Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

After-School Programs Do Work!

We are surprised that after-school programs are on the Federal chopping block.

Consider this scene, one that occurs at the end of the school day all across America: Children stream out of school at the end of the day. For some, mothers have lined up in cars outside the school (54 years after publication of The Feminine Mystique, it’s still mainly mothers) to take them to sports practice or music lessons. Others step into bright yellow school busses to head for home, where a parent, grandparent, or babysitter is waiting for them, ready with a healthy snack and a willing ear to hear how the day went, or maybe where they let themselves into an empty house where it will be hours until a parent arrives home from work. A third group of children head down the hall, to a school-sponsored after-school program, that will provide homework help along with opportunities for physical activity and academic enrichment. Some of these programs are even free for children of low-income families, funded through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Federal block grants program. It is these programs that are now on the chopping block in the latest Federal budget being bandied about by Congress.

Why do we need to fund after-school programs? Because, the time between 3:00 and 6:00 pm has a significant influence on how kids do during the regular school day, and whether they make good progress during the school year. Today, unlike earlier times, a basic education is insufficient to becoming an economically productive adult, and the hours between 3:00 and 6:00 are a valuable resource for extending education. Upper middle class children increasingly spend these hours developing their skills in coding classes, tutoring programs, ballet lessons, soccer camps, and the like, after which their parents can help with homework and monitor that children carry out the required reading needed to improve literacy. But many families simply cannot afford the $100 or more each week for their children to attend such after-school activities. Many parents can't help much with homework either because they themselves struggled in school or perhaps are just learning English themselves. Helping out with 20 minutes of reading feels like a lot at the end of a long day. Such disparities in how children spend their time after school are one well-documented reason for the persistent achievement gaps in the U.S. between well-off and poorer children in school.

Given this situation, it is reasonable to ask why it is that school still ends at 3:00, rather than at 6:00, when many parents get home from work. Current school day hours are a vestige of a more agricultural time, when children were needed to help out on the farm after school. According to the historian Robert Halpern (2002), throughout the 20th century, families moved from farms into cities for work and children now had idle time after school. Children in low-income families, where both parents worked long hours to provide the basics, were unsupervised. They were victimized and lured by criminal elements. Girls were preyed upon by older men and boys. Charities, like the Boys and Girls Club, sprang up to address these issues and tried to keep children safe, but the need was always far greater than such charities could provide. Then, when welfare reform was enacted in the 1990’s, with the goal of getting more single and poor parents into jobs, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program was developed and funded by the Federal government to provide childcare during the crucial 3:00--6:00 gap. The program was designed to enable parents to work through the after-school hours. It was considered an essential part of the safety net for their children and the program had bipartisan support.

Twenty or so years on, with this history forgotten, some glibly claim that these programs simply “don’t work,” setting them up to be cut or completely defunded. But, is this a reasonable criticism? Research shows quite clearly that children feel safer when they can be in such programs (James-Burdumy, Dynarski, & Deke, 2007) and their parents overwhelmingly say these programs help them keep their jobs (Afterschool Alliance, 2014), which is pretty much what these programs were originally intended to do. Attention has been paid more recently to the potential for these programs to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white, kids, but they were never meant to carry this weight by themselves.

What, if anything, does any of this have to do with the psychology of reading? One of the key skills that the Federal government is interested in improving is literacy, and many people believe that federally funded after-school programs could play an important role in this. Just how after-school programs should go about improving literacy has been less clearly agreed upon.

Some programs have striven to duplicate what children are already getting in the classroom during the day. But just doing "more of the same" is probably not all that effective, and research that examines programs that do this has found only small, spotty benefits.

Instead, in our view, federally funded after school programs are a golden opportunity to extend children’s literacy experiences in ways not generally possible during the school day. They should work to create a more well-rounded child, in terms of true literacy, and programs should stand in contrast to the increasingly narrow skills-based and test-driven curriculum that children, especially low-SES children, all too often experience during the school day. Reading in after-school programs needs to look more like the kinds of reading experiences that upper middle class kids so often get at home.

