Large amounts of time spent in unstructured , unsupervised activities are related to negative academic and social outcomes for adolescents, report Rich Gilman, University of Kentucky, and Joel Meyers and Laura Perez, Georgia State University. They reviewed 15 years of research on the types of activities that promote mental health in adolescence, concluding that participation in highly structured, cooperative, adult-led activities had the most positive effects. These activities appear to enhance confidence while instilling knowledge, skills and positive values.
Research has found that participation in structured extracurricular activities promotes personal and social development and academic achievement. In particular, positive effects have been found for activities that are highly structured and emphasize skill building under the guidance of adults other than parents. In contrast, adolescents who are unaffiliated with any social network are at much higher risk of suicide and dropping out of school. Students who spend large amounts of time in unstructured activities or with delinquent peers are more likely to get in trouble with the law, to abuse drugs and to drop out of school.
A number of studies show that the highest achieving students spend more time in structured, adult-led activities. Participation in these structured activities accounts for greater achievement after controlling for background factors such as race and socioeconomic level. School-sponsored activities have greater positive effects on academic achievement than community-sponsored activities. Researchers speculate that such activities promote a sense of “belongingness” and engagement in school that leads to higher academic achievement. Participation in school-related activities may also influence teachers’ expectations of students.
Studies that investigated only sports participation show less-significant correlation between participation and academic achievement. Athletic activities appear to enhance personal and social relationships while being less influential for academic outcomes. There is some evidence that participating in too many activities can have a diminishing return for academic achievement.
Students At-Risk for School Dropout
Almost all students who are considered “competent” by teachers graduate from school regardless of their participation in structured extracurricular activities. However, the probability that a high-risk student will graduate increases when she participates in more than one extracurricular school activity. Participation in extracurricular activities alone does not ensure graduation; it is important that a student’s peer group also be involved in such activities. Outcomes are negative for adolescents who participate in extracurricular activities but remain in delinquent peer groups.
Assessing different types of structured activities
Students who participate in athletics are almost twice as likely to graduate as students not active in school athletics. Boys appear to benefit more than girls from participation in sports. Some studies reveal, however, that participation in sports teams corresponds with greater rates of alcohol and drug use when compared to participation in other structured activities. The likelihood of such negative outcomes appears to be contingent on the quality of coaching, the peer group that surrounds the athlete, and the cultural value of the activity within the school and community.
Not surprisingly, students who participate in academic activities fare better academically and are more likely to attend college. Cultural and arts activities appear to promote students’ social relationships and engagement in school and to prevent school dropout.
Extracurriculars can promote mental health
These researchers conclude that there is consistent evidence to suggest that structured extracurricular activities can promote mental health among all adolescents and particularly for those at risk of negative academic and personal outcomes. It is important, therefore, that at-risk teens be involved in a structured activity of their choice under the influence of positive peer networks and competent adults. These activities can lead to greater self-esteem, satisfaction and engagement in school, social competence, improved academic performance and graduation. One important qualification is that the student’s social network influences the effects of these activities. A willingness to participate, success in the activity and support from peers may be necessary for positive outcomes.
“Structured Extracurricular Activities Among Adolescents: Findings and Implications for School Psychologists”, Psychology in the Schools, Volume 4, Number 1, January 2004, pp. 31-41.
Published in ERN March 2004 Volume 17 Number 3