|Availability and Quality of Afterschool Programs
for Students with Disabilities
Policy Research Intern
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Forum Study Group XV: “Education 24/7”
Expanded learning can provide new and even life-changing opportunities for students across the board. Afterschool programs, especially those aimed at particular at-risk demographics, can help to ensure that no student falls through the cracks of the public education system. This common goal is an essential piece of maintaining equity and promoting success within – and in life beyond – our schools.
One subgroup of students who present unique challenges are those with disabilities. Statistics reflect such challenges; 63% of youth without disabilities are employed two years out of high school, compared to only 25% of young adults with intellectual disabilities, 32% of those with autism, and 36% with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders (EBD).1 Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, public schools are mandated to provide free and appropriate services to support students with developmental disabilities, such as mental retardation, autism, and others. Though the requirements of IDEA apply only within the school day, additional protections addressing the inclusion of students with disabilities in afterschool programs are addressed by the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (1973) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990).2 In fact, lawsuits relating to the appropriateness of school programs for children with disabilities like autism comprise the fastest-growing and most expensive area of litigation in special education.3
Indeed, schools are required by law to address the needs of students with disabilities. Yet even if these laws were not in place, the benefits to society and to the students themselves of programs for disabled or otherwise challenged students are very high. Afterschool programming is a great tool to focus on the development of social skills, to encourage comfortable peer to peer interaction, and to create a foundation upon which students will be able to function and contribute to society beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Research indicates that children with poor social skills have high incidences of school maladjustment, increased expulsions and/or suspensions from school, high dropout rates, high delinquent rates, and eventual adult mental health issues.4 Research also shows that social skills can be taught, and social skills training programs have proven to be effective, producing improvement ranging from 60 to 70%.5
This report focuses on benefits to and programming for students with autism or disorders on the autism spectrum (like Asperger’s syndrome), those with learning disabilities, and those with High-Incidence Disabilities (HID). HID includes speech and language impairments, communication disorders, specific learning disabilities like ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and mild to moderate mental retardation. Almost all of these disabilities require the school to create an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, for the student in question.
The desired outputs examined in studies of programming for students with disabilities often do not focus on academic improvement, though there are some exceptions. Rather, programs hope to improve the ability of students in the realm of problem solving, decision making, assertion, social interaction, maintaining discourse in class, and self-managing undesirable behaviors. Thus, in evaluating the factors which comprise an effective and high-quality program, improvements in these skills rather than strictly in academic achievement should be measured.
Current Problems with Afterschool Opportunities for Youth with Disabilities
Parents, educators, and advocates consistently face two problems that plague most specialized school programming. Students with special needs frequently have no or restricted access to in-school after school care programs.6 Furthermore, the programs available to them and their families often only provide supervised but unstructured basic care, or are not of a high enough quality which might benefit the student in the long term.7
A survey of 54 parents with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) highlights the need for improved access to specialized afterschool programs. 59% of parents reported they had some experience with afterschool care for their child with autism. Of those, only 24% participated in after school care through their public school. Furthermore, only 33% of those with some after school experience reported that this was a positive experience for their child. Of all the parents surveyed, 69% expressed interest in having their autistic child participate in a school-sponsored afterschool program. A large majority of parents expressed a need for a program that provides services like support for speech-language skills (89%), motor skills (74%), and sensory integration (82%).8
In providing expanded learning opportunities for students with special needs, accessibility and quality of care should be prioritized. This can be done by identifying successful, research-based programs, creating a thorough and transferrable model from such programs, and ensuring that program directors and staff participate in professional development and training that emphasizes the teaching of social skills.
A Closer Look at Successful Programs in North Carolina: The Friendship Club
In 2001, the Department of Occupational Therapy at East Carolina University partnered with a local parent support group to create The Friendship Club, an after-school program for children with Asperger Syndrome in Greenville, NC.9 The goal of the Friendship Club was to help teach youth aged 8-15 improved peer-to-peer relationship skills and facilitate the making of friends. Many students with disabilities have very limited interaction with others outside of parents and siblings, teachers, and disability specialists. Thus, the Friendship Club provided a supervised way for youth with disabilities – particularly Autism Spectrum Disorders – to practice appropriate interaction with others, and have fun along the way. In its second year, the Club consisted of 11 participants, six in the youth club, aged 8-10, and five in the adolescent group, aged 11-15. Prior to beginning the Club, the staff (occupational therapy students) conducted face-to-face interviews with each child, gaining information on the activities the child enjoyed doing, his/her interests, and the child’s experiences with friendship. During each session, activities were chosen to provide structure and facilitate discussion and development of social skills. These activities were carefully picked by the staff after conducting child interviews, thus allowing the participants (in aggregate) to direct part of the programming. The older group encouraged development of age-appropriate skills by combining classroom activities with projects in the local community. The younger group began each session with a review of the rules and played games related to peer interaction. (see full activities schedule in appendix). Parents were invited to stay and observe, but were not required to do so. Siblings of participants occasionally took part, and added an extra element of inclusion to the group. At the end of the 6-week session, children and parents were asked to provide feedback about programming and the Club’s success. Parents of 8 of the 11 participants said they saw moderate to significant gains in group interaction, peer-to-peer relationship building, and/or self-management. Furthermore, all but one participant claimed they enjoyed their time in the Club.
