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Effects of Participation in Community Activities on Self-Efficacy of Japanese Junior High School Students

Effects of Participation in Community Activities on Self-Efficacy of Japanese Junior High School Students by  Mari Yoshinaga, Yoshika Takeda, & Isami Kinoshita

Author(s): Mari Yoshinaga, Yoshika Takeda, & Isami Kinoshita


Evaluating how participating in various experiences affects young people is important to promote further participation in community practices. We examined the effects of participation on junior-high school students’ self-efficacy and motivation towards community-improvement activities: of 114 students from a junior high school (Study 1) and 10 voluntarily participated in a park-design project (Study 2).  The experience of participation even in small-scaled contributed to increasing the self-efficacy of the participants and especially enhancing their motivation with regard to community empowerment.

Keywords: community improvement; participation; self-efficacy; youth, children; design


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In various parts of the world, the participation of children in city design has become increasingly common and desired. For example, UNICEF promotes children’s participation to make cities friendlier and more sustainable by promoting local good governance under the Child-Friendly City program. The International Secretariat for Child Friendly Cities was created at the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence in September 2000. In a child friendly city, children are active agents; their opinions are taken into consideration in the decision-making processes of building or rebuilding environments, constructing political systems, and enforcing education. However, the development and requirements for children’s participation have been directly affected by the changing nature of childhood, as children’s lives have become more structured and controlled (Francis & Lorenzo, 2002). Furthermore, the conceptual framework for the establishment of greater independence for children has been fragile (Valentine, 2004). One of the obstacles in realizing youth independence is how adults view children and youths. Despite the dominant view of youths as troubled and in need of numerous services, youths are competent citizens who can cultivate change throughout communities (Checkoway et al., 2003). Although negative beliefs about children and youths have been widespread among Japanese adults recently, certain changes to this view might be starting to appear.

In the past decade, Japan has made progress in promoting child and youth participation. Two movements have arisen that have seen significant participation from children and young people: one is based around the CRC, which is focused on keeping Japan in step with the international community, while the other is based around increasing emphasis on citizenship in Japanese communities (Kinoshita, 2007). With regard to the latter movement, the participation of children and youths is an important consideration. For instance, a system of children’s ombudspersons has been developed to work in tandem with citizen’s ombudspersons across various communities. Furthermore, a number of local governments have accepted the political principles of child-friendly cities. The view that children’s right to participate in community actions is a basic human right that is capable of becoming a resource for community improvement has also become more widely held. Thus, we have reached a stage where we must consider the quality of the participation experiences among children and youths.

Another important role for youth participation is its ability to empower them, help them exert agency, and develop their personalities and abilities. The concept of empowerment refers to the strengthening of marginalized people by allowing them access to the decision-making and structures of civil society. In considering child and youth empowerment in light of this original meaning, we should take into account not only the promotion of their autonomously motivated contribution to the community but also personality development, with a focus on certain aspects of their mental wellness such as self-efficacy. Checkoway and Richards-Schuster (2003) said that participation can have psychosocial benefits for youth and that it promotes their personal and social development, including their sense of efficacy, their interpersonal competencies, and their social connectedness with other youths and adults.

In a case study conducted in a Japanese community, Yamashita (2007) described that small but significant changes in the informal ways that children relate to adults in their daily lives may be more important for establishing a more participatory community culture than short-term participation events designed by adults. Yamashita analyzed participation on two axes: one axis charted the size of the participating body, ranging from individuals to groups, while the other axis charted a scale of participation, ranging from daily activities to special situations. In his book from UNICEF, Hart suggested ladder of participation diagram to serve as a beginning typology for thinking about children’s participation in projects (Hart, 1992). He called the lowest rung of the ladder as manipulation and the highest rung of the ladder as “child initiated, shared decisions with adults. According to the viewpoint of Yamashita (2007), Hart’s ideal model of participation can be considered as the largest-scale practical model that remains feasible for certain situations, while daily participation on a much smaller scale could be easily arranged to improve the small-scale connections between children and the rest of the community. Furthermore, in daily life, youths can easily participate and exert autonomous thinking compared with taking part in the more manipulated participation inherent to large-scale projects.

Nevertheless, more case studies are required in order to construct a new theoretical framework fitting the current situation surrounding Japanese youths’ participation. The results of research among OECD countries in 2007 by the UNICEF Innocenti Centre showed that Japanese youths felt lonelier and were less comfortable in their daily lives than those in other countries (UNICEF, 2007). This report make us aware of Japanese youth’s difficult situation. It seems that the youth’s lack of satisfaction, in another words, youth’s feeling of empty life might arise from their unstable identity. Feelings of satisfaction or confidence often accompany with the establishment of identity. Thus, children and youths should be given opportunities to design community public works to give them a chance to establish their identities. Therefore, it is necessary to identify the factors relevant to the establishment of identity among children and youths through their participation experiences.

