Deborah Lowe Vandell is chancellor’s professor and founding dean emerita of education at the University of California, Irvine. Vandell’s research focuses on the effects of developmental contexts — such as early care and afterschool programs — on children’s social, behavioral and academic development. As one of the principal investigators with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, she has conducted an intensive study of the development of 1,300 people from birth to 26 years. This work is viewed by many social scientists as one of the most comprehensive studies of the short- and long-term effects of early care and afterschool education to date.
In this Q&A, Vandell shares what inspired her research on early care and afterschool education, what earlier studies and this latest longitudinal study tell us, and what these findings suggest for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mott: How did you first get involved in research on youth development and afterschool programs?
Vandell: My interest in afterschool and youth development started by accident. Back in 1983, my research was focused on early childhood, and I was getting ready to study the long-term effects of early child care and education on children’s social and academic functioning in elementary school. My plan was to look at these early care effects, controlling for possible confounding factors, such as children’s gender and family background. As I thought about the study, I said, “Maybe I should look at what children are doing after school and control for these experiences also because they might be confounding factors.”
I began to ask parents about what their children did after school. I learned that some children were going to afterschool programs, and some were at home unsupervised. Others were cared for by sitters and relatives, and some were home with their parents after school. Many had complex sets of afterschool experiences. To learn more about the afterschool programs, I started visiting the programs.
As I delved deeper and began analyses between afterschool experiences and children’s development, I realized that afterschool was an important developmental context for children, and that it was being neglected by academic researchers who were studying schools and families but not afterschool.
In 1985, the recognition of the importance of afterschool programs hit me at a personal level. My son started kindergarten, and I realized that my family’s need for child care had not gone away just because Colin was now in elementary school. To the contrary, the afterschool hours loomed large. That year, we were lucky because his elementary school had a wonderful afterschool program, and I was able to see firsthand what an enrichment a high-quality program is for children. I became a fan. But then we moved to a state where there were no afterschool programs, and I was left trying to piece together care after school. By then, my interest and commitment to studying afterschool were firmly cemented.
I also began to reflect more broadly about the role of afterschool in children’s lives. If afterschool was such a challenge for my family, what about other families with more limited financial resources or communities with no programs, or single parents who had inflexible work hours? I also began asking about the key ingredients of high-quality afterschool programs and about the amount of exposure that children need over time to benefit from afterschool programs. And I began asking questions about equity, and whether access to afterschool could be particularly beneficial to ethnically diverse children and children growing up in poverty. I also began conducting longitudinal studies to assess both the short-term and long-term effects of programs from elementary school all the way to adulthood.
These questions have now motivated my research for almost 40 years.
Mott: What has research on afterschool programs revealed since you first started working in this field?
Vandell: Many researchers in both the United States and other countries are now studying afterschool programs and activities in childhood and adolescence.
The good news is that our science has now substantially increased what we know about these important developmental contexts, and we are now much better situated to meet the needs of children and adolescents by providing accessible, affordable, high-quality afterschool learning opportunities.
We’ve also identified many of the key ingredients needed for out-of-school time to have positive effects. This work has shown that consistent and sustained participation in high-quality afterschool programs is linked to positive academic and social outcomes for both children and adolescents. However, findings are less clear (and sometimes even negative) when participation is sporadic or activities are lower in quality, so we have to pay close attention to program quality and to participation over time.
Mott: Tell us about your latest study. What were the biggest questions?
Vandell: My latest study is one that circles back to that first afterschool study. This latest study looked at children’s early care and education and their organized afterschool activities in elementary school and asked how these two sets of experiences (early care and afterschool care) are related to children’s academic and social functioning in high school.
In this study, my coauthors and I followed almost 1,000 children over time and asked if both early care and education (ECE) and afterschool organized activities during elementary school are related to how students are doing in high school — both academically and socially.
We focused on ninth graders because the high school transition is challenging for many adolescents, and we wanted to know if children’s early care and afterschool activities in elementary school could help adolescents to meet these challenges.
Mott: What did you and your coauthors find?
Vandell: We found that both early child care and out-of-school time during elementary school predicted higher academic achievement at age 15.
Children who received higher quality ECE and who had sustained participation in afterschool organized activities demonstrated higher academic achievement in high school. These effects on academic achievement were additive — with the effects associated with afterschool programs building on or adding to the early care effects. Importantly, the effects associated with early care and afterschool care also were exactly the same size, indicating that both are good investments.
In this paper, we also found that early care and out-of-school time were related to different aspects of behavioral development. Higher quality ECE predicted fewer behavioral problems in adolescence, whereas afterschool organized activities were linked to greater social confidence.
We found that consistent participation in afterschool was important for building children’s social competence — including feeling more confident about meeting new people and interacting with peers and adults — which bodes well for students’ future success in school and in the workplace. These benefits were not associated with ECE experiences, suggesting that afterschool programs serve a unique role in this respect.
Mott: Twenty-six years is a long time. How was the study carried out?
Vandell: This particular study is part of a large project called the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which has been following 1,300 individuals from birth into adulthood. The families were initially recruited from 10 sites around the U.S. in 1991, but the participants now live in every state (and around the world).
As part of the study, we assessed ECE during the first five years, as well as measures of different types and quality of afterschool activities during elementary school, middle school and high school. In addition, we collected measures of the home and school environments through the first five years, then through elementary school, middle school and high school. In terms of child developmental outcomes, we assessed children’s social, academic and cognitive functioning at multiple ages.
From this comprehensive data collection, we have been able to address a number of questions, including the study that we are featuring today.
Mott: What makes this body of work unique and its findings important?
Vandell: There are several factors that make the study noteworthy, I think. The first is the effort to examine early care and education and out-of-school time in relation to later development. For the most part, these two important developmental contexts have been studied separately.
Second, the study finds effects of these earlier experiences on longer term outcomes in adolescence. These effects, evident in the 15-year-olds, suggest that the benefits of early care and elementary school activities do not fade away, but persist over time. Now we are asking if the effects continue to be evident in adulthood.
Third, the sample in this study was economically, geographically and ethnically diverse, suggesting that these findings on the benefits of afterschool programming have wide generalizability for children in the United States.
This work is consistent with and extends prior research by showing that sustained participation in high-quality afterschool programs in elementary school is linked to positive academic and social outcomes in high school and that those effects persist.
Mott: What does the study imply for post-COVID-19 recovery?
Vandell: Researchers and educators are deeply concerned about the effects of COVID on children’s learning and development — and the impact of school closures, disruptions and trauma brought on by the pandemic.
In one set of studies released by NWEA, a nonprofit research organization, researchers documented a significant widening of academic achievement gaps by income and race last spring, which was further exacerbated by school closings and disruptions this fall.
Other researchers are reporting increases in students’ social-emotional problems as a result of the trauma and disruptions brought on by COVID.
The work by NWEA and others is highlighting that children growing up in under-resourced families and communities are going to be in particular need of high-quality afterschool and summer programs. However, because of the financial disruptions being experienced by many low-income and working families — and because of the budget shortfalls facing many communities — children who most need high-quality afterschool programs will likely have less access to these programs and services.
To address these serious issues, a coordinated response is going to be needed — one that brings together the resources of early childhood programs, afterschool programs and schools.
The Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development was supported, in part, by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to the University of California, Irvine. It builds on a series of studies conducted over a 15-year period with support from the Mott Foundation. The research adds significantly to the field’s understanding of the impact of afterschool programs on participating youth and new insights into how participation in afterschool programs in the early years contributes to success in secondary school and adulthood.