3 Steps to Bolster Youth Engagement in Constantly Changing Times

January 18, 2022

teenage group talkingAs the pandemic continues, your youth and staff are likely continuing to navigate multiple uncertainties.  Today, we invite you to examine three important components of your program that encourage youth engagement and to reflect on whether your current practices could use fine-tuning.  These suggestions apply to both in-person and virtual settings.

1. Welcoming Inclusion Activities

CASEL’s Three Signature Practices for social and emotional learning may already be a part of your program toolbox.  The first practice, Welcoming Inclusion Activities, provides a prime opportunity to check in with youth about how they are navigating all the changes and uncertainties in their lives. Remind staff to take the important step of warmly greeting everyone by their preferred name when they arrive.  Ensure that your arrival or opening routine includes an opportunity for staff and youth to connect with each other.  Reflect on how feeling welcome is an important step in being ready to engage and learn. These may be practices you trained your staff to do at the start of the school year.  Now is a great time to revisit and revise things for your current environment.

2. Calming and Focusing Activities for Transitions

Transitions can be challenging for many youth.  Think about transitions as an opportunity to re-welcome everyone into your program and into the learning space.  Acknowledge that everyone can benefit from periodic calming and refocusing practices or “brain breaks.”  The key is choosing the appropriate brain break for the situation and taking that break before fatigue or lack of focus set in.  A quick game of Simon Says or Freeze Dance can be great for self-awareness, while I Spy can help youth regain focus.

3. Check In on Relationships

Relationships are considered the heart of quality out-of-school time programs.  Even well-established positive relationships may need extra care and attention during this challenging time.  If your program is short-staffed due to the pandemic, your staff may feel like they don’t have time for building and sustaining relationships with and among youth.  Wherever possible, prioritize the small but important practices that connect staff with youth and youth with each other.  Encourage staff to circulate among youth during informal social times such as snack time, chatting with them about their day and interests.  Consider whether activities normally done individually could benefit from being done in pairs or small groups, while still following social distance guidelines.   Keep an eye out for youth who are not engaging positively with others and take time to check in with them individually.


We recognize that many of these practices may already be a part of your program expectations.  The key is to revisit them periodically and see that they are occurring as you would expect. NIOST’s APT-Observation tool* can be used to conduct a comprehensive, unbiased observation by looking for and rating the occurrence of program practices that research shows can positively impact youth outcomes. Optionally, select specific parts of your program that interest you such as arrival, transitions, and informal/social time to focus your observation. Learn more about APT here>>

*(development of the APT tool is funded by MADESE)


    "NIOST has been an anchor for numerous school age care projects we do, including ASQ (After-School Quality) and Links to Learning. They are a nationally respected organization that Pennsylvania has partnered with for over 20 years."

    – Betsy O. Saatman, TA Specialist/SAC Initiatives, Pennsylvania Key

    "NIOST was a core partner in supporting the development of quality improvement systems across the nine cities that participated in The Wallace Foundation Next Generation Afterschool System-Building Initiative. The NIOST team worked well with other technical assistance partners in the initiative, always willing to pitch in and collaborate with others to make our professional learning community meetings a team effort. I truly hope the Foundation has an opportunity to partner with them in the future."

    – Priscilla M. Little, Initiative Manager, The Wallace Foundation


    "NIOST has been a leader in the out-of-school time field for as long as I can remember, and I have relied on their research, tools, and advice to improve my practice throughout my career. Their staff members are good partners and good listeners, and their influence across the country is palpable."

    – Jane Quinn, Vice President and Director of National Center for Community Schools, Children's Aid Society

    "Georgia Hall, Ellen Gannett, and the NIOST team have been instrumental in driving the healthy afterschool movement. Their dedication to quality practice, informed policy, and collective impact is instrumental in our effort to create healthier communities."

    – Daniel W. Hatcher, Director, Community Partnerships, Alliance for a Healthier Generation

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The National Institute on Out-of-School Time

A program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College

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