said, "They met me at my level." Although he was shy, program staff helped him "stretch my rubber band a little bit," encouraging him to stretch his boundaries and learn about himself.  He remains forever grateful for people who took the time to get to know him.

Are there Opportunities for Friendships?

Teenage friendships

Older youth are motivated to participate in programs that provide opportunities to develop peer relationships and friendships. Developing these relationships is important to their self-esteem and self-worth. Finding programs that have been referred by friends or where friends are already involved can be a good way to evaluate the quality of the program.  It can also help your teen stretch his or her comfort zone to try something new.

Young people often talk about the importance of working side by side with friends.  Bryon, age 18, who participated in JROTC during high school, talked about a friend who influenced him to try new activities.  "And when he became the Key Club president, I worked a lot with him and we did a lot of joint projects together. We did more projects because of how much we liked working together."


Arbreton, A., Bradshaw, M., Sheldon, J., & Pepper, S. (2009). Making every day count: Boys & Girls Clubs' role in promoting positive outcomes for teens. Philadel­phia: Public/Private Ventures.

Deschenes, S. N., Arbreton, A., Little, P. M., Herrera, C., Grossman, J. B., & Weiss, H. B., with Lee, D. (2010). Engaging older youth: Program and city-level strategies to support sustained participation in out-of-school time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

Price-Mitchell, M. (2010). Civic learning at the edge: Transformative stories of highly engaged youth. Doctoral Dissertation, Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.

Russell, C. A., Mielke, M. B., & Reisner, E. R. (2009). Evidence of program quality and youth outcomes in the DYCD Out-of-School Time Initiative: Report on the initiative's first three years. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.

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©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.