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Theories & Approaches

All Theories & Approaches

Youth Development and Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention

Nicole Lezin, a technical writer based in Aptos, California, consults regularly with ETR Associates. Ms. Lezin has researched and written about many different aspects of public health and is the co-author, with Marshall Kreuter, Matt Kreuter, and Larry Green, of Community Health Promotion Ideas that Work: A Field-book for Practitioners.

What is a Youth Development Approach?

In many ways, adolescence is an obstacle course. For some teenagers, the obstacles are difficult, but manageable – raging hormones, mood swings, perhaps some experimentation with drugs and a few bad grades. These teenagers emerge older and wiser but generally without lasting damage.

For others, the obstacles loom larger, and navigating them seems, at times, impossible. These young people may see their adolescence not as a temporarily difficult phase, but as a precursor to a painful, bleak future. Their sense of the obstacles they face – and of their ability to conquer them – is very different.

Youth development approaches try to help young people navigate the many obstacles of adolescence by:

  1. offering continuous support from the adults around them,
  2. creating a sense of the opportunities before them, and
  3. providing a chance to develop the skills that will help them make the most of both current and future opportunities.

Youth development approaches can help all young people, but it is particularly critical for those who are unlikely to get much in the way of positive support, opportunities, or skills from their families and communities.1

The premise underlying youth development programs is that young people have basic needs – for example, personal safety, a sense of belonging and contribution to the world around them, self-worth based on achievement, responsibility, and structure. In order for young people to mature into healthy adults, these needs must be met.2

In the past, we have relied on families and communities to meet these needs, but surveys and other research have revealed that astonishingly few young people feel the combination of internal and external support that prepares them for adulthood. For example, the Search Institute has conducted surveys of high school students in 900 communities across the country, ranging from affluent suburbs to low-income neighborhoods. The surveys attempt to measure the number of "developmental assets" among young people in each community – such as connections to adults, feeling valued by the community, being committed to learning, having a sense of self esteem and purpose.

The Search Institute researchers believe that every young person should have between 30 and 40 assets, yet in no community in the country have they found an average of more than 18 among that community’s young people.3 (See the Resources section for more information on the Search Institute.)

A lack of developmental assets has been linked to a number of risk factors: higher use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, early sexual activity, violence, and problems in school. The good news is that a higher number of assets serves as a protective buffer. The more assets young people have, the more likely they are to succeed in school, help others, value diversity, maintain good health, demonstrate leadership, resist danger, delay gratification, and persevere in times of adversity.4

Youth development programs are about building assets for young people that will both protect and motivate them as they achieve the outcomes of a safe, healthy adolescence and a mature, satisfying adulthood.

What’s the Problem?

Over the many decades that well-meaning people have tried to address the major social issues facing our society, we have fallen into a trap. The trap is the idea that if we name a problem, we will be able to come up with a solution to that problem. In part, this attitude stems from medical treatment models in which a set of symptoms suggests one disease or another. Once the disease is identified, it can be treated. Therefore, the logic goes, we should identify the problem, figure out how to prevent or cure it, and get to work.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It is the way we have traditionally approached teen pregnancy, crime, drug use, and other problems on a very long and discouraging list.

This approach may work when the problem and the solution are both clear, such as when a physician is trying to fix something that has gone wrong with our bodies. But it has some real drawbacks when we try to apply it to more complex situations, involving people and communities. First of all, it’s negative. Focusing on problems is dispiriting not only to those who are labeled with the problem, but also to those of us trying to solve them.5 (See the Staff Assessment Exercises section for a quick way to illustrate this point with your colleagues and board members.)

Secondly, it tends to isolate problems from one another, making it difficult to step back and take a more holistic approach. This is the classic "tip of the iceberg" issue: If we focus on one problem at a time, we may miss the underlying root causes that are actually contributing to a whole host of behaviors and adverse consequences.

Finally, a problem-focused approach sets up one side – the client – as the problem, and the other side – the service provider – as the expert who will solve that problem. Even worse, it sometimes sets up service providers as the finger-wagging nags who must constantly admonish young people: "Don’t do this. Don’t do that." In most human interaction, this is not a recipe for positive results. It misses opportunities to draw on the strengths of other supportive people in families and communities, and it makes both the person with the problem and the "expert" feel like failures when the problem isn't solved. It fails to nurture the most lasting and important protective factor that a young person can develop: his or her own motivation.

A Positive Frame of Mind

In many ways, youth development approaches represent a reaction to problem-oriented approaches – a mirror image that flips the assumptions behind a "problem-and-solution" mindset. By providing an alternative way of looking at both social issues and at the range of effective responses, youth development approaches really create a different philosophy about the best ways to support youth.

For example, instead of focusing on the problem or problems facing young people, a youth development approach would emphasize young people’s potential. Instead of focusing narrowly on one specific problem and the information or skills to conquer it, a youth development approach would step back and try to focus on developing a broader sense of motivation and investment in the future – on building assets. This motivation, in turn, would help young people across the board, not just with one particular problem, such as teen pregnancy.6

Youth Development Approaches and Adolescent Pregnancy

Youth development approaches are a natural enhancement of adolescent pregnancy prevention programs. First, as anyone who works with adolescents knows, it is relatively rare for young people to engage in one risky behavior and not others. A youth development approach that tries to motivate young people to think of their own future, their self worth, and their potential can affect a range of behaviors, not just one type of risk.

Many adolescent pregnancy prevention programs emphasize education about sex and about obtaining and using contraception. These types of programs can be effective in reducing sexual risk-taking behavior. However, a growing body of research suggests that even when these programs work, their effects are relatively modest. As Douglas Kirby of ETR Associates has noted:

"…Youth may have the knowledge, skills, and ability to get and use contraceptives, but if those youth are not connected to family and school and do not believe that their future is promising and worth protecting, then they may not be highly motivated to avoid teen pregnancy; and if they are not highly motivated to avoid pregnancy, they are not likely to take the steps needed to use contraception consistently. Thus, motivation and other non-sexual antecedents must be addressed."7

In addition to contributing to reducing adolescent pregnancy itself, youth development approaches have another very appealing feature: they can draw consensus and unified community support, instead of the antagonism and controversy that some adolescent pregnancy programs struggle with on a day-to-day basis. Regardless of one's views on teenage sexuality and access to contraception, everyone tends to agree that supporting young people in positive ways – through adult and community connections, praise, encouragement, and celebration of young people's achievements – is good for young people and for the community as a whole.8

Finally, many youth development programs have been in place for years and have well-developed activities and networks within communities. This means that in many states, adolescent pregnancy programs can tap into an existing set of resources that is already well-organized and ready to contribute.9 (See the Resources section for suggestions on identifying youth development programs in your area.)

Next: Practical Steps