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Student Well-Being

Sports, Out-of-School Volunteering May Ease Transition to Middle Grades

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 16, 2015 2 min read
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Community groups and sports not connected to school can help students stay more connected academically during a critical transition period, according to a study of low-income students in New York City.

The move from elementary to middle school can be rough for kids. Beyond the rising cacophony of puberty, students also often face moving from smaller schools and self-contained classes to new, larger campuses and room changes throughout the day. Often high school dropouts can be traced back to bumpy starts in 6th grade.

“This is such a risky transition, especially for low-income, urban youth,” said New York University doctoral researcher Kate Schwartz, who analyzed the transition in a forthcoming study previewed online in the American Journal of Community Psychology. “It is the start of when we see declining engagement, more school absences ... and those declines are incredibly predictive of whether you finish high school.”

Some outside activities can buffer that transition, Schwartz and her colleagues found—if students participate in them. Of the 1,400 low-income urban adolescents who were followed in the Adolescent Pathways Project, the researchers looked at 625 who transitioned to middle school in the study. More than a third of those students in their last year of elementary school and 40 percent of middle school students said they participated in no activities in or out of school, or that they participated once a month or less. [Correction: An earlier version mischaracterized the students as being in 5th grade, but some transitioned in 6th grade.]

Students who participated in one or two sports or community activities outside of school a few times a month had higher grade point averages, particularly if they became more involved in those activities during middle school. Interestingly, Schwartz found no academic benefit for students participating in school-based activities, such as pep squad, drama or student government. Researchers found religious activities, such as participating in church youth groups or retreats, were actually associated with lower GPAs, particularly if a student increased his participation.

Finding Connections Outside of School

It was surprising, Schwartz said, that students did not benefit academically from participating in school-based activities. Perhaps, she said, “If the student doesn’t feel connected to school and it it feels like an anonymous space, that could have spillover to the extracurricular activities too.”

“A lot of this is about identity; competence and the feeling you are connected to something is crucial to [students’] development,” Schwartz said. “It’s really about shared meaning and identity and not about getting credits.”

The researchers were not able to analyze differences in the participation and effect of activities on students of different races or socioeconomic groups, though other research has found significant participation gaps among different students.

One takeaway that struck me from this study: Educators increasingly look at student activities as a measure of engagement, but few schools ask students about their connections and engagement outside of school. If outside activities can help support students academically in school too, schools might want to take a closer look at what is going right beyond class.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.