Lessons from AIR’s Girls Inc. Study: What Helps Girls Thrive

Research Overview

WHAT: AIR’s evaluation of Girls Inc. programming for girls and young women

WHO: 3,000+ girls and young women

WHERE: Four school districts in Maryland, Massachusetts, North Central Texas, and Tennessee

WHEN: A two-year project, beginning in 2017

WHY: To understand the extent to which Girls Inc. programming has an effect on participants, as well as explore how Girls Inc. programming influences academic outcomes and behaviors among participants compared with a comparison group

HOW: Quasi-experimental design, using survey information and school-related data (English language arts and mathematics achievement, school-day attendance, and suspension rates)

With women making up the majority of the U.S. workforce, it's more important than ever for girls to develop skills and find the support they'll need to prepare for work and leadership roles in adulthood. One organization providing this type of support is Girls Inc., which offers programming to girls ages 6 to 18 at more than 1,500 sites throughout the United States and Canada. Using approaches backed by research, Girls Inc. focuses on what it calls "Strong, Smart, Bold" outcomes: inspiring girls to lead healthy lives, succeed academically, and advocate for themselves and others.

Girls Inc. partnered with AIR to conduct independent research to supplement the organization's anecdotal findings about the program's effect on girls. Research project leaders Allison Dymnicki and Melissa Yisak answered a few questions about what research shows about out-of-school time programming and girls, as well as the findings from their evaluation of Girls Inc.

Q: What does research say about the specific supports girls and young women need in order to be successful in the short- and long-term?

A: Research shows that all young people have inherent strengths, and these can be bolstered through supportive, trusting relationships with peers and adults. In the case of Girls Inc., such relationships allow girls to ask questions and navigate challenging personal situations, inspire girls' creativity, and give them a trusted adut to partner with as they figure out their passions.

Additionally, youth benefit from a supportive environment that makes them feel safe both physically and emotionally. High-quality programming provides safe, supportive spaces for girls and young women to develop their own social and emotional competencies, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, ask questions, and discover things for themselves, with support. This allows girls to realize their short- and long-term potential.

Q: What are the most important findings from AIR’s evaluation of the Girls Inc. program?

A: Overall, we found that girls participating in Girls Inc. were more likely to engage in activities and express beliefs that lead to physical and mental well-being, academic achievement, and the development of leadership skills.

More specifically, Girls Inc. girls had consistently higher math test scores than the comparison group of girls. Second, Girls Inc. girls reported more positive attitudes and behaviors than the comparison group of girls across the majority of survey responses. These responses measure knowledge, skills, and attitudes in areas such as being excited about going to college, engaging in physical activity, and seeing themselves as a leader.

It’s important to note that there were benefits for participating in Girls Inc., regardless of how many hours of programming girls received. This is an important contribution to the field, as it helps build the case that high-quality youth development programs support many aspects of well-being.

Q: How do in- and out-of-school time programing for girls, like Girls Inc., aim to help them succeed in school and life?

A: High-quality programming, like Girls Inc., provides girls with the opportunity to build academic, social, and emotional competencies, and it promotes physical health and well-being. Girls Inc.'s “Strong, Smart, and Bold” outcomes include building skills related to leadership, curiosity, problem-solving, and smart decision-making, such as not skipping school or engaging with illicit drugs or alcohol. Such skills are critical for girls to be able to graduate from high school, go to college, have successful careers, and become citizens who make meaningful contributions to society.

Q: What do you think educators and local policymakers can do to help girls succeed both inside and outside of school?

A: We are encouraged by programs and other approaches that acknowledge the whole person, by supporting participation in activities focused on academic success and career aspirations, physical and mental health, and social and emotional skills and competencies. The body of research into adolescent development suggests that such an approach is effective in supporting youth to thrive.

We encourage youth-serving organizations and education agencies to focus on evidence-based practices and strategies that support the whole person in safe and supportive environments, where relationships can flourish, and with a focus on high quality and engaging opportunities for learning and development. Practically, this means investing in building staff capacity, creating career pathways that promote retention, and establishing structures that support program quality. Now more than ever, we need to support the essential staff who are dedicated to fostering youth learning and development and the organizations that have spent years building these supportive systems.

It’s important to acknowledge that young people do not exist in just one system; they participate in many systems, such as school, sports teams or clubs, the justice system, and so on. Through our work on the Interagency Working Group for Youth Programs and the Readiness Projects, we aim to foster meaningful cross-sector connections to ensure that young people, and the staff who support them, can navigate their experiences in a coordinated way. Girls Inc. is one example of how cross-sector coordination, with school partners and other community-based organizations, can have a positive impact on girls. We can do so much more in this area to support youth learning and development.