Participation in extracurricular activities can boost schools in key areas—academic performance, behavior, attendance, student and parent satisfaction—even in things like the levels of curiosity among students or the likelihood that students will get excited about STEM careers.

But getting students involved-and having that participation represent a cross section of the entire student body—is always a challenge for principals.

“They drive the culture of a school, so supporting them is very important to maintaining a positive, student-centered culture,” says Debbie Brockett, who holds a new franchise principal position at Las Vegas High School and Duane D. Keller Middle School, both in Las Vegas. “For many students, it is the club or activity that gets them to school every day.”

Improving Soft Skills

Student organizations also help students build “soft skills”—such as ambition and empathy—and what Brockett calls “lifetime skills,” such as collaboration, teamwork, leadership, problem solving, and service. And at a time when principals have learned to value social-emotional learning and emotional intelligence, soft skills become even more valuable.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) compiled research suggesting how extracurricular activities are especially of value to minority or lower income students—including a greater connection to the school, increased chances of college attendance, lower dropout rates, and higher performance by “marginalized students.”

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) and other researchers have shown that not only do student clubs more often simply attract the most successful students, but educators and administrators frequently think of these activities primarily as resources for those students.

Pumping Them Up

Given that extracurriculars support some of a school’s most critical goals, how can administrators increase participation generally and broaden involvement to promote cultural and racial diversity for students from different segments of the school and with different levels of academic success?

“You have to create a positive, cooperative climate in which club sponsorship is the norm and it’s honored by students, parents, and school leaders,” says Robert Vincent, a retired veteran principal who now works extensively on student leadership development in California. “It’s a school environment where everyone celebrates students and wants to provide them with these great experiences.”

Terry Hamm, a longtime adviser and director of the Texas Association of Student Councils, agrees. “Administrators help build student activities when they remember they are in this business because they love kids,” she says.

Principals should create an atmos­phere where development of such activities is a priority and the groups and their advisers are supported, Hamm and Brockett note. “You have to listen to them, provide assistance and opportunities, and ensure they are shown appreciation for all their hard work and their dedication to the school,” Brockett says.

Vincent recommends that principals meet with club leaders regularly, for instance, and attend club meetings on occasion to show interest and to gain an understanding of what each organization is doing.

The More the Merrier

Vincent also believes that having a variety of clubs of differing types gets more students involved; he suggests having teachers and even other staff sponsor them. Small groups with specific interests can sometimes be run inexpensively by utilizing their own fundraising or getting outside sponsors-ask a local tech company to sponsor a computer or robotics club, or get a car dealership to sponsor an auto club, for instance.

“We have had teachers who sponsored a fly-fishing club, hiking club, radio-controlled-airplane club, and bicycle motocross club because of their personal interest in these activities,” Vincent says.

Other schools have allowed students to develop a plan for a club and proceed if they can get an adviser and work out logistics. This approach creates more connections to the school in several ways and helps to diversify and expand the type of students involved.

NCES Report Findings

The NCES report on extracurricular activities noted that lower-income and minority students tended to be more likely to join clubs related to vocational studies, and they were more likely to be involved when more clubs were offered.

“Principals need to have an open mind,” says Bradley Brown, principal at Bastrop High School in Bastrop, TX. “Students have many different ideas and interests. I think a principal needs to understand that and be willing to let students try things of interest to them, within reason.”

He notes, however, that students and their advisers should be clear about administration expectations, and that formal school policies should exist and be adhered to.

The Expectation Game 

“When a principal asks a teacher to sponsor an organization, the first thing the principal should let them know is what their expectations are for the organization,” Brown says. “Next, tell them about the time commitment. If it is to be an effective organization, the participant needs to know that upfront.”

Brockett notes that having the wrong person as adviser, or not training them properly, can diminish student involvement. “Our student council was supervised by a new administrator who was making it so difficult for students to get any activity approved that they just gave up. It caused a decrease in school spirit and disrespect for the administration. They felt we were working against them, not with them,” she says. She talked to the students and rectified the situation, and has since developed clear guidance about expectations for supervising clubs and student members. 

She and Brown agree that principals have to train and support advisers, because forming clubs is not nearly as difficult as sustaining them.

Budgetary Concerns

Sustaining a club or extracurricular activity sometimes comes down to funding, says Kaisa Snellman, an organizational behavior professor at Harvard University who studies youth involvement. “Poor school districts often just cut extracurricular offerings,” she says. “School districts with affluent parents can subsidize activities with a check or elaborate fundraiser.”

She says charging fees to parents can disproportionately limit low-​income families from participating. Other research shows that such fees cut participation, though often clubs can be developed that don’t cost the school much.

Building Blocks

The structure for extracurricular organizations often is key, Vincent says, and it starts with choosing a strong schoolwide activities coordinator. Also, be sure to select eager individual advisers, and give them specific directions and lots of support.

“Show them you value what they do, and ensure that advisers get the training they need to be successful,” says Hamm. “Teacher turnover is awful, and adviser turnover is even worse. All too often activity advisers learn by making mistakes, but then they get frustrated and leave.”

Hamm says principals should recognize that often these groups are a learning experience for the students and the adviser. “Always remember,” she says, “you should recognize achievements, say thank you for effort, and realize that part of any authentic learning experience is that some projects planned by students won’t be successful. Support advisers and students in their successes and, even more, in their face-plants.”

