UW News

February 9, 2011

Working more than 20 hours a week in high school can harm grades, UW researcher finds

News and Information

UW School of Social Works Social Developmental Research Group

Washington State policies on working teens

Working part-time during high school may be unavoidable for many teenagers who need to save money for college or contribute to their familys household expenses. But a new study by a UW researcher shows that working during the school year can impede high school performance and cause behavior problems, such as drug use and delinquency.

“Especially in a recessed economy, many adolescents may feel pressure to work during high school,” said Kathryn Monahan, a UW researcher who led the study. “This study suggests that working during the school year is perfectly fine, so long as the work hours for adolescents are restricted to fewer than 20 hours per week.”

The findings are published in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development.

Kathryn Monahan is a research scientist at the Social Development Research Group in UWs School of Social Work. Photo credit: University of Washington.

Kathryn Monahan is a research scientist at the Social Development Research Group in UWs School of Social Work. Photo credit: University of Washington.

Researchers, too, have mixed feelings about working during high school.

Some studies have found that part-time jobs improve students grades and responsible behaviors, give students an edge in the workforce and make them less likely to drop out of school.

Other researchers disagree, finding that high schoolers who work do worse in school and engage in adult behaviors, such as drinking, smoking and having sex.

Monahan, who studies different paths adolescents take into adulthood, wanted to clear up inconsistent findings about how part-time employment affects high school students.

She used a data set collected from nearly 1,800 10th and 11th graders followed for two years. About an even mix of boys and girls with an average age of 16 participated in the study. The students came from ethnically and socioeconomically diverse communities from nine high schools in Wisconsin and northern California.

The data were originally collected in the late 1980s by researchers led by Laurence Steinberg, a co-author on the study and a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn.

“Although these data are 20 years old, there is little reason to believe that they are not generalizable to todays adolescents because the nature of the jobs held by students has not changed during the past two decades,” Monahan wrote in the paper.

Monahan reanalyzed the data using more rigorous statistical techniques than the original study. She used a statistical approach that allowed her to factor in the reasons why the students were working. The analyses let her tease out whether having a job during high school causes problems or if it is just that kids who have school and behavioral problems are the ones who are more likely to also have jobs.

“We know that there are certain characteristics of adolescents that make them more likely to work, such as doing poorly in school and having greater behavioral problems like drug use and delinquency,” she said.

By comparing individuals with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, school performance, drug use and delinquent behaviors but who underwent different work experiences, Monahan is able to say what kind of influence working had on their lives.

She found that students who started working fewer than 20 hours per week during the school year were the same as non-working students on measures of school performance, deviance, substance use and psychological functioning.

But students who began working more than 20 hours each had significant declines in expectations for education and interest in school. They also showed increased substance use, deviant behavior and autonomy from parents compared to their non-working peers.

“We find very strong evidence that becoming employed at 20 hours a week or more during the school year is linked to poor academic and behavioral outcomes, while fewer work hours is not,” Monahan said. “From a policy perspective, the results of this study support limitations on the number of hours that adolescents can work during the school year.”

Washington State limits 16- and 17-year olds to 20 work hours per week during the school year, with the possibility of working up to 28 hours.

Monahan is part of the UW School of Social Works Social Developmental Research Group, which studies child and young adult development and how to promote healthy behaviors.

Joanna Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Virginias Curry School of Education, was another co-author on the paper. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education.