In this study, we decided to use a scale of self-efficacy known to be associated with the motivation and adaptation of youths to school life in Japan (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2007). The concept of self-efficacy is defined as the conviction that one can achieve the best possible results through one’s performance (Bandura, 1977). Self-efficacy beliefs are created and developed as young people interpret information from four sources, which Bandura (1995) claims are responsible for people’s self-efficacy levels: (a) enactive mastery experiences, (b) vicarious experiences, (c) verbal persuasion, and (d) physiological and affective states. The most influential of these is how they interpret the results of their own previous attainments, that is, their mastery experience (Usher & Pajares, 2008). Mastery experiences prove particularly effective in establishing self-efficacy beliefs when individuals overcome obstacles or succeed on challenging tasks (Bandura, 1997). Regarding young people’s self-efficacy, research has focused primarily on academic performance, while none to our knowledge has examined the relationship between participatory experiences and self-efficacy.

We also thought it necessary to examine the effect of community experience on the motivation of youths to take part in community activities in the future, so we investigated the relationship between participation and community empowerment consciousness among youths.
Although local governments throughout Japan have started to plan child-friendly programs and to allow youth participation in planning community activities, there might be a gap in the presence of such programs between developed and developing communities. Thus, we conducted our research in an area where community youth empowerment has been strong among residents since the 1980s, which would allow us to accurately obtain the relevant facts for discussion.

We conducted two studies on this issue. Study 1 (S1) used a cross-sectional design focusing on junior high school students engaged in various community activities either for school requirements or self-motivated. Study 2 (S2) used a retrospective design focusing on ten young people who had the chance to participate in a park design project in the past. The research site and key outcome variables (self-efficacy as proposed by Bandura [1977] and community empowerment awareness) were common to both studies. Our goal was to illustrate how community participation reinforces self-efficacy beliefs and motivation to engage in future community improvement activities among youths.

2.1 Study Site

We distributed self-administered questionnaires to and conducted interviews with junior high school students in the areas of M and T (treated as one community in this study) in the ward of Setagaya in Tokyo, where a community development program has been active since the 1980s. The characteristics of this community were described in detail in Kinoshita (2007).
This community has been putting a lot of effort into urban planning. Their methodology has involved combining the collective will of residents and their activities and the viewpoints of children and youths. In 2005, the pupils of the local elementary school cooperated with residents and the local government to design a park, which they named Tanuki no Ponpo Park.

The project was called Project T; the participation of the children was seen as very positive and the project was given imprimatur by Growing Up in Cities (GUIC;, a UNESCO project organized by Dr. Robin Moore in 2006. Dr. Moore is a member of the GUIC UNESCO-sponsored, international participatory action research team. The members of Project T were invited to give a presentation at the GUIC+10 conference in Canada in 2006. Project T is considered significant because it is not often that child participation can be realized from the first to the final stage of an urban planning process. The present research was conducted after the park project had been completed, when the members of Project T had entered junior high school. Thus, we targeted junior high students as study subjects, including the members of Project T.

2.2 Subjects
S1: In September 2008, we distributed written questionnaires to 376 students from a junior high school attended by former members of Project T (number of returned questionnaires: 344; return rate: 91.5%). After excluding subjects with missing data, we chose to include only students in their second year, to match the ages of subjects in S2. Finally, we excluded eight students who were also included in S2, giving us a total of 114 subjects in S1. For these students, we examined the associations between various community activities and self-efficacy beliefs and community empowerment.

S2: In March 2008, either interviews or mail questionnaires were completed by 11 students who had helped design Tanuki no Ponpo Park and were present at its completion as autonomous volunteers. The present study was conducted one year after the completion of the park in 2007. We received 10 responses (return rate: 90.9%). These students had been involved in all stages of the planning process of the park, including making a scale model of the park, altering the model according to consultations with various prospective users, and seeing the proposal passed and enacted. They also painted the monument at the gate of the park. By comparing self-efficacy and community empowerment between S1 and S2, we examined the impact of a past community participatory experience on these two constructs.

2.3 Measurement and analysis
The questionnaire included items on subjects’ participation in local community activities, scales of self-efficacy, and scales of community empowerment consciousness through the process of community identity formation.

