Imagine a teenager as a balloon. One minute it’s soaring; the next it’s floating toward the ground, heading for a crash. But suppose there’s an adult standing nearby who is willing to reach out and give it a gentle bop to send it soaring again? Bet-ter yet, what if there are five adults standing in a circle holding a thick web made of yarn? The tighter the web, the less likely the balloon can slip through and hit the ground.
This web-of-yarn exercise was invented by Derek Peterson, an educational consultant and one-man crusader who travels the globe preaching the benefits of youth development to teachers, administrators, school board members, and community leaders. The web—he likens it to a Lakota “dreamcatcher”—is meant to demonstrate the impact of adult intervention in supporting resilience among teens.
Rather than focus on negative behaviors like acting out, drinking, or doing drugs, Peterson and others in the field of youth development are educating adults about “protective factors” and “developmental assets”—the positive attributes, experiences, and attitudes that 30 years of research shows are essential to children’s success in school and in life. And they are finding a growing audience, both among administrators who are searching for new ways to motivate and engage teens and among test-weary staffers eager for the pendulum to swing back to a focus on the whole child.
A resurgence of interest in healthy social and emotional development can be seen across the country: from the state of Illinois, which enacted grade-level learning standards for social and emotional development in 2004, to Colorado, which has a statewide youth-development office called Assets for Colorado Youth, and up to Alaska, where the Association of Alaska School Boards has been working with school districts and other organizations since 1995 to get adults more in-volved in schoolchildren’s everyday lives. Through student surveys, focus groups, “relationship plans,” and other activities, school personnel are looking for ways to lay the groundwork for a lifetime of achievement and success.
Beyond Risk Prevention
It wasn’t so long ago that resilience—the ability to rise above adversity and thrive—was thought to be something a person was just born with. But recent research, including developmental psychologist Emmy Werner’s longitudinal study of 698 Hawaiian children born in 1955, has identified key factors that resilient individuals have in common. In contrast to the risk-prevention approach, which concentrates on identifying “at-risk” youth and teaching them to avoid negative behaviors, asset development accentuates positive traits, behaviors, and attitudes and seeks to build on those.
At the forefront of this movement is the nonprofit Minneapolis-based Search Institute, where researchers Peter Benson and Peter Scales have combed through decades of research on resiliency, prevention, and adolescent development to identify 40 positive “assets” and arrange them in a user-friendly framework. Schools and other community organizations can use the framework to measure the collective strengths of their students and see how well these institutions support student resiliency.
Half of these factors are external, such as whether or not a child gets support from family members and three or more unrelated adults, while half are internal, such as whether or not a student cares about school and is motivated to do well. The assets are broadly grouped into eight categories: those that contribute to student support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity.
Since 1996, the Search Institute has surveyed 3 million students in grades 6–12 across the country and found a direct correlation between the number of assets a student has and “thriving behaviors,” such as getting mostly As on report cards or exhibiting leadership skills. The more assets a teenager has, the less likely he or she is to participate in high-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse, sex, and violence. These correlations are consistent for adolescents regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic background, community size, or region, according to the researchers.
More importantly, nearly all of these assets, if missing from a child’s life, can be “built through concerted effort by schools and communities,” according to Benson. He has identified 22 assets that schools can influence directly (see sidebar “Asset Checklist").
“We have always known that human development is inextricably linked with academic development,” Benson says, “but in a time in history where we are putting so much emphasis on testing and academic achievement, we risk losing sight of something that is very obvious: Achievement is as much about student development as it is about rigor and curriculum.”
Communities that have been successful in building assets among youth are usually those where leaders like the school superintendent, the mayor, or the Chamber of Commerce president “use the bully pulpit to get it going,” says Benson.
While the institute pushes asset-building initiatives that target community leaders as the most effective approach to building resiliency, the approach is also popular in schools. Sixty percent of the nearly 50,000 people trained by the organization in the last two years were school personnel, according to Mary Ackerman, director of external relations at the Search Institute.
Clay Roberts, a senior consultant who has trained administrators and teachers in more than 100 districts for the Search Institute, is seeing more and more Title I and Title II money going to training in asset development. “They really see the link between assets and achievement,” he says. Asset development, he adds, is a tool for “engaging those who need to be engaged, whose scores are dragging everyone down.”
