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Afterschool is rising to the moment to support mental well-being of youth

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Afterschool is rising to the moment to support mental well-being of youth

In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, Afterschool Alliance, National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), STEM Next, Million Girls Moonshot, and National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) held a Twitter Chat to discuss how afterschool is rising to the moment to support the physical and mental wellbeing of youth and how programs can continue to support their communities. In this blog, we’re sharing some of the key moments from the conversation and resources youth-serving organizations have developed to meet the mental health needs of youth.

The current situation 

A recent statistic from Pew Charitable Trust reports that 59 percent of parents are more worried about their child’s emotional well-being than they were before the pandemic. A 2021 Wallace Foundation report also finds that 40% of parents are worried about their kids missing out on social connections and 26 percent are worried about their child falling behind academically. “Those most vulnerable in the classrooms were at a disadvantage with distance learning. While it was necessary, we think many parents are hoping to help their children catch up and get their specific needs met in person,” tweets STEM Next.

According to new America After 3PM data, parents overwhelmingly agree that afterschool helps students learn life skills, build confidence, engage with their peers, and build positive relationships—factors that are helping youth thrive in the face of the pandemic. Participants reiterate these findings: “Programs support the well-being of youth through opportunities for positive relationships with other youth as well as with caring adults,” highlights the West Virginia Afterschool Network.

Tips for supporting youth and youth-serving professionals

Nearly 1 in 3 afterschool program providers report offering supports for their students mental health, including specialized mental health or counseling support. Local communities weigh in and share how they are implementing supports for youth. West Virginia Afterschool Network tweeted that programs throughout the state are adopting or strengthening supports by providing counselors and offering more social-emotional learning activities. “Building safe, intentional, and inclusive spaces where students can reflect and make meaning of their experience,” shares NSLA.

A new America After 3PM report finds that 71 percent of parents say their child’s afterschool programs provide opportunities to experience the outdoors. The National Recreation and Parks Association also shares a unique finding from their out-of-school time report: “park and recreation professionals have increased outdoor programming, added additional virtual programming, and created partnerships with schools to provide learning support as a result of the pandemic.”

Youth-serving professionals are critical in creating safe and engaging spaces for youth to explore their passions and make critical connections with caring adults. A webinar with experts from Harmony SEL, YMCA of Greater Houston, and Long Island University shares tips on supporting the mental well-being of afterschool staff. Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships for Healthier Generation also shares how play can be beneficial for both youth and youth-serving staff. 

A recent blog from Afterschool Alliance shares resources for programs and program leaders, including a toolkit to help staff see, observe, and recognize the ways that mental health can play out within a program. A presentation from the Wisconsin Afterschool Network also educates programs on trauma-informed practices for afterschool. 

Tackling afterschool access barriers

The top barriers families face in accessing afterschool programs are cost, transportation issues, and lack of available programs, according to America After 3PM data

“Partnering with key institutions, companies, and governments in local areas to address such barriers is incredibly important. Together, the barriers can be addressed more quickly and effectively,” tweets STEM Next. To help combat cost barriers, NRPA calls on programs to lower participation and participation costs by hosting programs in schools or walkable locations in the community. NSLA amplifies their new site DiscoverSummer.org, a free resource for families to find summer learning programs in their area. 

Many participants echo the need for equity frameworks within afterschool and summer learning programs in order to understand the barriers facing families and creating safe spaces for youth. An equity assessment tool and action plan from NRPA helps guide professionals through the framework and apply an equity lens on their programming. Vermont amplifies, “To ensure equity, we must develop a deeper understanding of potential barriers & challenges to access to universal afterschool & summer programs, especially for youth in rural areas, BIPOC and/or LGBTQ youth, & youth with special needs.” Daniel Hatcher from Healthier Generations points readers to a resource for program leaders to create affirming and inclusive spaces for youth and staff. 

Investing in the future

With COVID relief and recovery funds making their way to the state and local level, funds are being invested in afterschool and summer learning to meet the needs of young people.

A new map from the Afterschool Alliance and entries from Tweetchat participants paints a picture of how programs are using funds and building community partnerships. In Missouri, the Columbia Public Schools District is surveying community partners that offer afterschool programming to help identify the supports they need and build into their ESSER III budget. West Virginia shares how school districts have strengthened their afterschool systems with COVID relief funds, but calls on the field to make the case for long-term, sustained efforts, “more work is needed to strengthen these partnerships and plan for sustainability.” 

NRPA also shares how “Youth mentoring programs sponsored by park and recreation agencies have partnered with local schools to implement one-on-one and group mentoring focused on social emotional learning and trauma informed care.”

Although there is still a lot of work to be done to continue providing safe spaces for youth to recover from the effects of the pandemic, afterschool advocates are championing new resources and legislation. The first youth-focused bill has become law in Vermont, positioned as a “critical resource to support Vermont youth with afterschool and summer programs that meet youths’ mental health needs.” 

To view the full Twitter Chat, see our Twitter Moment. To see more data on how afterschool programs are supporting the healthy development of youth, check out the full America After 3PM report and data dashboard

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