First, the self-efficacy measurement established by Kano, Hirata, and Nakano (2000) was used in this study; this was based on Bandura’s work and was a revised version of Sherer et al. (1982). It included 10 items, as follows: “Plans are always achievable”; “I am quite reluctant to initiate plans”; “I take no action when I think it is difficult”; “I persevere even after making mistakes”; “I am reluctant to act even with clear goals”; “I keep trying until I accomplish something”; “I tend to give up”; “I act quickly”; “I am inspired by mistakes”; and “I get anxious about whether a task is possible.” The students answered these items on a 4-point scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” Higher scores indicated higher levels of self-efficacy.

Community empowerment consciousness items were adapted from the scale by Shimoyamada (2006), which was developed in reference to Israel, Checkoway, Schulz, and Zimmerman’s work (1994) and has been used to measure the association between participation in community activities and community identity among elderly people. For this study, we reconstructed the scale using seven items, as follows: “I contributed to society”; “I obtained new information”; “The project reflected my own opinion”; “I felt accomplishment”; “I gained experience applicable for the future”; “I met people with a wide range of interests”; and “I felt trust towards other participants.” These items were also rated on a 4-point scale, as follows: “truly so,” “quite so,” “not so,” and “not at all.”

The community activities that the subjects engaged in were also identified by providing them with a prepared list of activities from which they chose those that applied to them.
In addition, we asked subjects questions on their psychophysiological conditions and about the community members that the subjects trusted; however, these two factors were not analyzed in the present study.

The means of each questionnaire item and the mean total score for all the items together were analyzed as continuous variables. A student’s t-test was performed to compare the means scores of each scale. In cases where unequal variance was likely, we adopted Welch’s t-test. In the cross-tabulation analysis, when the sample size of a cell was under five, we used Fisher’s exact test to analyze significance. For all statistical calculation, SPSS version 15.0 (2006) was used.

3.1 Actual participation experiences of junior high school students

Table 1 shows the number of students surveyed (S1: general junior high school students; S2: park development participants), who were divided into two categories by gender.

The actual participation of junior high school students in local community activities (n = 114) is shown in Table 2. We found that 59.6% (n = 68) of students took part in some kind of community activity. The majority participated in a work experience program as part of their school curriculum. Work experience and cleanup activities are often practiced as part of the school curriculum, so the proportion of participants who were involved in them was high. In addition, voluntary activities were sometimes conducted as part of a school-coordinated program, or another program that students had elected to join. Furthermore, community sports programs such as swimming, baseball, or soccer are popular in most Japanese communities, whether rural and urban. Survival camps are summer-holiday camping activities aiming to teach children about disaster prevention, and are held in an elementary school gymnasium where a number of community members in the neighborhood come to participate along with the junior high school students. “Assisting a children’s hall” involves junior high school students by making them leaders in the children’s hall that they used to attend as elementary school students, where they assist staff by leading younger children in camp activities. Senior supervisors of these halls are high school students, university students, or working adults. Each age group has a different role in the program and the groups nurture and support each other. In Japan, the children’s hall is considered an important system for young people, as it gives them a place to belong and a way to feel involved.

We found gender differences in the activities that students participated in across the sample. Save for in sports programs and boy/girl scouts, girls were much more likely to participate in community activities. As for the level of involvement in these activities, students reported being the most involved in children’s halls, survival camps, and community emergency drills, which were very autonomous experiences. In contrast, because work experience and cleanup activities are regular programs that students are required to take part in for school, their autonomy was seldom considered, meaning that the children were not as invested in such programs.

3.2 Participatory experience and self-efficacy
First, we investigated gender differences in the mean self-efficacy scores, finding no statistically significant difference between male and female students: the mean score for male students was 23.3 (SD = 4.5) and the mean for female students was 24.4 (SD = 4.1). Thus, we combined the genders for the subsequent analyses.

In Table 3, differences in self-efficacy between the groups with different participatory experiences are indicated. Group 1 (G1) included students who had not participated in any community activities and Group 2 (G2) included students who had participated in at least one activity. The students in G2 showed higher self-efficacy scores overall. However, the sample size for these two groups was so imbalanced that we first had to examine the variance of each group; noting that the variance was unequal, we adopted Welch’s t-test to allow accurate comparison of the scores.

Regarding the effect of depth of involvement in the participatory activities on self-efficacy, we compared the scores of students involved in the park design project from S2 and students from S1 who had no participatory experience. The mean score for students in S1 was 23.7 (SD = 4.4), while that of S2 was 26.3 (SD = 2.7; t = -1.8). Thus, we observed no statistically significant difference between them. Then, we compared S2 subjects with S1 subjects who had participated only in cleanup activities, where independence was low. The 55 students who had participated in a cleanup activity had a mean score of 23.9 (SD = 4.9), compared with the same mean for S2 as above (t = -1.6).

