Prevention Corner

Reader needs help with after-school prevention program for elementary school

After-school programs are no longer just childcare or a safe place for children to play while parents are at work.

By Elaine Clanton Harpine

After-school programs are no longer just childcare or a safe place for children to play while parents are at work. Our letter comes from a teacher who has just been presented with the task of organizing an after-school program with a prevention focus.

Editorial Question Posed

Dear Prevention Corner:

I’ve been chosen to set up a new afterschool prevention program at my elementary school. We have received a small grant, and our program must include “prevention objectives and strategies.” Our grant states that if our program does not help “prevent a problem confronting students” that we will not receive funding. My principal also demands that the program somehow increase end-of-the-year test scores. Parents and teachers want us to help the students do their homework. After a quick glance on the Internet for prevention programs for schools, I’m totally lost. I heard you speak at a recent conference, and I’m hoping you can help.

Signed,

Desperately in Need of Help

Response

Dear Desperately in Need of Help:

I agree that a quick glance at prevention programs for schools on the Internet can be totally baffling. Bullying, violence, guns, suicide, obesity, drugs, smoking, alcohol, and even drop-out prevention are just a few of the topics listed. You need to be careful though, especially if your grant has specific stipulations for prevention objectives and strategies, because not every program labeled “prevention” is actually a true prevention program. The term prevention has become very popular and therefore many organizations tack on the prevention label without adhering to prevention standards.

Let’s begin by defining terms. Prevention programs in schools are by nature typically group programs—school-wide, classroom-based, grade level, or small group pull-out programs. Most after-school programs are also group programs, possibly with a mixture of ages. Therefore, your first requirement is to design an effective group program.

Simply gathering students together in a group does not constitute an effective group program. Gangs, dysfunctional families, and peer groups who tease and bully others are groups, but they do not result in positive effects or necessarily in a state of well-being for the participating individuals. You want to design an after-school program that brings about positive change.

Since your assignment is to design a prevention program, we need to ascertain what is needed to make your after-school program a true group prevention program. In a special issue of Group Dynamics: Theory Research and Practice, group prevention was defined in very specific terms. The definition is long, but I think worth repeating.

Prevention groups utilize group process to the fullest extent: interaction, cohesion, group process and change. The purpose of prevention groups is to enhance members’ strengths and competencies, while providing members with knowledge and skills to avoid harmful situations or mental health problems. …. Two key ingredients for all prevention groups are that they be directed toward averting problems and promoting positive mental health and well-being and that they highlight and harness group processes (Conyne & Clanton Harpine, 2010, p. 194).

Your after-school program in order to be classified as a prevention program must include group interaction and positive group cohesion (a feeling of acceptance and unity). If students are sitting at a desk or at tables doing their homework, that is not group interaction. Being collected together in a large group listening to someone talk is also not group interaction. Demonstrations or even role-plays that involve only one or two students are not a form of group interaction. Therefore, if you turn to the Internet for suggestions, you must filter through programs labeled “prevention” which display children sitting in large assemblies listening to a speaker, students sitting and watching a video, or even children watching a demonstration. There is no interaction and consequently no effective prevention with such a program. Group prevention requires that students be involved in the learning process. Simply sitting quietly and listening is not interactive involvement or engagement. Many researchers have found that children learn best through hands-on learning. You may want to set up an after-school program where children can explore answers and also work together as equal partners to solve problems and create projects together as a group.

There are approximately 8 million students who attend some form of after-school program across the United States, but many of these programs have been shown to be ineffective. In a special issue of the American Journal of Community Psychology, researchers stated that homework help, recreational activities, and reliance upon reward-based prizes and incentives simply were not helping students improve academically or effectively teaching positive social skills (Pierce et al., 2010; Shernoff, 2010). In light of such research, you may want to steer clear of the traditional homework help approach. If one of your goals is to improve test scores, reduce academic failure, and reduce the number of students dropping out of school before graduation, then you must explore and use methods that actually work.

As you look for help on the Internet or from after-school planning manuals, search using descriptive terms such as: after-school group prevention programs for at-risk students. By adding the term at-risk students, you will find programming suggestions with more evidence-based or research-based support. Evidence-based programs are very popular and sometimes even stipulated by grant agencies. One caution with evidence-based programs is that an evidence-based program only gives you evidence-based results if you use the program as it was designed. If you change an evidence-based program, add a little here or take out a thing or two, you have actually changed the program and will no longer receive the same results predicted by the evidence-based research. Therefore, if you want to use an evidence-based program, don’t change it. Use the program exactly the way it was written.

If you are designing your own program, some thoughts to keep in mind are:

Step 1: You must decide on the focus of your program. Will you stress academics? Reading and math are essential components of a strong educational base. Since homework and worksheets have been proven not to work with students who are struggling in the classroom, you will need to find other instructional approaches. Phonological awareness has been shown to be essential for at-risk readers and hands-on manipulatives are very helpful for students struggling in math. Look for hands-on approaches to use in your after-school prevention program.

Step 2: Behavior is often an issue with after-school programs. If you develop a group atmosphere where all students feel accepted and can work together cohesively (no one is teased or bullied-- everyone is seen as a valuable member of the group), then through the process of working together as an after-school group you have the potential to bring about positive change with your students. There are several books and programs available for developing positive group interventions. Creative group interventions (using art, crafts, or music) have been shown to be very successful with elementary students.

Step 3: Your prevention objectives and strategies need to measure improvement and positive change. If your focus is academic as suggested by your principal, your objective may be to prevent failure, grade retention, or dropping out of school early. This does not mean that you cannot work with children who are already struggling or failing. It may mean that you’re trying to remediate existing problems and prevent future problems.

An after-school program gives you the opportunity to help children learn in a way that is different from the daily classroom routine. This does not mean you cannot include homework assistance in your plan, but research does tell us that you should not rely on homework to help you achieve your prevention goals. Unfortunately, the student who is confused in the classroom will not suddenly understand the concept simply because you sit down beside them and help them work through a homework worksheet. You will need to incorporate some form of skills training or instruction in your after-school program. Hands-on learning centers work very well. Remember, you want your program to be interactive. If you do not have group interaction, you do not have a prevention program. Traditional classroom style teacher-to-student direct instruction is not a group prevention technique. Group prevention programs need everyone in the group to be interacting together.

Let your after-school program be a time in which children can explore new and different ways of learning. Be brave. Don’t be afraid to try something new. 

References

Conyne, R. K., & Clanton Harpine, E. (2010). Prevention groups: The shape of things to come. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 14, 193-198. doi:10.1037/a0020446

Pierce, K. M., Bolt, D. M., & Vandell, D. L. (2010). Specific features of after-school program quality: associations with Children's functioning in middle childhood. American Journal of Community Psychology, 45, 381-393. doi: 10.1007/s10464-010-9304-2

Shernoff, D. J. (2010). Engagement in after-school programs as a predictor of social competence and academic performance. American Journal of Community Psychology, 45, 325-337. doi: 10.1007/s10464-010-9314-0 

If you have interesting ideas to share, we welcome your participation. We invite psychologists, counselors, prevention programmers, teachers, administrators, and other mental health practitioners working with groups to network together, share ideas, problems, and become more involved. Please send comments, questions, and group prevention concerns to Elaine Clanton Harpine.