One of us (Schwanenflugel) is a volunteer co-director of a 21st Century Community Learning Center afterschool program run in a few elementary schools in our high poverty community. The program is designed for children who are struggling academically. Although there is homework help and physical activity games, there are also reading and mathematics enrichments to which children are assigned for half the year. The express goal of the reading enrichment program is to improve children’s reading fluency and comprehension for informational text, alternating from year to year between high-interest science and social studies books. Our thought is that extensive, supported reading of such texts will enrich children's interest in and understanding of these subjects, while also improving their reading skills for these types of texts.

During the school day, children might spend only a few minutes on the reading of informational texts, or indeed, on connected reading of any kind. In our program, children engage in oral reading of informational texts with teachers who use scientifically supported techniques for working with them. They read for an hour each day for a full semester, an amazing amount of extra reading for elementary school children on average, especially of informational texts. Ours is a relatively small, targeted program that is heavily monitored for high quality instruction and positive outcomes, and we look for more specific kinds of improvements, rather than the generalized kinds of growth schools work for during the day. That is, we do not try to accomplish everything related to literacy, just improvements on the targeted skills our program is designed to address. Our findings are clear – our reading enrichment program significantly improves children’s skills in the fluent reading of informational texts compared to their peers who receive math enrichment. We have seen the same growth trends year after year.

It is easy to consider how one might develop targeted goals like ours in many areas related to literacy (and other academic areas of course). One could develop a writers’ program, a poetry/rap/music lyrics writing program, a journalism and web media program, or a drama program where the emphasis is on the reading and performance of plays. Book circles can be created and other similar things. The function of such goals is to give children exposure to literacy forms and topics that they typically cannot pursue in depth during regular school hours. Evaluations can more accurately target program goals that are explicitly stated, and children can learn to appreciate the many ways in which literacy can enrich their lives.

The goals of after-school programs are and probably should be myriad, to meet children's differing needs and help them develop a variety lifelong interests and skills. For example, current scientists often report that their involvement in after-school STEM-related programs (science fairs, research programs, directed engineering projects, naturalist camps) was what sparked their lifelong love of science. Serious artists often get their start through sound after-school programming. Certainly, it is hard to imagine how one could develop sports prowess without excellent extensive coaching during after-school hours. If nothing else, the physical activities required by the 21st Century programs can help ameliorate the growing trend of overweight, poor health, and lack of fitness in young children. Lee et al. (2017) suggests that, if even half US children ages 8–11 years would partake in twenty-five minutes of vigorous physical activity three times a week (currently only 39% do), it would save $8.1 billion in medical costs and $13.8 billion in lost productivity over the course of their lifetimes, easily justifying the program. After-school programs can help children learn the value of engaging in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity as a lifelong personal goal.

Consequently, we don’t understand what the White House Budget Director meant when he was questioned about the plan to eliminate the after-school programs: “they’re supposed to help kids who can’t — who don’t get fed at home, get fed so that they do better at school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that. There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better at school” (Reilly, 2017). Of course, they are helping kids! What won’t help is removing the fledgling support that we’ve managed to provide these programs for the past 20 years. Eliminating them would be taking a step back in history and not in a positive way.

If you are interested in after-school program effectiveness, we urge you to look for the publication of our new book on this topic, due out in November, 2017:

Schwanenflugel, P. J., & Tomporowki, P.T., Eds. (2017). Physical activity and learning after school. NY: Guilford Publishers.


Afterschool Alliance (2014). America after 3pm: Afterschool programs in demand. Washington, DC: Afterschool Alliance.

Halpern, R. (2002). A different kind of child development institution: The history of after-school programs for low-income children. Teachers College Record, 104(2), 178-211.

James-Burdumy, S., Dynarski, M., & Deke, J. (2007). When elementary schools stay open late: Results from the national evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 29(4), 296-318.

Lee, B. Y., Adam, A., Zenkov, E., Hertenstein, D., Ferguson, M. C., Wang, P. I., . . . Brown, S. T. (2017). Modeling the economic and health impact of increasing children's physical activity in the United States. Health Affairs, 36(5), 902-908. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2016.1315

Reilly, K. (2017, March 17). The White House said after-school programs don’t help kids. Here’s what the research says. Time Magazine,