Helping at-risk teens by addressing developmental needs

Despite much talk and concern, few programs to address teen pregnancy and drop-out rates have been adequately evaluated. Contraceptive distribution, one of the most viable approaches in the prevention of teen pregnancy, is too controversial to be used in some communities. One of the few proven programs is the Perry Preschool Project, which pointed the way to the positive effects of an approach that addresses the broad developmental tasks of adolescence rather than individual problem behaviors.

Developmental approach

That broader developmental approach is the subject of an extensive, five-year study of Teen Outreach, a nationally recognized teen volunteer service program. The study was done by University of Virginia psychology professor Joseph P. Allen; Susan Philliber and Scott Herrling of Philliber Research Associates in New York; and Gabriel P. Kuperminc of Yale University. They evaluated the program at 25 sites across the country and found that rates of pregnancy, school failure and academic suspension were substantially lower among the teens who attended the Teen Outreach program, compared to those in a control group.

Gathering data at the beginning and the end of the school year, these researchers studied 342 students in Teen Outreach programs and 353 students in a control group. All students were in grades 9 – 12. Those in the Teen Outreach program committed themselves to perform at least 20 hours of volunteer service, but actually averaged 46 hours over the course of the year.

In addition to volunteer service, students participated in ongoing classroom discussions related to adolescent development and issues arising from their activities. Discussion centered on life options, including feelings and romantic relationships, but was not directed specifically to teen pregnancy and academic achievement. At the end of the school year, after completing the program, students reported on their own behaviors, including pregnancy and academic failure.

Reduced schools suspensions

After controlling for demographic characteristics and past problem behaviors, the researchers found that the risk of school suspension for students in the Teen Outreach group was less than half, or 42 percent, of that in the control group. Risk of academic failure for the Teen Outreach participants was 39 percent of that in the control group. And the Teen Outreach participants reported 41 percent of the number of pregnancies of the control group.

Other findings:

  • In sites where participants entered with the most problems, Teen Outreach proved to be more effective in reducing teen pregnancy and academic failure by the end of the program.
  • Program intensity, measured by the number of classroom sessions, had no effect on results.
  • The more volunteer hours students worked, the lower their risk for academic failure.
  • More girls than boys reported taking responsibility for avoiding pregnancy.

Volunteer program has wider acceptance than sex education

The proven success of Teen Outreach in reducing problem behaviors should lead to the adoption of more programs using the broad developmental approach. This could be especially useful in areas where the explicit nature of sex education and condom distribution has not been accepted. Shedding light on the complex factors that underlie problem behaviors, the study demonstrates that pregnancy and academic failure can occur as the result of the same forces, and that both may be averted at the same time by the same program. Supervised volunteer service is especially promising because it can address these problems simultaneously, along with other problems, such as low self-esteem, which is linked to teenage pregnancy.

“Volunteer service and linked classroom activities may offer young people (particularly those who are struggling in their social development) a relatively nonthreatening opportunity to see themselves as competent individuals who can be both autonomous and successful in relating to adults in their lives,” the authors write. Previous studies show that the volunteer segment of Teen Outreach is closely linked to its overall success.

The most successful programs aided students in establishing positive relationships with adults, peers and people at their volunteer sites. Other studies of volunteer activities point out the importance of letting students choose the kinds of volunteer work they would like to do. While giving students autonomy in selecting activities, the most successful programs help students become connected to others. Those students in Teen Outreach with positive outcomes reported feeling safe, listened to and respected.

The success of this program could possibly be explained by the Hawthorne Effect, in which changes in students’ behavior are related to the amount of attention they receive and not necessarily to the content of the program. But the authors dismiss this as unlikely, since many programs that provide similar attention to young people have shown no significant results. The major limitation of this study lies in the entry data, which was collected after students entered the programs. The authors recommend that future studies collect data before students know of their assignment to one group or the other. What is needed now is a follow-up of the students in the study. They would not need to be followed for long, since the critical risk period forteen pregnancy and dropping out of high school is limited.

“Preventing Teen Pregnancy and Academic Failure: Experimental Evaluation of a Developmentally Based Approach” Child Development, August 1997, Volume 68 Number 4, pp. 729-42.

Published in ERN November/December 1997 Volume 10 Number 5

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