Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Adolescents at Risk: Shaping Programs to Fit the Need

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Adolescents at Risk: Shaping Programs to Fit the Need

Article excerpt

This article analyzes data revealing that about one-third of teenagers are at extremely high risk because they "do it all," one-third are involved in several high-risk behaviors, and one-third are at relatively low risk. Because adolescents have different needs for support, the author suggests that (a) prevention programs focus on the common characteristics of high-risk youngsters, not on separate substance, sexual, and delinquent behaviors; and (b) programs dealing with families, schools, and community institutions incorporate individual attention, enhancement of basic cognitive and social skills, exposure to career choices, and other known common elements of successful interventions. Comprehensive school-community partnerships are proposed to package all the requisite elements.


Many people maintain that all adolescents are at equal risk because they all live in risky environments of one kind or another, are all exposed to the same dangerous influences, and are all going through phases of adolescent development that make them vulnerable. Others assert that young people growing up today are located in very different risk environments depending on their gender, race, ethnicity, social status, family strengths, community, employment opportunities, and other determinants. I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that young people fall into different risk categories depending on the settings in which they live. This position maintains that children today are growing up with vastly different odds of "making it"-that is, getting on the pathway to becoming responsible adults who can function well intellectually, play meaningful parts in the labor force, become effective parents, and be able to participate in the political life of the nation. Part of the affluence of the United States is our profusion of categorical approaches. We have separate programs and specialized researchers for almost every kind of problem ranging from substance abuse, teen pregnancy, delinquency, and school failure, to suicide. As new problems such as AIDS/HIV emerge, we quickly categorize them as well. Universities perpetuate this situation by departmentalizing knowledge into separate disciplines such as psychology, social work, public health, education, educational psychology, and so forth; and the learned journals follow suit. As a result, we have carved up our adolescents into many disconnected pieces, often losing sight of the personhood we claim to care so much about and seek to treat. As Zoccolillo (1990) maintains:

Research . . . has usually focussed . . . on single independent problem behaviors, and assumed that the same cause applied equally to each adolescent with the behavior in question. The academic discipline of the investigator has often influenced the hypothesis about the behavior in question (i.e., high-school dropout viewed by educators as due to inadequate schools, or teen pregnancy as due to lack of education about birth-control). (p. 1)

My own work on high-risk behaviors began in the categorical field of adolescent pregnancy prevention. Beginning in the 1980s, when it seemed that we were far from solving that problem, I started to look beyond my specialized domain to search for meaningful answers. I wanted to gain a better understanding of the context in which early unprotected sexual intercourse was taking place. The questions I asked myself then were: Is teenage pregnancy an isolated phenomenon, or is there a relationship between early sexual behavior and other behaviors?; and generally, what is going on in the lives of young people?

In 1990 I published a book, Adolescents-at-Risk: Prevalence and Prevention, which summarized the then-current findings about the incidence of major high-risk behaviors in three categorical domains-substance abuse, delinquency, and school failure-along with early unprotected intercourse (Dryfoos, 1990). It was clear to me that problem behaviors among adolescents were highly interrelated. …

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