This homegrown solution is only one of many, but with that said, The Friendship Club was a great model program. Unfortunately, the program was discontinued after only a two year stint due to a lack of funding. Investing in creating and maintaining afterschool options like the Friendship Club is imperative for providing the tools necessary for success to students with disabilities.
Guidelines for Success
From extensive research, expert recommendations, and scrutiny of successful programs like The Friendship Club and multiple others have emerged six “Guidelines for Success,” which can be used to craft an effective afterschool program for students with disabilities.
Focus on social skill development As previously mentioned, the parameters against which success or improvement should be measured are different for students with special needs. Thus, programming should teach social skills like peer to peer interaction, effective communication, and self-management rather than focusing only on improving academic achievement. Incorporating academic topics into a session is not necessarily discouraged, but this should not be the goal of an effective afterschool program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder or HIDs (see page 1). For example, the Friendship Club encourages social skill development through group activities, rather than stressing academic improvement. In-school pullout programs with one-on-one sessions with special education teachers are better for serving the academic needs of these students.
Staff training A great deal of the success of the Friendship Club can be contributed to the occupational therapy students who staffed and directed the program. They were trained to work with students with special needs and, with the guidance of the parents of the participants, understood how to appropriately manage some of the more challenging behaviors of their charges. Maintaining a well-qualified staff is essential to the success of a specialized afterschool program, as they have a great deal of direct contact with the students. The staff must understand both the limits and capabilities of their charges, ideally of each student, in order to facilitate and encourage a positive learning experience.
Parent-program partnership Parents understand the individual needs of their children better than anyone. They are a great resource to help the staff learn about and appropriately manage each participant. Maintaining individual child profiles – created by the staff and parents – is essential to making the students feel as comfortable and, thus, be as engaged as possible. Keeping parents involved not only allows for constant feedback on the improvement of a child in the program, but also can facilitate a continuation of discussion or activities beyond the afterschool program. For example, one parent with a child in the Friendship Club engaged her son about his friends at school and was able to carry the conversation beyond the Club. This holistic learning approach is what expanded learning is all about.
Self-directed activities Organizing self-directed activities does make programming more difficult. Still, input from the students about their interests, hobbies, and desired activities can make a huge difference in their engagement with the program. In the Friendship Club, the staff interviewed each child and asked about his/her interests in order to plan activities around those common interests. Of course, the actual social skills training portion of programming is not self-directed by participants, but, as in the Friendship Club, activities provide a context for encouraging healthy social interaction. Individualized programming makes the afterschool program fun for the students, and, especially for more shy, hesitant, or distracted participants, ensures that they engage in the program enough to reap its benefits.
Evaluation At the completion of the sessions, the staff , parents, and overseeing members of the Occupational Therapy department came together to discuss ways to change and improve the Friendship Club. After its first year, this resulted in the addition of the second, older group of adolescents which proved very successful. An effective afterschool program needs to have the resources to conduct evaluations, and (ideally) the flexibility to change or rearrange programming if necessary. In this way, the program can consistently provide a high-quality experience that improves students’ lives year after year.
Inclusion The importance and benefits of inclusion are made evident by the creation of a state taskforce on inclusive child and afterschool care in North Carolina just this past year. Inclusive afterschool programs focus on the capabilities of students with special needs, rather than on their limits, by also involving students without special needs. Participating students with disabilities are encouraged by those without, and are made to feel more normal and accepted. This dynamic has been shown to help students with disabilities improve their skills as much or more than programs consisting only of students with disabilities.10 The Friendship Club was not strictly an inclusive program. However, the involvement of the participant’s siblings helped other students participate. One mother specifically cited the involvement of siblings as helping encourage her child to speak up, and keeping the group more focused in general.11 Inclusion is a great tool to better facilitate social skills learning.
Limited ability does not always have to mean limited possibilities. Serving students with special needs is an important task that cannot be ignored. Creating afterschool programs for students with disabilities can lay the foundation for a better, more productive life beyond the classroom. An excellent and effective afterschool program is one that includes intensive staff training, a parent-program partnership, self-directed activity programming, consistent evaluation, and elements of inclusion. In this way, we can use the opportunities expanded learning provides to better the lives of these students.
The California After-School Resource Center, The California Department of Education (CDE).
Hock, Michael F. et al “The effects of an after-school tutoring program on the academic
performance of at-risk students” Remedial and Special Education ,2001, 22: 172
Gooding, Lori F. “The effect of a music therapy social skills training program on improving
competence in children and adolescents with social skills deficits” Journal of Music
Therapy, Winter 2011. 48.4 440-462
Dunn, Cari et al “Assisting students with high-incidence disabilities to pursue careers in science,
technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Intervention in School and Clinic, 2012,
48.47 DOI: 10.1177/1053451212443151
Table 1: Activities, younger group
Table 2: Activities, older group