Methods: Data from waves 1 and 3 of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health [1994-2002] was analyzed, allowing investigation of a nationally representative sample of youth (N=4,875) in grades 7-12 during their transitions into young adulthood. In addition to sociodemographic control variables, measures included self-control during adolescence (wave 1), and marriage, employment, education (graduation from high school) and arrest during adulthood (wave 3). Logistic regression models tested the effects of childhood self-control on the formation of social bonds (marriage, education, employment), while controlling for relevant background variables. Logistic regression analyses further examined whether social bonds helped explain the relationship between self-control and arrest. Data utilized across waves allowed investigation of these relationships longitudinally.
Results: Regression analyses indicate that youth with poor self-control were less likely to graduate from high school, but were no less likely to get married or be employed than youth with high self-control. A final regression model demonstrated that both poor self-control and failure to graduate high school significantly predicted arrest. This suggests that educational bonds may partially explain the effect of self-control on arrest during young adulthood.
Conclusions and Implications: Results support prior theoretical claims that lack of self-control may have origins early in life that continue to influence criminal behavior into adulthood. However, the current study extends this knowledge by highlighting the importance of education as a partial explanation for how youth with low self-control are put at risk for adult criminal behavior. Specifically, youth who exhibit low levels of self-control in adolescence are more likely to drop out of school, and, school dropout increases their risk for arrest in adulthood. Such longitudinal findings are rare and contribute to the social work and criminology literature by demonstrating a relationship between self-control and social control factors associated with antisocial behavior. These findings are particularly relevant for school social workers, suggesting that empirically-based prevention programs that aim to decrease impulsivity and enhance positive school outcomes are essential for youth with low levels of self-control. Such efforts are likely to keep at-risk youth in school through graduation, greatly decreasing their odds of arrest in adulthood.