3.3 Participatory experience and community empowerment awareness
In order to examine the reliability of the scale that assessed students’ community awareness, which was originally developed for this study, we calculated the Cronbach’s alpha value. The value was 0.914 for the whole sample. Table 4 shows the level of community awareness according to the different types of participation. Then, utilizing all of the items, we investigated how aware students were of their accomplishments. We compared the students in S2, who had participated in the park development program, with those in S1 who had participated in some form of community activity. The results revealed that S2 students showed greater awareness across all items. However, the sample size of these two study groups was so imbalanced that we again compared their variance and employed Welch’s t-test.

Figure 1. Differences observed in community empowerment awareness scores between the two participatory experience groups. Comparison of each score of the subjects who had only participated in cleanup activities without much independence and each score of park design project subjects in S2, who had highly independent experiences. Bars indicate the means of each score for the questionnaire items with asterisks indicating statistically significant differences between groups; *: p < 0.05, **: p < 0.01, ***: p < 0.001.

When we compared the mean community empowerment awareness scores of S1 students who had taken part in only the cleanup activity with those of S2, we again found that S2 students showed higher mean scores for all the items, as indicated in Figure 1. In brief, the level of independence in the participatory experience influenced students’ community empowerment awareness.

4.1 Self-efficacy among junior high school students

Bandura (1995) proposed four types of experience that improve self-efficacy: mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and emotional arousal. In the present study, we focused on assessing how students’ direct experiences affected their self-efficacy. In previous studies on vicarious experience, some researchers have tried to apply the concept of self-efficacy to people’s experiences in career paths, and found that a simulated career experience, such as a short occupational program at a medical camp, increased the self-efficacy of junior high school students (Speight, Rosenthal, Jones, Gastenveld, 1995; Brown & Lent, 1996). The present study elucidated that it was important to have various types of experience in addition to such work experience for the development of especially high self-efficacy. Students who participated in some form of community planning project, such as those in S2, tended to show higher self-efficacy scores compared with students who had no participatory experience (S1); however, this difference was not statistically significant. We believe that the establishment of a park and monument in their neighborhood offers a constant reminder to these children of their successful experience, which would lead to higher self-efficacy. Thus, it can be said that participation in environmental improvement influenced both the self-efficacy and motivation of these students to contribute to the community, which could lead to the development of talented and devoted individuals who will be able to shoulder the futures of their communities.

Self-efficacy was found to be related to behaviors and experiences other than community design, such as academic performance (Caprara et al., 2008), sports (Munroe-Chandler et al., 2006), and making career decisions (Brown & Lent, 2006). The present study provides results for further daily community activities such as voluntary activities and assisting in children’s halls or survival camps. On the other hand, cleanup activities and sports had no significant relationship with self-efficacy level. On this point, we must consider two possible explanations.

First, we could interpret the result such that self-efficacy increased far more in voluntary activities and assisting because these activities are more related to overcoming obstacles, cooperating with friends, and receiving support and feedback from seniors on their performance, which could all serve to enhance the establishment of their independent identities. The second explanation could be that when a person has initially high self-efficacy, he or she would be more likely to and more effectively participate in particular activities with strong motivation. In other words, we must consider the possibility that participants in S2 and G2 had initial high self-efficacy. We cannot ignore the possibility that youths with high self-efficacy would prefer to participate in specific activities that are in line with their independent identities. In order to clarify this point in future research, we should conduct questionnaire surveys both before and after participation. Nevertheless, we emphasize that for true participatory experiences, there was a hint of an association between participation and level of self-efficacy. When a person has low self-efficacy, he or she tends to avoid taking the necessary measures to solve the problem even when he or she recognizes what the problem is. Self-efficacy determines both the extent to which a person can make an effort to accomplish something and the degree to which one can endure stressful situations. The effect of self-efficacy on motivation and action is important in considering young people’s motivation to be involved with their surroundings. Thus, we should accumulate more data on the association and concrete mechanism operating between self-efficacy and community participation.

Next, we must carefully consider the quality of participation. As mentioned above, students engaged in autonomous participation in voluntary activities and assisting with children’s halls appeared to exhibit the highest levels of self-efficacy. This suggests that it is important for young people to be satisfied with their level of participation like the park or monument as the visible outcome or a feeling of being trusted by adults. Furthermore, adults are responsible for managing expectations and faith in self-developed plans among children to protect their self-efficacy.

