Not everything helps the same for everyone: relevance of extracurricular activities for academic achievement

The class “extracurricular activities” (EA) constitutes a positive youth developmental asset (Durlak et al., 2010; Eccles and Gootman, 2002; Eisman et al., 2016; Farb and Matjasko, 2012; Mueller et al., 2011) and covers a broad range of categories that share some essential elements (Hansen et al., 2010). Indeed, competent adults supervise these activities, which often involve peer interaction. They also have regular attendance schedules, offer practical learning opportunities and enable young people to spend time engaged in their own interests (Hansen and Larson, 2007).

EA does not form part of the school curriculum and, unlike formal education, student participation is voluntary. Adolescents often develop meaningful relationships with their peers and their instructors. This fact creates an appropriate context in which to develop identity, initiative, and social skills (Hirsch et al., 2011; Larson et al., 2006). These aspects help in theorizing about organized activities and contribute to different processes of adolescent development.

Moreover, investigations of the types of activities that involve youth in their free time have identify the relevant components that promote positive development in supervised/structured environments or, specifically, in extracurricular programs or activities. Positive youth development programs incorporate manifold elements that promote such development, with importance directed toward adult–adolescent relationships that tend to involve young people over time (Roth et al., 1998).

Type of activity

Studies of different types of EA address various development experiences (Eccles and Gootman, 2002), such as sports, performing arts, service clubs, and faith-based youth groups (Vandell et al., 2015). Research shows differences between sports and artistic EA, based on the results they promote in youth (Hansen et al., 2003; Im et al., 2016). Thus, evidence shows that artistic activities improve adolescent adjustment, as well as the participants’ self-knowledge, self-discipline, and artistic talents (Hansen et al., 2003).

Sports EA not only prevent risk behaviors, but also improve the social and academic abilities of youth (Darling, 2005). However, collective sports contribute to a lower level of academic, social, or preventive skills promotion than other types of EA (Hansen et al., 2010; Wilson et al., 2010).

Bartko and Eccles (2003) classify adolescents very involved in sports, spending more time with friends, and performing other EA in different groups, with high participation rates in school clubs, tasks, and reading for pleasure. For Im et al. (2016), participation in sports and artistic activities predicts an increase of self-efficacy in academic competence, so EA provides a context in which students can face and overcome challenges and increase the level of their skill, thus building trust.

Based on the approach of Mahoney et al. (2005), Reading books for pleasure would not be an organized extracurricular activity. In fact,

“these activities are generally voluntary, have regular and scheduled meetings, maintain developmentally based expectations and rules for participants in the activity setting (and sometimes beyond it), involve several participants, offer supervision and guidance from adults, and are organized around developing particular skills and achieving goals” (Mahoney et al., 2005, p. 4).

Nonetheless, Reading books it is very relevant for youth development, relating to greater participation in a wider breadth of activities, as well as greater engagement in both extracurricular and curricular tasks (Bartko and Eccles, 2003).

Activity engagement

For EA to function as more effective assets requires youth engagement (Weiss et al., 2005) though factors such as breadth, intensity and duration (Bohnert et al., 2010; Busseri and Rose-Krasnor, 2009; Busseri et al., 2006). The benefits of participation in EA, both in the curricular field and in the personal development of the young person, depend on the characteristics of their participation experience. In turn, such experiences depend on their engagement, whether psychological (e.g. duration) or behavioral (e.g. breadth, intensity). However, a consensus on the conceptualization of participation should specify the aspects of behavioral and psychological engagement (Eisman et al., 2016).

Breadth of activities

Breadth refers to the number of EA that involve youth. The study of Breadth provides a broad description of the range of student skills and interests (Bohnert et al., 2010; Busseri and Rose-Krasnor, 2009; Busseri et al., 2006; Linver et al., 2009).

