Afterschool Focus: Supporting Struggling Learners

Through academic enrichment and tutoring, 21st CCLC programs provide support for students who are below grade level in core academic subjects. In fact, many 21st CCLC programs actively recruit students who are below grade level in at least one core subject. Helping struggling students make academic gains requires more than homework help and additional time on subject areas. The endeavor depends on frequent communication between afterschool and school-day staff, planning, and attention to individual student needs. At the same time, however, afterschool programs can take advantage of their flexible learning environment to help students develop academic skills and confidence. In this issue of Illinois Quality Afterschool Quarterly, we explore how your 21st CCLC program staff can support struggling learners.

Learn where your students are academically. We know from research that communication about student academic progress and challenges is a trait of high-quality afterschool programs.1 Having access to students’ school-level data such as assignments and test grades, report cards, behavior, and school attendance can help you understand their academic progress. Because student data is confidential, your program will need to establish a data-sharing agreement with the school you serve. This tool from Beyond the Bell has some guidelines for having a conversation about requesting student data.

Ongoing communication with school staff can also help your afterschool team know more about individual students’ academic achievement and learning needs. Consider scheduling brief meetings with teachers to discuss students’ academic progress and ways your afterschool program can support them. If your program has processes for communicating about homework assignments, such as an online Google form that teachers complete, you can also add a field where teachers can remark on areas where students need support.

There are also ways that your 21st CCLC program can identify students’ academic strengths and challenges. For example, some tutoring programs include assessments and also suggest skill-building activities based on the results. See the program profile in this newsletter for an example and the resource list at the end of this article for ideas on assessments that instructors can use to inform their understanding of students’ academic abilities.

Be part of the student’s support team. Your 21st CCLC program’s academic enrichment activities can mean more for students if you collaborate with other programs that support students. Once you know where a student is struggling, let teachers, parents, and the student know how your afterschool program can help. Communicate about the afterschool activities that can benefit the student, and ask if there are additional ways that you can provide academic support. Some 21st CCLC programs ask that their staff attend parent-teacher conferences for some students so they can be part of the conversation about the student’s learning goals. You can also work with schools to have your afterschool program to be part of the support services that a student receives. This can include providing some of the targeted supports that make up multi-tiered systems of support or being part of an individualized education program for a student who receives special education services. In addition to becoming part of the network of support that a student receives during the school day, your 21st CCLC will also learn more about the supports and modifications provided for individual students and can integrate some of these practices into your program. (See the Terms to Know section to learn more about these concepts and the role your afterschool program can play.)    

Let your afterschool strengths shine. As 21st CCLC practitioners, we often differentiate ourselves from the school day by emphasizing the flexible-but-productive environment of our afterschool programs. Strategies can include small-group or one-on-one enrichment, letting students work at their own pace, and providing an environment for students to take risks and learn that mistakes are a natural part of learning. Afterschool is also a place where students can engage in hands-on activities that support different learning styles, make real-world connections, and develop problem-solving skills by talking through academic projects and learning from mistakes. All of these practices can help students develop academic abilities and confidence in themselves. Recent newsletter issues on literacy and math integration can help you incorporate some of these strategies.


Improving student academic outcomes is one of the core purposes of the 21st CCLC program. As you work to implement some of the practices outlined above, we encourage you to think of them within the larger context of a high-quality afterschool program. Setting clear program goals, fostering supportive relationships among adults and youth, seeking student input, engaging families, and connecting to the community remain important program practices. When you adopt practices to support struggling learners within the framework of a high-quality afterschool program, you create an environment where all students can thrive.2


Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  An IEP provides a blueprint for a student’s special education experience in school. It is provided for all students who receive special education services, as required by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. An IEP will include a student’s present level of performance, annual education goals, and modifications and accommodations. Modifications can include changes to curriculum, assistive technology, additional time on tests, classroom accommodations, or additional staff, such as teacher aides. An IEP also includes a plan for how a student’s progress will be measured.  

A struggling student is not automatically eligible for an IEP. He or she must be diagnosed with a specific disability, such as autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, or visual impairment.

504 Plan.  A 504 plan supports students with healthcare or learning needs when the student does not qualify for an IEP. The plan falls under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and initially applied to students with physical disabilities, but it now extends to certain learning and attention issues. Examples of conditions that might fall under a 504 plan include chronic fatigue, chronic depression, asthma, diabetes, food allergies, auto-immune disorders, hearing impairments, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders not included under IDEA, developmental behavior disorders, and neurological impairments that affect motor skills.4

Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).  “MTSS is a framework that many schools use to provide targeted support to struggling students.” 5 This framework includes academic growth, as well as behavior, social and emotional learning, and attendance. Through MTSS all students receive Tier 1 support in school: research-based instruction, with educators monitoring student progress. Once struggling students are identified, they receive Tier 2 support: small-group support. If students continue to struggle, they receive Tier 3 support: intensive, individualized support. A student who receives Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports does not have to qualify for special education services.6

The Role of Afterschool  
Whether a student has an IEP or 504 plan as required by law or is simply receiving targeted support, we encourage afterschool practitioners to talk to schools about how they might be part of these supports. At some schools, participation in the 21st CCLC program might be listed in an IEP or 504 plan. In addition, it is helpful for afterschool professionals to know what targeted supports students receive so that they can align activities with those provided during the school day and better understand student needs.

Resources for Afterschool Programs



Audiobooks can help students with decoding, comprehension, and simply enjoying reading.

Voice-to-Text Apps
Voice-to-text apps let students compose with their voices instead of writing by hand or with a keyboard. This can help students with learning disabilities or those who simply have writing and attention issues.

Newsela provides articles on a range of topics at different reading levels.


Manipulatives help make abstract math concepts more concrete and help students practice problem solving.

Sentence Starters
Discussing and even disagreeing about math problems is an important practice for mastering mathematical concepts.7 Sentence Starters and Frames for Discussing Math Problems provide a structure for having mathematical conversations.

The Math Learning Center Online Math Apps
Apps include fractions, geoboards, math clocks, math vocabulary cards, money pieces, number lines, number pieces, and pattern shapes.



1 McElvain, Moroney, Devaney, Singer, & Newman, 2014; Jordan, Parker, Donnelly, Rudo, 2009.

2 Understood, 2019b.

3 Understood, 2019b.

4 Understood, 2019a.

5 Understood, 2019a.

6 Huang, Cho, Mostafavi, & Nam, 2008.

7 Woodward, Beckmann, Driscoll, Franke, Herzig, Jitendra, Koedinger, & Ogbuehi, 2012.



Huang, D., Cho, J., Mostafavi, S., & Nam, H. (2008). What works? Common practices in high functioning afterschool programs: The National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning final report.  Austin, TX: SEDL. Available from

Jordan, C., Parker, J., Donnelly, D., Rudo, Z. (Eds.). (2009). A practitioner’s guide: Building and managing quality afterschool programs. Austin, TX: SEDL. Available from

McElvain, C. K., Moroney, D. A., Devaney, E. D., Singer, J. S., & Newman, J. Z. (2014). Beyond the Bell: A toolkit for creating effective afterschool and expanded learning programs (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

Understood. (2019a). MTSS: What you need to know. Retrieved from

Understood. (2019b). Understanding IEPs. Retrieved from

Woodward, J., Beckmann, S., Driscoll, M., Franke, M., Herzig, P., Jitendra, A., Koedinger, K. R., & Ogbuehi, P. (2012). Improving mathematical problem solving in grades 4 through 8: A practice guide (NCEE 2012-4055). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from