Author Identifiers

Eibhlish Máire Bridget O'Hara
ORCID: 0000-0002-9093-2746

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Psychology)


School of Arts and Humanities

First Advisor

Dr Craig Harms

Second Advisor

Dr Fadi Maayah

Third Advisor

Professor Craig Speelman


Adolescents from low socio–economic (SES) backgrounds are more vulnerable, experience more physical and mental health problems, and often do not have as many positive educational outcomes as adolescents from higher SES backgrounds (Totten, 2007). Most research examining youth recreational activities, such as sport programs, demonstrate the positive influence they can have, especially for adolescents living in low SES neighbourhoods (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2002). However, adolescents living in low SES neighbourhoods often have limited access to such programs (Leventhal, Dupéré, Brooks-Gunn, 2009). As such, it is important to find alternate ways for adolescents living in low SES areas to participate in recreational activities.

Schools are one of the most influential institutional resources with regards to adolescent development and well-being (Blum, Astone, Decker, & Mouli, 2014). Poulou and Norwich (2019) stated that it is “imperative to identify the protective factors that teachers could manipulate within a school context” so that the needs of at-risk adolescents are met (p. 1). Specialist Sport Programs (SSPs) are an underexamined activity that combines the best features of two different contexts for adolescent development: a sporting program and a secondary school. It is thought that SSPs could be one such modification to conventional education that teachers could use to facilitate adolescent adjustment and even prevent the exacerbation of their problems (Poulou & Norwich, 2019).

The overarching purpose of this research was to investigate the educational and psychosocial development of adolescents involved in SSPs located in low SES areas of Perth, Western Australia (W.A.). To do so, four studies were conducted.

Study 1 collated and evaluated the existing literature on SSP participation. The studies included in the systematic review demonstrate that SSPs have the potential to positively, and at times negatively, influence adolescent outcomes. Study 2 then explored the perceptions of key stakeholders regarding the impact of participation in an SSP located in a low SES area of Perth, W.A. Analysis of the interviews conducted with specialist students and their parents, as well as with teachers and graduates of the program, revealed the positive influence of SSPs as well as the elements of the SSP that were thought to be influential for facilitating school engagement, developing life skills, and promoting positive relationships.

To strengthen the knowledge base regarding the influence of SSPs for adolescents living in low SES areas of W.A., two quantitative studies were also conducted. Study 3 examined specialist students’ psychosocial development while Study 4 examined the specialist students’ educational outcomes. Study 3 found a significant decline in specialist students’ physical self-perceptions over time. However, the specialist students’ life satisfaction, basic psychological needs satisfaction, social competence, and resilience all remained stable over the period of a year. Study 4 found a significant improvement in specialist students’ mean grade for Mathematics over time; however, their mean grade for all other subjects and their level of engagement with school remained stable over the period of a year.

Taken together, the results of this research suggest a role for SSPs in promoting positive developmental outcomes for adolescents attending schools located in low SES areas.


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