As suggested by Hart (1997), participation has different stages, like a ladder. This study investigated whether there is any difference in self-efficacy between “true participation,” where participants suggest ideas and accomplish a plan, and participation under the direction and guidance of adults. Activities that were required by the school curriculum were considered to be under the direction and guidance of teachers. In contrast, as Yamashita (2007) indicated, daily participatory experiences, such as assisting in survival camps and children’s halls, were considered more independent. These latter activities appeared to have the greatest effects on the self-efficacy of youths. To strictly examine the impact of quality of experience on self-efficacy, we suggest conducting a prospective study.

4.2 Type of participatory experiences among Japanese urban-dwelling junior high school students
First, we describe the actual participation of junior high school students (S1) in local community activities in Table 2. The high level of participation in a number of voluntary experiences reflects the influence of regional characteristics such as active community development activities and orientation, since children also have a strong interest in safe, secure community development. Moreover, recently, Japanese beliefs regarding childhood development have led to an increasing focus on extracurricular activities, a situation that is reflected in the observation that more than half of the subjects in S1 participated in sports programs. Furthermore, the proportion of students who participated in cleanup activities and work experience as part of their school activities was also high. We also observed that the children’s hall (as described in the Results section) is an important way to give young people a place to belong by encouraging highly involved participation, and where the staff support autonomous activities for different ages.

The unique characteristics of this area, as described above, appeared to enhance the proportion of participating students. A nationwide survey conducted by the Japanese government in 2005 ( showed that the proportion of the students in elementary school who had some kind of communication with adults in the neighborhood was less than 1% on both weekdays and weekends. Thus, taking part in community activities offers children the chance to communicate with people belonging to different age groups, with whom they seldom connect, which seems to be common throughout contemporary Japan, though especially prevalent in urban areas. Through communication with older people, youths can learn values. A previous study noted that children who played more in streets, vacant lots, marketplaces, and parks than indoors had a greater ability to cope with social relationships (Yoshinaga, Yokoyama, & Kinoshita, 2009). Therefore, just as playing in the town lets children meet neighbors and develop their ability to communicate with other people, participation in the community lets young people talk and directly connect with adults.

4.3 The association between participation and community awareness
Finally, we consider the motivation of youths to engage in community activities.

When we compared the community awareness scores of S1 and S2, we found that S2 students showed higher scores for all the items than S1 students. Thus, it was clear that the experience of voluntary, true participation significantly increased the motivation and interest of youth in community activities. The results further suggest that participation in the local community contributes to community awareness. The community atmosphere created by engaged residents can encourage youth participation, as can evidence of the results of this participation, such as real projects like Tanuki no Ponpo Park. Our results indicate that participation induces a deep interest in community development.

However, there are limitations in giving all youths sufficient opportunity to participate in designing their community. Especially for those at the bottom rungs of the ladder, it is important for students to ascend the levels of participation. The efforts of local communities to encourage the participation of children and young people are needed, although it should be noted that there are differences in how participation benefits these children, which is arguably dependent on the quality of the participation.

We found that junior high school students participated in a variety of community activities. Aiding in a park development project or assisting in children’s halls and community survival camps, which we considered examples of small-scale “true participation” as per the “Ladder of Participation” created by Hart (1992), seemed to increase the self-efficacy of junior high school students. Furthermore, participation in community activities appeared to increase students’ awareness of their community; thus, engaging in true participation, even on a small scale, appeared to increase awareness far more than engaging in mandatory participation.

The authors would like to thank the wonderful students who participated in Project T and the Mosaic Club at Mishuku Elementary School, as well as their remarkable teachers, for answering the interview questions. In particular, we would like to thank Mr. Inagaki and Mr. Umedu, for sharing with us their time, their insights, and some treasured materials such as pictures. We wish also to thank the students of Mishuku Junior High School for taking part in our questionnaire survey. In addition, we are grateful to the members of the Play and Town Research Society in Ikejiri Children’s House for their warm suggestions about the accomplishment of this study.

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Mari Yoshinaga, Yoshika Takeda, & Isami Kinoshita Mari Yoshinaga, Yoshika Takeda, & Isami Kinoshita

Prof. Mari Yoshinaga, Ph.D., Clinical-Community Psychology, Showa Pharmaceutical University, Japan

Yoshika Takeda, a graduate student, Environmental Science and Landscape Architecture Course, Chiba University, Chiba, Japan

Prof. Isami Kinoshita, Ph.D., Environmental Science and Landscape Architecture Course, Chiba University, Chiba, Japan

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Keywords: community improvement; participation; self-efficacy; youth, children; design, gjcpp