Published in themeetinghouseafterschool.org
Just as we do at the Meeting House, Jennifer Freed believes that social and emotional skills are critical to a child’s ability to succeed in school, build healthy relationships, and develop a strong sense of self-esteem. Unfortunately, these skills take a backseat in our traditional education system. In 1999, Jennifer and a colleague founded AHA! -- which stands for attitude, harmony, and achievement -- as a way to empower teens to create “peaceful and connected communities” and as a means of closing the achievement gap.
How does this work? How does an after school program emphasizing social-emotional skills help students who might otherwise struggle in school to reach their potential? According to Jennifer, the answer is right there in the name of the program: “AHA!” Attitude. Harmony. Achievement.
It all starts with attitude, says Jennifer. “If your attitude is negative you collect evidence to support that.” Though she emphasizes that focusing on positive attitude doesn’t mean denying difficulty. One of the foundational principles of AHA is that all feelings are OK. Cultivating a positive attitude is about validating your experience and feelings, and developing proper outlets for emotional expression. The programs aim to give youth the information, knowledge, and tools to “approach their life as actors on a stage of empowerment.” After school programs are a particularly powerful place to cultivate positive attitude because they are most often based on what Jennifer calls, “voluntary joyful participation.” While kids are obligated to be in school, they typically have more choices when it comes to their after school time. According to Jennifer, the students participating in AHA! are there because they want to be. Their motivation? She says they are driven by a desire for personal growth and to be part of a thriving community.
The second focus is on harmony. “Until we all know how to get along and live as one global community we won’t have peace in our hearts or with other people,” Jennifer says. At the Meeting House we share this belief, which is why one of our core values is “Community.” In AHA! youth learn that they don’t have to go it alone, and learn how to be allies and recruit allies. After school in particular is an ideal opportunity to build this sense of harmony and community. The key, according to Jennifer, is the format -- adult guided peer groups. In a classroom, there is typically one instructor who manages the flow, structure, and interactions. After school programs allow for much greater flexibility, and often, for more peer-to-peer engagement and self-direction, which in turn leads to more meaningful relationships. This makes after school programs, in Jennifer’s words, “incredible petri dishes” especially when guided by skillful, charismatic adults.
Jennifer believes that attitude and harmony inevitably lead to achievement, both in terms of behavior and academics. In one of the schools in which AHA! has been implemented, suspension rates have been lowered by 70%, and test scores went up by 11%. Jennifer attributes this to the power of creating a sense of connection. “When young people feel more connected to one another and their teachers they are more able to focus on studying.”
Programs like AHA! and The Meeting House benefit youth in all areas of their lives, from social skills to academics, and we believe that the evidence will only get stronger as research into this emerging field grows.