More School After School? How to Connect Social-Emotional Learning to After-School Programs Using the Responsive Classroom Approach

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When students participate in community and on-site after-school programs, they may be in the same building or community setting but with adults and expectations different from the school day. After-school programs are vital to meeting the needs of many school-age students and their families, and the ongoing challenges of the global health crisis have not removed the need for quality after-school programming for children in grades K–8.

According to The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, the best way to help students thrive in an after-school environment is to build partnerships among schools, families, and community organizations: “Research suggests that efforts to support social, emotional, and academic learning should be aligned across homes, schools, and communities because students benefit more when they have consistent opportunities to build and practice their skills” (2019, p. 27). The uncertainty and challenges after-school programs have faced over this past school year has magnified the need for consistency between school and after-school programs, and using the Responsive Classroom approach can create common expectations and practices based on a set of common beliefs that will further students’ sense of safety, fun, and engagement during after-school hours.

Create a Set of Common Beliefs

Successful organizations are driven by a clear vision and mission based on common beliefs. The core belief of the Responsive Classroom approach is that to be successful in and outside of school, students need to learn a set of social and emotional competencies and of academic competencies. These competencies are taught and practiced throughout the school day, every day, to each child. After-school programs are driven by similar beliefs, and successful programs make sure these beliefs stay consistent between the school day and after-school programs. As Tina Miller, the principal of Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, explains, “Common beliefs are created via opportunities to communicate.” Miller has worked with the after-school programs of the Boys and Girls Club and YMCA to provide a connection between on-site and community-based after-school programs. She found that when creating a partnership with these organizations, “We needed time to share ideas and agree on our central purpose. A shared mindset on commonalities in our vision and mission is important to establish right away” (T. Miller, personal communication, February 4, 2021).

Agree on Common Expectations

Clear and consistent expectations for both classroom and nonclassroom environments are the foundation of the Responsive Classroom approach. It is essential that expectations for the space and materials remain the same when an after-school program uses the same space as the day classes. Off-site community programs will also benefit from communicating with day schools to agree on common expectations. Miller notes that one way the Boys and Girls Club of Wisconsin Rapids created common expectations was to agree on a common signal for attention for the day school and on-site programs. The program director
worked with local schools on other areas as well to provide consistent training for the after-school staff (including Responsive Classroom training) to create a bridge from school day to after-school activities. A collaborative workshop helped after-school staff prepare visual reminders of expectations, utilizing student input to define and visualize common expectations. In response to COVID-19, the precautions of the 3 W’s (Wear your mask, Wash your hands, Watch your distance) have been essential to maintaining safe and healthy students (T. Miller, personal communication, February 4, 2021).

Build Positive Relationships and Open Communication

The first step to building positive relationships and open communication is simply having the day staff and after-school staff get to know each other. This connection can take place through common newsletters, joint gatherings or staff meetings, or visual displays of names and titles of day staff and after-school staff. Videoconferences and communicating via group chats can be considered if in-person meetings are not an option at the time.

Once day school and after-school program staffs are acquainted, there are many ways to deepen these relationships. For example, the after-school staff at the Boys and Girls Club of Wisconsin Rapids and the YMCA of South Wood County volunteer for after-school family events the day schools provide. Miller also has worked with day school staff to participate in monthly meetings with community programs to build relationships, plan upcoming programming, and address problems or inconsistencies.

To assess progress in building these relationships, Miller has used the nationally approved The New York State Afterschool Network’s Program Quality Self-Assessment Tool (2010). According to Miller, the team of day school and after-school staffs “would take an indicator of quality, each complete the survey, and then share out results as well as action plan steps for areas in need of improvement” (personal communication, February 4, 2021). The team used this tool to align Responsive Classroom practices with the after-school program goals. In addition, the tool helped open the lines of communication for academic support needed between day school and after-school staffs. The results of this collaboration has been notable in the academic success of Howe Elementary students: Miller said they have seen an increase in academic competencies and homework completion. Such intentional strategies for open communication and self-assessment are key to success for day school and after-school partnerships.

When school and community programs work together to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of the students, the opportunities for success are magnified. After-school and community programs are not only important for providing quality childcare for working families, they are also key resources for providing academic and social learning opportunities for children after the school bell rings. As schools and community programs create and strengthen partnerships, students and families benefit beyond the limits of each program.