During the after-school program at Trinity Basin Preparatory, children do what works best for them at the moment.

There’s an unseen order to the chaos. For some, that might mean playing with sand and other sensory toys; for others, that’s playing with dolls, a game with their friends, or sitting quietly reading.

The Clayton Youth Enrichment program at Trinity Basin, a public charter school with campuses in Fort Worth, Dallas and Mesquite, is using a researched curriculum to meet students where they are and cater to their needs. The staff at the school say the approach directly correlates to a decrease in behavior issues on campus.

The school wanted an after- school program that “created a great culture for kids for belonging,” Lesley Austin, Trinity Basin Preparatory chief academic officer, said.

What Austin appreciates about the partnership with Clayton Youth Enrichment is how the school and program work together to discuss the needs of students and how to meet them.

The program originally launched in the 2018-19 school year, but the pandemic disrupted it, said Laura Stern, director of programs for Clayton Youth Enrichment. Now, the program, which is free to families, is back in full swing. 

A day in after-school program

The program for the Trinity Basin campus on Panola Avenue in Fort Worth is located in a building that serves as a community center right across the street from the campus. A grant from the police department’s Crime Control and Prevention District funds the building, Luis Lozano, community programs manager for Clayton Youth Enrichment, said.

Besides the after-school program, the center also serves families with a food pantry and other events and services, Lozano said.

When the children get to the after-school program, they start with “voice and choice,” which Stern said is time for them to tell staff what they’re feeling so they may be matched with an activity based on what they say.

For example, on Sept. 29, students with a lot of energy were playing a game with a staff member where they were trying to keep a large, inflated ball off the ground. The children all stood in a circle and counted how many times they passed the ball to their peers without dropping it.

Alternatively, a student who is tired or overstimulated might go to the bookshelf and pick out something to read alone.

After their voice and choice time, children enter “community time,” which Stern said is time in small groups where they work on the skill for the week. Teachers might try to get students to settle down with a question that gets them in their seats, thinking and transitioning to more of a classroom setting.

On Sept. 29, one staff member asked students to imagine their favorite superhero to get students in their seats and ready for a lesson on the skill of the week: building relationships.

That lesson could include tools like how to help a friend when they’re feeling down, Stern said.

The students also are given a snack and a meal and can stay until 6 p.m. They sometimes do other projects like making homemade ice cream or having a water balloon fight.

The curriculum

In 2017, Clayton Youth Enrichment started a research project with the Southern Methodist University Center on Research and Evaluation on student’s social and emotional health and how that influences the way to train and coach staff dealing with students, Stern said.

Together, they created an 18-unit curriculum where each model, in some way, addresses social and emotional health of students, she said. But the lessons are not presented to students as “here are ways to help social and emotional health.” They’re modules with a fun theme that help students learn.

This year at the Trinity Basin Preparatory campus, it’s a prehistoric journey theme. The lessons are created to be fun for the kids, Stern said.

That fun aspect is what made Austin excited to start the program, she said. During the day, students are focused on math or reading. It’s hard to find time in the day to help develop what are known as “soft skills” for students when there is so much to learn.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are traits people use to interact with others. For students, this could be a skill as simple as sharing with others.

The isolation of the pandemic heightened a need for students to learn these skills, Austin said. 

“The behaviors and the responses we have seen are like nothing I’ve seen in the last 20 years of education,” Austin said. “Last year was probably the hardest. And we had to spend a lot of time with trauma-informed teaching practices and training our teachers on those.”

Trauma-informed teaching might mean a teacher looking at the behavior of a student and asking themselves what is causing that behavior versus just punishing bad behavior.

“A (trauma-informed) teacher’s response, based on what the students are doing is, like, don’t take it personally,” Austin said. “Ask the questions: Are they hungry? Did something happen at home? You should try to figure out what the trigger is.”

The results 

The coordinators at Clayton Youth Enrichment are not only with the students after school, Austin said. It’s typical for some of the staff to come visit during the school day. She believes the work Clayton Youth Enrichment is doing has a direct, positive correlation on behavior of the students.

Stern said the pandemic had an impact on education in more ways than falling behind academically. Some students had to stay home in an unsafe environment or their parents still had to work and they didn’t get the undivided attention they might get at school.

“It’s very different to sit in your home and get along with your brother and sister and then to learn how to get along with people and how to recognize social cues,” Stern said. “And I think that’s what we see even this year, there’s kind of a disconnect with social cues and manners and being able to regulate yourself.”

For example, students are learning how to play together in large groups or even how to use certain classroom toys and where everything goes, Stern said. 

“We have kindergarteners that… we recognize what they were going through, and I know educators were trying not to hold kids back and punish them for what had happened to them, but they really lost two years of education,” Stern said. “They showed back up in second grade, when really they had kind of walked through first grade. 

“We see that after school, too, just with frustration over homework, and the day went by and they didn’t feel successful and it’s not because of the teachers,” Stern said. “It’s just that there’s so much. It’s a mountain to climb.”

Austin hopes the partnership and the training Clayton Youth Enrichment does with teachers will help with burnout and teachers leaving. Part of what she contributes to the teaching shortage is teachers having to teach third-grade material to students on a first-grade level. 

“I know we’re not the outlier,” she said. “Many people are struggling with this right now.”

Stern said she hopes the program can help teach students these skills so teachers have an easier time. And Austin said it helps the parents as well because students take these practices home with them.

Aside from improving students’ behavior, Austin said, there’s a direct correlation between the after-school program and the campuses improving their academic performance to a B in state accountability ratings.

She said it’s as simple as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: If a student doesn’t feel safe, or have coping skills, there is no amount of academic exposure that will make up for it. 

“Our mindset had to be, ‘The students can do it. They just have gaps,’” Austin said. “We have to believe in them. We can’t say, ‘Our kids can’t do it, so we’re not going to try it with them.’ Whether it was these skills or whether it was academic skills.”

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Kristen Barton

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...