The range of activities refers to the participation in different activities in a certain period and may refer to the total number of activities in which a young person engages (Busseri and Rose-Krasnor, 2009) or the total number of different types of activities (Eccles and Barber, 1999). Contrary to participation in a single activity, a wide range of participation allows young people greater diversity of learning experiences, supportive interactions with adults, and broad networks of peers (Bohnert et al., 2010; Eccles and Barber, 1999; Vandell et al., 2015).

Duration of activities

The duration or consistency of participation in EA refers to the maintenance over time. “Dosage has been conceptualized in terms of consistency and continuity over time, measured as the proportion of periods in which youth engage in activities” (Pierce et al., 2013; in Vandell et al., 2015).

Longitudinal studies have measured consistency of participation among both elementary and middle-school children (see National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, 2004; Pierce et al., 2013) and in adolescents (see Mahoney et al., 2003; Zaff et al., 2003). The participation in EA over the years could increase the benefits for youth development, as a result of greater exposure to such opportunities (Eisman et al., 2016; Tudge et al., 2009).

Differences in adolescents’ activity participation

Sex differences in adolescents’ activity participation

Sex relates to participation in EA, with girls showing more behavioral engagement in EA except in sports (Denault and Poulin, 2009b; Eccles et al., 2003; Kleiner et al., 2004). Indeed, boys are more likely than girls to participate in sports, while girls are more likely than boys to participate in classes and clubs (Kleiner et al., 2004) or artistic EA (Luthar et al., 2006). The impact of EA on positive development is higher for boys (Pierce et al., 2010; Urban et al., 2009). No evidence indicates differences in participation according to sex, rather than age (Eisman et al., 2016). In any case, evidence of gender-related differences in the effects of EA is scarce.

Regarding risk behaviors, according to Eccles et al. (2003), participation in a competition sports team in late adolescence for both sexes is associated with higher alcohol consumption, the opposite of participation in artistic activities.

Stage differences in adolescents’ activity participation

Eisman et al. (2016) argue that the stage of development of the young person determines the importance of each type of engagement. In early adolescence, people tend to participate in a wider range of EA. Indeed, the breadth of participation could be more relevant in early adolescence than in late adolescence, because exploring different interests and strengthening bonds with peers characterizes early adolescence (Bohnert et al., 2010; Busseri and Rose-Krasnor, 2009). Also, as mentioned, the breadth of participation enables more learning opportunities and broader networks with different groups of peers and supportive adults (Vandell et al., 2015).

The young persons’ persistence in an activity depends on different factors, such as the activity itself, personal characteristics, and interests, and other environmental aspects, such as family circumstances, peers, and school or community characteristics (Vandell et al., 2015). Accordingly, as progress is made in developmental stages, adolescents develop greater control over their use of time (Fredricks and Eccles, 2010) and refine their personal interests. Consequently, in middle-to-late adolescence, young people participate in fewer activities, but with more intensity (Busseri et al., 2006; Denault and Poulin, 2009a) and interest.

Indeed, leaving a type of activity may reflect the progression of development. Thereby, young people begin testing different EA, then focus on a smaller number of them as their interests become more defined (Badura et al., 2016; Rose-Krasnor et al., 2006), ranging from participating in a wide range of activities to a small number over time (Denault and Poulin, 2009a; Eccles and Barber, 1999; Rose-Krasnor et al., 2006). In fact, participation in EA cannot change throughout adolescence (Eisman et al., 2016; Zaff et al., 2003) or change constantly along this stage (Farb and Matjasko, 2012), despite disagreements about whether such participation increases (Mahoney et al., 2003) or decreases (Denault and Poulin, 2009b).

Parental education level differences in adolescents’ activity participation

Taking account of the context in which young people live is essential to understand the characteristics of their participation in EA. Research on differences in participation have been focus more in terms of socioeconomic factors (Luthar et al., 2006; Pedersen, 2005; Quinn, 1999;Vandell et al., 2015) than in differences related to parental education (Kingdon et al., 2017).

