New research unpacks how social interaction impacts physical activity-based programs

McDonough, M. H., Ullrich-French, S., & McDavid, M. L. (2018). Helping kids connect: Participant and staff perspectives on facilitating social relationships in a physical activity-based positive youth development program for youth from low-income families. Sport, Exercise, And Performance Psychology, 7(1), 13-29. doi:10.1037/spy0000109

Summarized by Cyanea Poon

Notes of Interest: This qualitative study adopted the socio-ecological theory in examining the impact of social interactions on activity-based program for at-risk youths. It focuses on the bidirectional impact individuals (youths and staff) and the context (community, environment) has on one another, in turn affecting positive youth development.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Physical activity-based positive youth development (PYD) programs are designed to nurture personal and social assets in youth, and in underserved populations, often provide unique opportunities for physical activity and mentoring. Supportive relationships with peers and adults in such programs are associated with positive changes in developmental outcomes (Ullrich-French, McDonough, & Smith, 2012).

In this case study, we examined youths’ and staff members’ perspectives on interpersonal relationships within a physical activity-based PYD program, their understanding of what experiences and interactions within the program help or hinder forming high-quality relationships, and their perspectives on how those relationships affect youth and transfer to contexts outside of the PYD program.

We interviewed 20 youth and 6 program staff about their perspectives on social experiences in the PYD program, and conducted follow-up interviews with 10 youth participants 8 months later. We developed a figure describing youth and staff perspectives of program context factors, and how elements of interpersonal relationships among youth and between youth and staff affect youth intra- and interpersonal assets, and transfer to community contexts such as home, neighborhoods, and school. These findings provide insight into ways to promote positive social relationships in PYD programs in ways that are meaningful to youth.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The study provides insight into what youth from low-income families value and find useful about their social interactions in a physical activity-based PYD program. Interventions are most effective when participants’ perspectives, needs, and contexts are carefully considered (Sue, 2006). This study provides ideas for program elements that are meaningful to youth and address concerns of importance to them in efforts to promote asset development and transfer.

It would be useful for PYD programs to consider the effect of the combination of physical activity opportunities, physical and social skill development, and intentionally integrating life skill lessons on youths’ experiences and outcomes in PYD programs. Furthermore, considering skill development and support for PYD staff is potentially important for both staff and youth outcomes. The unique environment of PYD programs with its focus on fun, but with intentional social and life skill lessons may create a culture and space for developing assets. Social interactions likely affect youth in ways that they do not notice or are unable to identify, but the findings allow us to consider social factors that resonate, and that they see as meaningful for their own development.

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