How Extended Day Enrichment Can Enhance the Emotional Well-Being of Students
By Dawn Bridges, Ed.D.
Students’ experiences both inside and outside of school can influence their learning and achievement. Since the onset of COVID-19, children nationwide have had to deal with the emotionally taxing experiences of social isolation and disruption to their routines. Some have also faced stressors such as food insecurity, homelessness, and traumas such as losing a parent or a grandparent caregiver due to COVID-19.
This school year, many children returned to the classroom still suffering from anxiety, depression, toxic stress, and trauma. All these conditions can negatively affect academic performance and trigger disruptive behaviors.
In a 2022 trends report, the American Psychological Association reported that children’s mental health is in crisis, and as pandemic stressors continue, their mental health must be addressed in schools. Parents are concerned as well. According to a 2021 survey of U.S. parents conducted by the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 71 percent of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health. Social isolation was cited as the most unhealthy aspect of the pandemic.
Providing the help and support children need will require schools and districts to dedicate more time and attention to students’ well-being. One way to infuse extra time into the day to enhance the well-being of students is with before and after school enrichment. Another is with summer camps. The good news for educators is that the American Rescue Plan Act specifically allocates funding for both after school and summer enrichment programs, which can make it easier to provide more equitable access to students.
How extended day enrichment can help
Participating in a high-quality extended day enrichment program before and after school (or during the summer) can provide students with hours of positive socialization every week. Further, research shows that socialization can have a positive impact on students’ academic performance, social behaviors, relationships, and mental wellness. It can also lower children’s levels of emotional distress, reduce anxiety and behavior problems, and increase their ability to manage stress and depression. In addition, educational opportunities that promote social and mental health can improve children’s attitudes about themselves, others, and school.
To achieve these benefits, it is important to seek out thoughtfully-designed enrichment programs that have a strong, intentional focus on “whole child success.” For example, because social and emotional development is more “caught” than “taught,” an enrichment program should be infused with opportunities for children to build core competencies such as practicing personal responsibility and relationship skills, and building awareness of self and others. It should also include social support mechanisms that help students develop positive self-identity and find community with their peers.
For districts with mental health initiatives, an enrichment program should mirror and extend students’ school day work. It should give them specific, structured opportunities to practice and exemplify the character traits that have been identified and prioritized by district or school leaders.
Evaluating the quality of extended learning opportunities
Whether developing an in-house enrichment program or partnering with an outside organization, here are a few questions to consider to find the right match.
Does the program …
- Provide a strong focus on mental health and train its educators in trauma-informed care?
- Implement a curriculum aligned with socialization and mental health competencies?
- Support character development and foster clearly defined character traits?
- Provide activities to build and reinforce positive self-identity in children?
- Provide opportunities for students to establish and maintain supportive relationships?
- Offer opportunities for students to achieve personal and collective goals?
- Help students hone their curiosity, empathy, integrity, and grit?
- Support the district’s commitment to local community service and engagement?
- Align with the school or district’s existing initiative(s)?
Planning for the future
The social isolation and trauma students experienced over the last two years have increased their need for social and mental health support. As districts plan for the summer and the 2022-23 school year, enrichment programs offer an effective way to improve students’ social-emotional skills and confidence and renew their sense of belonging in the school community.
With Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding available for after school and summer enrichment programs, districts have the opportunity to expand access for lower-income and at-risk students or for all students who want to participate. These programs can also provide much-needed support for working parents and guardians who would otherwise have to find childcare solutions on their own.
By providing extended learning opportunities, districts can improve students’ mental, social, and emotional well-being, and help them develop the skills they need to cope, grow, and thrive.
About the author
Dr. Dawn Bridges has dedicated her career to ensuring that all students have the support they need to thrive in and out of school. As the Vice President of Educational Affairs for Right At School, she collaborates with educators and administrators to support school districts to best meet the needs of all students before, during, and beyond the hours of the traditional school day. Dr. Bridges has over 25 years of experience in the fields of education and professional learning, having held the roles of teacher, reading specialist, special education coordinator, principal, and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. She also serves as the SEL Cohort Program Lead for the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, which works to support school district leaders in developing and implementing social-emotional learning and trauma-informed frameworks to provide a holistic support system for all students.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.