Parental education level is associated with participation in EA, in that youth whose parents have a higher educational level tend to participate more in activities than those whose parents have lower educational levels (Bartko and Eccles, 2003; Eisman et al., 2016; Feldman and Matjasko, 2007; Linver et al., 2009; Vandell et al., 2015), and parental education level also predicts their children’s duration in activities (Eisman et al., 2016).

EA associations with academic achievement

The relationship between participation in EA and improvements in academic achievement have been extensively studied. How adolescents decide to manage their free time is a protective factor related to academic achievement in higher grades, as well as to recovering from low GPAs (Eccles et al., 2003; Linver et al., 2009; Peck et al., 2008; Roth et al., 2010).

Participation in EA also relates to furthering the adolescent’s permanence in the educational system by improving their behavior and school attendance (Simpkins et al., 2004). Participation in EA improves other relevant aspects of curricular success, such as lower school dropout rates (Mahoney, 2000) and the school climate, in terms of associations with friendship and prosocial behavior with peers, as well as less aggressive behavior toward them (Eccles and Templeton, 2002).

Participants in sports activities experience lower academic achievement than those who participate in artistic activities (Eccles et al., 2003). Reading books is a protective factor in preventing school failure, and it improves academic achievement in early (Kingdon et al., 2017) and late adolescence (e.g. Horbec, 2012; Whitten et al., 2019). Adolescents reading books during their extracurricular schedule has been related to higher academic aspirations (McGaha and Fitzpatrick, 2010). Conversely, lack of reading has been related to difficulties in the transition to college (Rubin, 2008).

Most of the research that associating EA with academic achievement shows the latter as an outcome that participation improves (Eisman et al., 2016; Linver et al., 2009). Although both breadth and duration have been related to academic achievement (Palma et al., 2014), behavioral engagement (i.e. breadth) shows more predictive ability (Barber et al., 2005; Eisman et al., 2016; Fredricks and Eccles, 2006). However, duration—evaluated as consistent participation in a wide range of EA—has also predicted higher grades and academic achievement in studies that control for sex and parental education (Darling et al., 2005; Zaff et al., 2003).

The traditional controversy over whether breadth contributes to improving academic achievement (Linver et al., 2009) has given way to recent findings that indicate the relation of breadth to improvement in early adolescence (Eisman et al., 2016; Roth et al., 2010). However, the same would not happen in late adolescence, when duration is the more consistent predictor (Eisman et al., 2016).

Regarding the relationship between participation in EA and academic achievement in terms of sex and age, younger girls show the highest academic achievement (Kingdon et al., 2017; OECD, 2015), depending on the type of activity. For instance, an association has been found between reading books and academic achievement in early adolescence (i.e., schoolchildren between 12 and 14 years old) (Kingdon et al., 2017).

Aims and hypothesis

Despite the abundant literature on the effects of different EA on academic performance, empirical evidence is lacking for the relationship between extracurricular variables, such as breadth and duration, and academic achievement in Hispanic (including Spanish) contexts. Therefore, we aimed to investigate in such a context two groups of noncurricular factors—EA and sociodemographic variables—and a key curricular variable, academic achievement. In particular, we consider sex, age (distinguishing between early middle and late adolescence) and parental education level as sociodemographic variables.

On the other hand, as variables of EA, we take into account the breadth—understood as Busseri and Rose-Krasnor (2009) state it—and duration of participation, the type of activity (i.e., individual sport, collective sport and arts), and add an informal activity traditionally related to academic achievement, the reading of books. Associations of EA and sociodemographic variables with academic achievement were analized.

The hypotheses of the investigation are:

  1. 1.

    Types of activities (i.e., reading of books, artistic, and individual or collective sports) are associated with academic achievement, controlling for sex, age, and parental education level.

  2. 2.

    Duration of EA is associated with academic achievement, controlling for sex, age, and parental education level.

  3. 3.

    Breadth of EA is associated with academic achievement, controlling for sex, age, and parental education level.

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