Methods: Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, this study examined multiple dimension of OST participation ages 9 and 15: type (sports, performance, clubs, academic clubs, and religious activities), breadth (0-5 activity types), change in breadth between ages 9 and 15 (-5 to +5), and duration patterns between ages 9-15 (nonparticipants, stopped, joined late, ongoing). Multiple regression was used to test whether OST measures at age 9 were associated with adjustment-related outcomes at age 15: internalizing symptoms, and externalizing symptoms (Child Behavior Checklist), social skills (Social Skills Rating System), and psychosocial functioning (EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Wellbeing). Analyses controlled for age 9 outcomes and demographics.
Results: Only participation in sports, academic clubs, and religious activities at age 9 were found to predict outcomes at age 15. Sports were associated with lower psychosocial functioning problems (B=-.04) and stronger social skills (B=.04), while academic clubs were associated with higher internalizing symptoms (B=.04).
Greater breadth at age 9 was associated with lower functioning issues (B=-.01) and higher social skills (B=.01). Increasing breadth between ages 9 and 15 years was associated with lower internalizing (B=-.01) and externalizing symptoms (B=-.01), lower psychosocial functioning issues (B=-.01) and increased social skills (B=.02).
The most novel results concerned duration patterns. Though ongoing participation between ages 9 and 15 associated with stronger outcomes, so was joining an activity by age 15. For example, persistent sports participation between ages 9 and 15 were associated with lower internalizing (B=-.08), lower psychosocial functioning issues (B=-.12) and increased social skills (B=.15); however, similar associations were found for joining sports by age 15, which was also associated with lower internalizing symptoms (B=-.07), lower psychosocial functioning issues (B=-.08), and increased social skills (B=.11). Dropping out of activities yielded outcomes as poor as nonparticipation.
Conclusions and Implications: This study contributes to the social work and OST literature first by replicating positive associations of OST in a large sample of disadvantaged youth, while also highlighting how increases in breadth and joining activities late also predicted positive outcomes in this population. Although many youth limit participation to fewer activities during adolescence, social workers working with youth should instead facilitate a breadth of activities during adolescence. Likewise, social workers should encourage youth to join activities late rather than not participate at all. School policy should better enable a consistent breadth of OST participation – especially for the most vulnerable adolescents. State and federal funding streams for OST are diverse, and rarely target youth and communities with higher needs, or primarily emphasize academics, which may limit access to broad participation. Furthermore, the neoliberalization of OST threatens access among the most disadvantaged. Additional research is needed to assess specific practices within programs which support youth with specific challenges in this study’s outcomes.