Designing afterschool programs to meet developmental needs of middle schoolers

By Fan Kong - May 2011


Morehouse, H. (2009). Making the most of the middle: A strategic model for middle school afterschool programs. Afterschool Matters8, 1–10.

This paper summarizes key design elements for programs for middle-school-aged children, addressing issues of relationships, relevance, reinforcement, real-life projects, and rigor. The authors argue that these five components take into account the intellectual and emotional developmental needs of this age range. Middle-school-aged children are beginning to develop a sense of their unique identities, and are increasingly focused on themselves and acceptance by peer groups. Due to this heightened awareness of self, young adolescents tend to feel vulnerable when their thoughts, feelings, and ideas are not confirmed by others. At the same time, middle schoolers express a desire for independence and responsibility as they explore their individual roles in the broader social world. For these reasons, programs for middle schoolers need to strike a balance between supporting children’s sense of self and peer belonging and developing their agency with respect to their social worlds.

The paper identifies the following organizing principles to help program directors think deeply about the specific needs of this age range regardless of the program size, location, or community setting. The five components are:

1. Relationships. To address middle schoolers’ need for peer acceptance, it is critical to provide opportunities for children to build healthy friendships with each other. Meanwhile, strong relationships with adults support children’s developing understanding of self. 

2. Relevance. As children desire increasing independence, programs need to provide opportunities where youth can determine their own meaningful projects and explore their own beliefs. For example, programs can encourage children’s interests in environmental issues, social concerns, and current events. 

3. Reinforcement. As children develop emotionally and socially (often unevenly), program staff should reinforce their thoughts, feelings, and ideas as valid; serving as a guide rather than as a manager. 

4. Real-life projects. To support middle schoolers’ higher levels of reasoning, afterschool programs can structure learning opportunities that draw from children’s direct experience with the world. This level of engagement encourages reflection on their beliefs and empowers youth to see how they can make positive impacts on real-world problems. 

5. Rigor. Programs should not shy away from challenging students, and should set high standards for behavior and performance. While a variety of activities can provide opportunities for exploration, programs should also select ways to foster deeper engagement and mastery in children’s chosen interest areas.