Belonging to a youth club, an Ohio State University study reveals, can help kids gain a stronger sense of who they are as a person.
The study suggests that even small improvements in self concept go a long way toward keeping children out of trouble.
"The more kids participate in these clubs, the better self concept they have. And then that self concept makes children less vulnerable to engaging in problem behaviors," said Dawn Anderson-Butcher, an associate professor of social work at Ohio State.
Even children who don't attend a club every day still benefit, she added.
"We're finding that daily attendance isn't as important as whether the kids feel attached to the organization and have a good relationship with a staff member. Those two things predict the best outcomes and the least amount of vulnerability," Anderson-Butcher said.
This study surveyed nearly 300 children from age 9 to 16 in a city in Utah. About three-fourths of the children were members of a local branch of Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The rest were children who weren't members, but lived in the surrounding community.
The children filled out the Utah Division of Substance Abuse Needs Assessment Survey, which gauges how attached children feel to their family, neighborhood, and school; whether they have a strong sense of who they are, and strong self-esteem; whether they earn good grades; and whether they feel that they receive positive reinforcement for good behavior from their community.
It asks whether they have engaged in problem behaviors in the last 30 days. Problem behaviors include alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use; academic failure; and gang involvement.
Anderson-Butcher and Scottye Cash, also an associate professor of social work at Ohio State, compared the survey data with the last six months of the children's attendance records from the club to see if there was any association.
Because club attendance is voluntary, some children come more frequently than others. They freely choose among recreational activities (such as playing basketball), academic assistance, and life skills classes. This study simply counted time spent at the club, and not children's specific activities.
The study revealed that the more children participated in the club, the stronger their sense of self. Participation in the club boosted their social skills, as well as the positive reinforcement they felt they received from their community.
Children who experienced all these benefits were less likely to engage in problem behaviors.
The study appears in a recent issue of Children and Youth Services Review.