Collaboration Is Critical

Encourage advisers and groups to collaborate, Hamm says. “Get together all your advisers, coaches, directors, and organization presidents, captains, and leaders. Help them see that they are all in this together. There is no need for competition. If there is shared vision, they’ll accomplish so much more and have more kids involved.”

Vincent recommends an annual club sponsor luncheon and says such coordination should be formalized into a strong interclub council with representatives from each group who meet monthly. Such connections can cut costs and conflicts, make more connections across the school, and increase understanding. It will also increase participation, he says.

Google Folders

Paul Branagan, principal and student council adviser at Middleborough High School in Middleborough, MA, has established a Principal’s Roundtable with representatives of all organizations who actively use a shared Google folder and calendar. “It’s working very well,” he says. “The club leaders and advisers can share dates and ideas easily.” At Foley High School in Foley, AL, an interclub council coordinates work by all groups on two events a year, including a cancer fundraiser. At Kennesaw Mountain High School in Kennesaw, GA, an interclub council requires attendance by a representative of every group at regular meetings and establishes community and school service requirements for the clubs, often working together.

Parental and community involvement is also key. Despite popular thinking, parents don’t generally feel their children are too busy, according to the Pew Research Center. They will support their students’ involvement, and often they—and others in the community, including local businesses or social service organizations—can bring manpower and expertise.

Getting the Word Out

Vincent says communicating about activities in the school is critical. He suggests principals host “club rush days” where students can learn about various organizations through displays, presentations, or an assembly.

“They should encourage the school newspaper and video announcements to celebrate clubs by doing feature articles or segments on them,” he says. Some schools feature one organization on the announcements regularly, or feature them on the school website or in newsletters or meetings for parents or staff. One group—a journalism group, for instance—might be made responsible for publicizing regular reports based on information required from each group.

Vincent says awards and recognition for groups and individuals should be done regularly and prominently. And, he says, traditions for individual groups and schoolwide traditions involving several organizations build recognition and excitement about groups and improve school culture.

He and other experts note that principals have to first generate excitement about clubs and build an atmosphere where students and staff want to develop them. Then he suggests principals be creative with communicating about extracurricular activities to accomplish two goals: building awareness about them and promoting their efforts.

“It’s a challenge, but it will pay off,” Vincent says. “Not just for the student clubs, but for the principal and the school.” 

Jim Paterson is a writer living in Lewes, DE.

Growing Your Groups

Use these 10 ways to heighten interest in the extracurricular activities at your school:

  1. Host a nonsports pep rally. Hold an assembly where clubs and their activities are highlighted in the same way a sports team and its accomplishments are promoted.
  2. Build traditions. Create events that get students excited. They can be new ones, even small ones, that don’t require much planning but are fun and eye-catching to students. Groups working together on a tradition is valuable, too.
  3. Celebrate. A LOT! Mark the success of a group or a member every week or every few days. Having that goal creates energy to be the recipient and makes extracurricular activity a big part of the school. Even a wacky award (the club with the most pizza parties or the member who leads the most quietly) can have several payoffs, but especially recognize students’ work on a special event.
  4. Hold a club fair. For parents at back-to-school or conference nights, and (even more than once each year) for students, encourage club members to have displays and make connections to visitors and other groups.
  5. Take a survey. Ask all students in a simple survey what their interests are and how they might be developed into an organization. Ask them if they’d be interested in a group and link those whose ideas are similar. Perhaps collect data midyear to allow time to organize for the following year.
  6. Allow free-forming groups to organize. Let students know that if they can get a group interested, find an adviser, and work out other logistics (including funding), they can form a group. Remind them that colleges and employers love to know that a prospect formed or led a new group-in fact, that’s even more valuable than if they superficially participated in several clubs.
  7. Reward participation. Some kids can’t be as active as others because they have other important commitments, but consider providing some simple recognition for anyone who is active in a group. Recognize a group that grows participation the most.
  8. Small is beautiful. Lots of organizations with five to 10 members may be as strong as a handful of groups with 50 members. Consider narrow interests, find an interested adviser (or vice-versa), and support them. Develop small collaborative efforts between clubs.
  9. Big is beautiful, too. A broad cultural festival can link a wide variety of international and social cultures, a health fair can involve several groups finding creative ways to participate, and a fundraiser for a good cause can be a required project for every group.
  10. Reach out elsewhere. Ask student organizations to come up with creative ways to increase student participation in all groups, and plan it out. Then, reward them with some extra funds, a party, or recognition for their club. Ask kids randomly what clubs they’d like to see. Find out what that student in detention who is a different sort of leader (but a leader nonetheless) or the one who is chronically absent, or an activist about everything (but without direction) might want to do after school. Then, determine if a small, well-monitored organization might take shape around them. 

NASSP’s List of Approved Contests, Programs, and Activities

Look outside your school building as well for opportunities to create bonds for students around interests. NASSP annually updates its List of Approved Contests, Programs, and Activities. The list’s purpose is to assist principals, teachers, parents, and students in determining the legitimacy and educational value of a variety of external student program opportunities. Visit to see the list, which can be sorted by program or sponsor name and filtered by school level and the program’s discipline/type.