Shaping Minds: The Mental Health Benefits Of After-School Programs

With the school year in full swing, social workers may be thinking about getting involved with after-school enrichment programs. An increasing number of parents are working outside of the home and may struggle to find adequate supervision for their children after-school hours. These programs can provide relief to working parents by providing structured supervision between when children finish school and when their parents get home from work. In addition to supervision, these programs improve students’ education experience, development and mental health. Social workers can play a vital role in developing and participating in these programs.

There are many different types of after-school programs: public and private, free and tuition-based, academic, social, arts-focused and service learning. All of these programs have certain benefits, which we will explore below.


The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 29 percent of all juvenile offenses occur during the week between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Keeping students in structured, supervised after-school programs, rather than on the streets, has the potential to lower crime rates, as has been seen in various cities in Texas, New York and Maryland after the inception of after-school programs. For example, the Baltimore Police Department attribute a 44 percent decrease in children becoming victims of violent crimes following the implementation of an after-school program in a high crime area.

Academic Enrichment

Several studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice, among others, have shown that after-school programs have positive effects on academic performance. Benefits include improved test scores, increased attendance and engagement in school, higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates. For example, a meta-analysis of 68 studies conducted by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) found that students who participated in a high-quality after-school program showed higher school day attendance. A meta-analysis conducted by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) found that after-school programs had a positive impact on the academic performance of students who were most at risk for failing math or reading.


A government study conducted in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that children who engage in after-school programs are better at resolving conflict, more cooperative, and have improved social skills when compared to peers who do not attend after-school programs. Additionally, countries scoring the highest on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), such as Japan and Singapore, have been diversifying their after-school programs to include curriculums aimed at helping students develop character, identity, resilience, creativity and entrepreneurship. Existing after-school programs have the capacity to promote self-confidence, leadership and team-building skills and critical thinking. Furthermore, programs that include structured physical activities and healthy snacks improve overall wellness.

Mental Health

According to a study  conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), half of lifetime diagnosable mental illnesses begin before the age of 14, although they are often not diagnosed until 10 years later. One in five adolescents in the United States experience emotional distress, with nearly one in ten exhibiting symptoms that impair daily functioning. Adolescents suffering from mental health conditions are more likely to drop out of school, engage in criminal or violent behavior and develop substance use problems. They are also more likely to attempt suicide, which is the third leading cause of death among 12- to 18-year-olds. NIMH statistics have shown that more than 90 percent of adolescents who have committed suicide were living with a mental illness at the time of suicide and were not receiving treatment for it.

For adolescents, the first signs of mental illness may become apparent to school professionals. When early recognition and early diagnosis occur within the school system, students have the opportunity to receive early intervention by school mental health professionals, such as school social workers, counselors and psychologists. However, intervention within the school system is often not enough. By engaging in community partnerships and developing after-school programs that focus on mental health, students can receive more comprehensive services.

For example, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center developed a suicide prevention program, called Surviving the Teens. Following the completion of this after-school program, adolescents were reportedly 65 percent less likely to consider suicide, 48 percent less likely to plan suicide and 67 percent less likely to attempt suicide than before the program. Students learned warning signs of suicide and depression, coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, how to talk to parents and peers about their problems and what to do if they feel suicidal.

The Role of School Social Workers

Now that we have considered the many benefits after-school programs may provide, we should consider the role school social workers play in ensuring after-school programs exist and that students can gain access to them. Social workers play an important role in early assessment and intervention with at-risk youth. They are tasked with identifying students who need support and linking them to appropriate services. School social workers need to stay up-to-date on existing after-school programs, including free or low-cost programs, accessible programs, special interest programs, educational enrichment programs and mental health specific programs. In addition, they need to ensure that students and parents are aware of their options. It is essential that social workers partner with community organizations to develop and enrich after-school programs where the need exists. Finally, social workers in school settings are charged with developing partnerships, and ensuring there are no gaps in service.

Partnerships like these can ensure students have access to the types of programs necessary to keep them safe, engaged in school and healthy. After-school programs have many benefits, and social workers have the power to promote these programs and participate in them directly.

Image by AlaskaTeacher