The term “at-risk youth” is one that is very common in studies related to the youth and young people. By general definition, at risk youth refers to young people whose successful transition into adulthood is not assured or is subject to a host of threats. At risk youth often fall victim to a host of risk factors that can derail their achievement. The term at risk particularly gained widespread use in the 1980’s where it was used to refer to those students and youth who faced some kind of disadvantage in achieving education or school success. However, the term also carries some future aspect or orientation in that it also refers to those students and young people who have a likelihood of experiencing some problems in the future. Most of risk at-risk youths are often students and most therefore, experience a lot of academic related problems. At risk students will, for example, tend to drop out of school earlier than their counterparts. Some of the risk factors affecting these students include low socioeconomic status, homelessness, low self-esteem, alcohol and drug abuse, English language deficiency, loss of hope, teen parenthood, and insufficient opportunities for success among many others. Such students will also exhibit truancy and general lack of interest in academics. This issue of ‘at-risk youth” has interested sociologists for a long time and consequently, a lot of research has been conducted on it. This paper aims to conduct a literature review of various publications published over the years by expert authors and researchers that report various findings on this subject.
Studies on at-risk youth adopt different angles with some exploring the specific factors that place the youth at risk, the situations that expose them to risk, the implications of being at risk among several others.
Forrest-Bank et al., (2014) conducted a study on youth residing in public housing neighborhoods. The youth totaling 20 in number came from various ethnic backgrounds. Some of the aspects that this study focused on include the challenges that the youths faced and the coping mechanisms that the youth adopted. One of the primary findings from this study is that the youth in public housing neighborhoods face an increased host of challenges and risk factors and are therefore highly likely to be classed into the at-risk category. More than 360,000 people out of the total 1.2 million households in the United States that live in public housing neighborhoods are actually aged below 18 years. These young people face significant social, economic as well as individual challenges. The rates of neighborhood drug abuse, educational failure, and crime are higher than those for other neighborhoods. Additionally, access to quality schools as well as health care is low in these areas.
Forrest-Bank et al. (2014) hypothesizes that because of this, the youth residing in public housing communities are at accentuated risk for involvement in behavioral problems such as drug abuse, delinquency, and school dropout. This is precisely the reason why the amounts of at-risk youth and young adults are higher in public housing neighborhoods when compared to other neighborhoods. Other research studies have also found out the same; that public housing neighborhoods are characterized by relatively large numbers of at-risk youth. Such studies also show that some of the risk factors in public housing neighborhoods include poverty, neighborhood disorganization, little economic opportunities, drugs availability, weak neighborhood attachment and presence of large numbers of delinquent and deviant peers. Against this backdrop, Forrest-Bank et al. (2011) found that some of the protective factors for these at-risk youth include education opportunities, employment opportunities, and finally social activities involvement.
The risk factors identified in the study above are also collaborated by Gavigan and Kurtts (2010). According to the two researchers, some of the dominant characteristics of students classed as ‘at-risk’ include low-socioeconomic status, disabilities, frequent movement, single parent households, poor reading skills, expulsions or multiple suspensions, pregnancies, school boredom among several others.
A study conducted by Melkman et al., (2015) showed almost similar findings, especially on the risk factors. The study particularly sought to study the contribution of risk and protective factors among at-risk adolescents residing in residential care settings to their substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, delinquency and also the interrelation between these problematic behaviors (Melkman et al., 2015). A total of 17 individual were involved in the study and the hypothesis was that higher levels of deviant peer associations and sensation seeking (risk factors) and lower levels of parental support and future orientation (protective factors) would be associated with higher levels or amounts of problem behaviors. Structured self-report questionnaires were used to collect data. The study found out that indeed, deviant peer associations, as well as sensation seeking make a higher contribution to the problem behaviors of at-risk youth. In terms of protective factors, future orientation was also found to have a significant association with problem behaviors.
In the course of conducting research on this issue, various scholars have attempted to find out the elements that can be used to remove young people from being classified as at risk or factors that reduce their exposure to various risk factors. An example of such a study is one conducted by Stepp et al. (2011). This study sought to investigate adolescent social competence as one of the resilience factor among the at-risk youth. The researchers used data from an ongoing longitudinal study that focused on the development of delinquent and antisocial behavior among boys from the inner city neighborhoods of Pittsburg (Stepp et al., 2011). The researchers specifically used data collected on a sample of 257 boys from the time they were aged 13 years to the time they were 25 years old.
