Middle school is a time of radical growth and transition for children intellectually, socially, physically, and emotionally. This time is also marked by their increasing desire for autonomy, particularly in how they spend their time after school. For this reason, engaging middle schoolers can be a challenge for afterschool programs. And this is especially true for programs that serve disadvantaged youth.

Middle school is a time of radical growth and transition for children intellectually, socially, physically, and emotionally. This time is also marked by their increasing desire for autonomy, particularly in how they spend their time after school.

For this reason, engaging middle schoolers can be a challenge for afterschool programs. And this is especially true for programs that serve disadvantaged youth, according to a recent study published in the Afterschool Matters Journal. The study indicates that low-income youth of color are more likely than other groups to experience discrimination and disengagement from school and adult authorities, such as teachers, and that further discourages participation.

Using Youth-Led Participatory Action Research (YPAR) To Engage Middle School Youth

So how can programs that serve disadvantaged youth retain their middle schoolers? Researchers suggest two key strategies for keeping them engaged:

  • Allow them to have a voice in decision-making
  • Create more egalitarian relationships between these students and program staff

Program leaders can apply both strategies using youth-led participatory action research (YPAR). Rooted in social justice principles, YPAR is an innovative approach that empowers youth to tackle issues affecting their lives or their communities through systemic research.

In YPAR projects, students identify a problem, gather data about it, and then make recommendations for improvement. At the same time, YPAR is designed to promote student voice and rethink the power dynamics between students and adults as they work together to make decisions about the project and how to move it forward.

Together, these factors foster an environment where middle-school youth can be heard, build positive relationships with trusted adults, and become agents of change in their communities.

How To Use YPAR in Your Afterschool Program

YPAR provides leadership opportunities for disadvantaged youth while improving youth-adult relationships in afterschool programs. In return, middle schoolers are more likely to enroll and stay engaged in programs that use this approach.

To help you incorporate it into your program, we’ve summarized the key principles of YPAR:

1. Allow students to explore social justice issues in their school, program, or community. Some topics that may arise include immigration laws, school bullying, LGBTQ rights, and homelessness. Then ask them to select one topic to explore in depth. 

2. Once they’ve selected their topic of interest, allow them to gather information through various research methods, such as surveys, interviews, focus groups, or documentary videos. They may also refer to existing research - like studies, scholarly articles, and census data - to get more insight. In the research phase, encourage students to investigate the current state of the issue and its effects on the community.

3. As they collect data to answer their research question, challenge students to think strategically about how they can create social change by partnering with stakeholders. Some ideas may include writing a petition, hosting a fundraiser, organizing a community-wide rally, or meeting with local officials.

4. After they’ve identified the main findings from their research, encourage students to discuss recommendations for change and advocate for their solutions. Allow them to be creative with the different ways to bring awareness to the problem. They can create posters to hang around the community, hand out awareness buttons, or record a public service announcement (PSA).

5. Help students execute on their mission to create social change. Whether they prefer to write a petition or meet with local officials, guide them on how to find the tools and resources needed to achieve their goal.

Youth-led participatory action research (YPAR) not only empowers youth to create positive change in their communities. But it also fosters an environment where middle schoolers feel heard and share decision-making power with adults. And using this approach, afterschool programs have a better chance of keeping them engaged.

 

For more ideas on retaining middle schoolers, read 4 Unique Ways Afterschool Programs Support Middle-school Students.