The Search Institute works with schools in several ways. For example, it contracts with them to administer a 157-question student survey to determine the current level of assets among students, followed up by focus groups to clarify the survey’s findings. It also trains administrators and staff in asset development; sponsors a listserv for more than 600 communities engaged in asset work; and hosts an annual conference to share strategies that have worked. Schools usually choose one or more assets to work on, using strategies that may include fundraising and community service projects; individual “strength interviews,” in which advisors help students assess their own assets; or monthly relationship-building campaigns featuring banners that read: “Have lunch with me and find out who I am.” Follow-up surveys help school personnel measure progress.
At the heart of this work is the effort to connect children with adults, says Ackerman. “Gates has his R for rigor; ours is for relationships. This is about adults changing so they can be more empowering for kids.”
Building Assets in Alaska
In Alaska, the school board association adopted the asset-development approach in a big way, funneling $2 million per year in funds designated for Native American achievement through No Child Left Behind to school districts and other organizations over a seven-year period for asset-building activities. As the director of child and youth advocacy for the association, Peterson co-wrote a book, Helping Kids Succeed—Alaskan Style, which lists concrete ways that families, schools, religious, tribal, and community organizations can help children develop each of the 40 assets.
While the results are difficult to measure, in Anchorage, the state’s largest district, SAT scores are rising steadily, 17 of 21 Title I schools made AYP last year, and drug use is down compared to the national average. “There are a lot of good things to point to,” says Sally Rue, director of the Alaska Initiative for Community Engagement at the Association of Alaska School Boards.
Principal Darrell Vincek of the Willard L. Bowman Elementary School in Anchorage infuses asset-building into almost everything the school does. Every year at Bowman, staffers participate in “silent mentoring,” an activity that begins with writing the name of every student on a paper star and posting it on “The Wall of Stars.” Staffers then post their own names on stickies next to the name of any child with whom they have a significant relationship—someone they connect with on a regular basis or who could be counted on to come to them with a problem.
“What we found,” says Vincek, “is that some kids have lots of adults in their lives, and there are kids in our building that nobody has a relationship with. Nobody!” Every staff member volunteers to check in with one or two of these students by striking up a casual conversation periodically.
Students are also asked to write a letter every quarter to one significant adult at Bowman to thank that adult for “being a presence in their lives.” Students deliver the letters to recipients, and copies are posted in the hallways. Staffers who get letters are often in tears, while those who don’t get any or get only a few—well, it’s a chance for a little self-reflection, says Vincek.
In a 2005 survey, 35 percent of Bowman students strongly agreed that “adults in my community support this school,” compared with 15 percent districtwide. Forty percent strongly agreed that “there is at least one adult at this school whom I feel comfortable talking to about things that are bothering me,” compared with 27 percent districtwide.
“We know if kids are connected to schools, they are going to do better, they are going to get their homework in,” says Vincek. “These things don’t take a lot of time.”
Engagement Levels, Relationship Plans
At the Search Institute, it’s Roberts’s job to train administrators and teachers how to do things differently in the time they have with students. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Based on his observations, Roberts classified six levels of ability among teachers to engage their students, ranging from the simple “Good morning, how are you?” to higher levels of involvement that give teachers the leverage to influence achievement and other good outcomes for kids. He encourages teachers to take a personal interest in each student, to find out their interests and aspirations, strengths, and talents. The most advanced teachers keep in touch with students over time, he says.
Roberts also works with teachers to make “relationship plans” in addition to regular lesson plans in order to identify potential barriers to connecting with certain students. “You need to get close, very close to those who you think will be the most difficult right away,” he advises, “because when you need to discipline them—and you will—they will think you’re doing it because you like them. The tendency is to do the opposite.”
One reason why educators could be reluctant to get closer to students is explained by a call one Alaska superintendent received from a former student in South Dakota. The student had tracked the superintendent down at his new job in a district on a small island in Alaska to tell him that the student’s brother had died. At the end of the conversation, the young man asked, “When are you coming back?”
“There are wonderful, wonderful highs with this work, but it can also be painful,” the superintendent notes.
Meanwhile, Peterson continues weaving his web in Arizona, where the state school board association is working on a youth development project similar to Alaska’s. “What I am trying to do is create space for very busy people to remember the basic principles of child and youth development,” says Peterson. “This is a common sense–based framework with measurable outcomes so that people can come together with common goals for behavior that we’d like to see in classrooms, families, and communities.”
Nancy Walser is assistant editor of the Harvard Education Letter.