The results of this study found that those at risk boys whose level of social competence was higher had less involvement with delinquent and deviant peers (Stepp et al., 2011). This in turn suggested less severe forms of delinquency during their early adulthood. The results of the study showed that social competence among the at-risk boys had a direct impact on the education attainment of these boys in their early adulthood, for example the boys who developed aspects of social competency during their adolescence continued with schooling irrespective of their association with delinquent boys (Stepp et al., 2011). These findings generally suggest that the promotion of social competencies development and the reduction of association with delinquent peers has the ability to protect at-risk young people from engagement in serious crime or delinquency in their early adulthood and at the same increases their education success (Stepp et al., 2011).
Apart from the promotion of social competencies development, studies also seem to indicate that positive youth development practices are quite useful in promoting resilience as well as enhancing the well-being of at-risk youth. Sanders et al. (2015) conducted a study on 605 participants aged between 12 and 17 years and who were regular clients of various service systems including juvenile justice, children welfare, mental health and additional education. The researchers hypothesized that the use of PYD approaches would lead to both youth resilience as well as better wellbeing outcomes (Sanders et al., 2015). The participants filled a self-report questionnaire that was administered individually. The researchers used path analysis to determine the relationship or connection between risk, service use, wellbeing outcome and resilience measure (Sanders et al. (2015). The researchers then used MANOCA to determine the patterns of risk, use of service systems, wellbeing and resilience among the participants involved based on demographic characteristics. The study found that the use of positive youth development practices was significantly associated with higher youth resilience levels. In addition, increased resilience led to increased wellbeing therefore suggesting that resilience plays some sort of mediating role between risk factors and the wellbeing outcomes of at-risk youth.
The implication of this is that when professionals dealing with at-risk youth adopt PYD measures and practices, there is a high likelihood of promoting resilience and therefore increasing the wellbeing of at-risk youth.
Gavigan and Kurtts (2010) call for the collaboration of teachers and librarians when dealing with at-risk students and to take some time to find out about their at-risk students through the application of specific strategies meant to meet individual student needs. This includes educating themselves about these at-risk students and customizing the instructions and services availed to these students. Teachers and librarians should also encourage active participation from the community as well as the parents of the at-risk students.
Appreciative inquiry has also been found to be quite an effective method when it comes to empowering at-risk students. San Martin et al (2011) conducted a study that was meant to identify the best ways of learning for at-risk high school students and to extrapolate the preferred learning practices of such students in order to improve the pedagogical practices of teachers. A qualitative case study design was utilized to facilitate the appreciative inquiry’s first two stages. The study’s participants were eight alternative high schools students; four males and four females (San Martin et al., 2011). Some of the data collection methods utilized in this study included semi-structured interviews and group discussions. The data from the study was analyzed through several methods including content analysis, axial coding, open coding, pattern matching and text analysis software. The study produced four primary findings. The first of these was that relevant experiences is crucial for learning, a respectful and cooperative learning environment is a core value, learning should be an enjoyable experience and finally, family plays a crucial role in the learning environment (San Martin et al., 2011.
A lot of research has indeed been conducted on the subject of at-risk youth. Most of the findings from research are similar particularly in regards to the risk factors that pose a danger to the future of at-risk youth. These risk factors, for example, include low-socioeconomic status, disabilities, frequent movement, single parent households, poor reading skills, expulsions or multiple suspensions, pregnancies and deviant peer associations. It has also been found that risk factors are accentuated in public housing neighborhoods. However, research has also suggested some ways of promoting resilience and increasing the wellbeing of at-risk youth. Some of the suggested means include promoting social competencies, the use of appreciative inquiry, collaboration between various parties including teachers, parents and the community and finally the adoption of positive youth development practices.
Forrest-Bank, S., Nicotera, N., Anthony, E. K., Gonzales, B., & Jenson, J. M. (2014). Risk, Protection, and Resilience Among Youth Residing in Public Housing Neighborhoods. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 31(4), 295-314.
Gavigan, K., & Kurtts, S. (2010). Together we can: Collaborating to meet the needs of at-risk students. Library Media Connection, 29(3), 10-12.
Kronick, R. F. (2013). At-risk youth: Theory, practice, reform. Routledge.
Melkman, E. (2015). Risk and protective factors for problem behaviours among youth in residential care. Children and Youth Services Review, 51, 117-124.
Sanders, J., Munford, R., Thimasarn-Anwar, T., Liebenberg, L., & Ungar, M. (2015). The role of positive youth development practices in building resilience and enhancing wellbeing for at-risk youth. Child abuse & neglect, 42, 40-53.
San Martin, T. L., & Calabrese, R. L. (2011). Empowering at-risk students through appreciative inquiry. International Journal of Educational Management, 25(2), 110-123.
Stepp Stephanie D, Pardini Dustin A, Loeber Rolf, Morris, Nancy A. (2011). The relation between adolescent social competence and young adult delinquency and educational attainment among at-risk youth: The mediating role of peer delinquency. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(8), 457-65.