Adolescence – the middle and high school years – marks a distinct shift in child development. A lot of development has already taken place by this point, leading to habits and beliefs that are now less modifiable. Children become more autonomous, making more choices for themselves about what interests them, who their friends are, how they will spend their time, and so on. More autonomy and choices bring more complexity and ambiguity. The certainties of childhood fade away as self-responsibility increases.
Most adolescents make their way through this uncertain time successfully, although doubts and temporary setbacks are common. But, for those growing up under less advantaged circumstances, who often have fewer and less effective resources and supports, the challenges of adolescence can be especially daunting and lead to setbacks with life-defining consequences. Out of the 15,000 middle and high schoolers in Sangamon County, an estimated 3,900 (26 percent) are less advantaged.
The Adolescent Brain
Part of the reason adolescence is difficult lies in the fact that the brain develops unevenly during the teen years. On the one hand, cognitive development slows during adolescence. In strictly cognitive terms, adolescents are about as capable as adults of making judgments and decisions. On the other hand, the social-emotional function of the brain is not nearly as mature, making adolescents more impulsive, sensation-seeking, and sensitive to the opinions of others.
Peer conformity looms large among teenagers, increasing their brain-based vulnerability to believing that attributes, such as intelligence and athleticism, are fixed and not changeable. Such beliefs are more likely among less advantaged children who have struggled to succeed in school. Because they don’t believe they are capable academically, they don’t try as hard, leading to less academic success, which, then, only further reinforces the belief. If this persists, adolescents can lose hope in the possibility of a productive and rewarding future.
Research has found, however, that fixed beliefs about ability are amenable to change using a simple motivational strategy. On a day-to-day basis, communicating high academic expectations to all students and communicating sincerely to each student that he or she has the ability to meet those expectations can motivate students with less academic success to try harder and get better results. If this is done consistently, there is reason to think that at least some proportion of less advantaged adolescents who might otherwise fail in school will instead succeed.
Recommendation 21: Middle and high schools in the county and nonprofit agencies that work with adolescents should develop a shared commitment and method to communicating high academic expectations and belief in the ability of individual students, regardless of their prior academic experience, in meeting those expectations. When less advantaged students are surrounded by adults who communicate confidence in their ability to succeed, they are more likely to believe that they can.
Being more intentional about motivating academic effort needs to be coupled with more clarity about the ultimate payoff from that effort. Good grades or test scores may be the near-term objective. But, for less advantaged adolescents who have been conditioned by years of doubt about their future, there has to be a connection between current effort and the career or careers that effort should make possible. Children should begin learning about careers in elementary school, but by middle school this “education” needs to become more focused and in-depth, and in high school the pathways have to become even more sharply defined. College is one pathway, and quicker movement into a viable career is another.
Early College, in which students are able to earn college credit while still in high school, has proven to be an effective way to prepare lower income and minority students to succeed in college. For students more interested in a technical career that may not require a four-year or greater college degree, Career Academies have demonstrated success in keeping students in high school and guiding them into productive careers.
Recommendation 22: Sangamon County high schools should unite in establishing dual credit programs, like Early College, with the range of local institutions of higher education to provide a more powerful incentive for capable and interested less advantaged students to pursue and achieve a college degree. At the same time, high schools should receive support from the community to further develop their career and technical education options, so that every student who remains in high school has a pathway into a useful career.
Motivating academic effort in order to gain entry to college or pursue a career is a critical formula that the community needs to fully embrace beginning in middle school. But, for some proportion of the less advantaged student population, it will likely not be enough. Teenagers who have endured childhoods of prolonged or repeated exposure to stress are more apt to lack the self-control needed to cope with the challenges of adolescence. Increases in stress-related problems during adolescence, such as anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and other forms of anti-social behavior often lead adolescents to drop-out of school, which almost never makes their lives better. Fortunately, there are interventions which have been proven successful in reducing the likelihood of dropping out and increasing the likelihood of persisting in school.
Recommendation 23: Middle and high schools should collaborate with local nonprofits committed to youth development in identifying the most effective strategies and programs for keeping teenagers in school and then working to implement those initiatives.
A good starting point in following through on this recommendation is the program recently launched by Lanphier High School in Springfield, in cooperation with the Urban League, to provide disruptive students with an alternative to suspension. Suspension 2 Redemption (S2R) channels students with discipline problems into supervised in-school and after school suspension activities intended to change student mindsets about being in school. Since the program is new, it warrants close monitoring and evaluation to assess its effectiveness and potential for use in other high schools and middle schools. Another local project with potential for changing outcomes for the most at risk youth is MOSAIC, which focuses on identifying adolescents with social-emotional challenges and getting them the help they need.
Consideration also ought to be given to Check & Connect, a widely replicated, evidence-based program that uses close attention to at risk students’ academic performance to catch and act on problems early. Check & Connect is, essentially, a type of mentoring. Connecting less advantaged students, as necessary, with responsible, caring adults on a consistent basis provides an indispensable source of social support and guidance. This works best when mentors are allied, to the extent practicable, with parents in looking out for a young person’s best interests. Big Brothers, Big Sisters mentoring works effectively in this direction, as does Goodwill GoodGuides mentoring program serving more at risk juveniles.
Recommendation 24: The youth mentoring programs in Sangamon County, with backing from the larger community, should commit to providing an adult mentor to every youth who needs one. No adolescent should be denied the opportunity to develop a supportive relationship with a caring adult, and no adolescent should have to go through adolescence without at least one responsible adult looking out for him or her.
A Community of Support for Teens
Through elementary school, children live their lives in a relatively cohesive community involving their school, their home, and perhaps the block or two around that home. They function, by and large, within narrow boundaries, with older people usually watching out for them. Beginning in middle school, the boundaries expand, and adult monitoring slackens. This change occurs deliberately, in order to allow adolescents to take the beginning steps toward managing their own lives. Adolescents who come from advantage have families and groups that back them up and support them in moving forward. In other words, they have a community that is in step with their needs. Those who come from disadvantage are often left to move forward much more on their own. They either have no supportive community to speak of, or what they do have is lacking. Providing them with that supportive community, as a necessary complement to the efforts of their families, ought to be the overriding aim of all work to help less advantaged adolescents succeed.
Recommendation 25: The four preceding recommendations should constitute elements of a community-wide strategy to support less advantaged middle and high school students. Rather than acting on these recommendations individually, they should be experienced by the adolescents at which they are aimed as a common effort. The less advantaged should be able to benefit from the same kind of community that the advantaged already have.
The creation of a community of support for less advantaged teens should be governed by a shared understanding of what adolescents need, a commitment to doing what works, and a willingness to identify and collectively track measurable objectives related to the progress expected of teenagers. This community should be anchored in the coordinated efforts of all relevant sectors – education, healthcare, social services, employers, and parents.