As a young person moves through the stages of childhood through adolescence, a number of factors related to physical, cognitive, social and emotional development influences them. The period of adolescent is a challenging time for all youth. It is especially a critical time for males. What we know is the challenges are even more amplified for males who are identified as “at-risk” or being in at-risk situationThe term “at risk” is used frequently to describe youth who are less likely to transition successfully into adulthood. The definition of successes in this instance refers to the ability for these youth to achieve academic success, to avoid crime, and become self-sufficient as adults.
It is important to recognize that “at risk” is a concept that does not imply certainty but reflects a chance or a possibility. Research supports that risk factors increases the chance of poor results, while protective factors raise the likelihood of good outcomes for young adolescent males. Protective factors are physiognomies or characteristics within an individual or circumstances in the family, school or community that assist that person in coping successfully with life’s challenges. When an individual can effectively negotiate their problems and deal with pre-existing risk factors, then that individual is less likely to engage in unhealthy behavior. Protective factors are influential in healthy development. They help the individual to build academic and life skills, connections within and outside the immediate family and resiliency. There are a number of factors that contribute to students being labeled as at-risk or being in at-risk situations. Five significant contributing factors used to identify students as being in at-risk situations include:
- Minority and Immigrant Youth
- African-Americans and Latino youth are two groups who face many barriers to self-sufficiency at an alarming rate.
- Youth who come from households with low socio-economic status face a multitude of barriers.
- Family instability
- Youth who experience parental divorce, exposure to domestic violence, criminal or substance abuse within the family structure are typically labeled as being at-risk.
- School Environment
- Schools with limited resources, ineffective school leadership and teacher effectiveness can place students in at-risk situations by failing to prepare them with the needed academic skills to be successful and/or ability to build positive teacher-student connections.
- Community Resources
- Resources for healthy food and physical fitness are often limited and not accessible for these students.
It is important for individuals working with at-risk adolescent males to understand the differences between how males and females learn and how they respond to life’s challenges. This is crucial if we are to provide them with the appropriate interventions and assistance to develop the protective factors needed in order to change their current pathway to success. Some of these differences include:
- Males have different internal motivations than their female counterparts.
- Males and females tend to have different rates of learning.
- Males tend to process information differently than their female counterparts.
- Males often have a different set of standards and tend to evaluate themselves from a different perspective than females do.
- Males and females mature physically at different ages especially during the adolescent period.
Research and best practices support and advocate the keys to success for at-risk adolescent males involve a strengths-based approach that focuses on the three “Rs” – Respect, Reading and Resiliency. RESPECT Respect affects an adolescent male’s school, his family, his friends as well as how he views himself. It is an attitude – an outlook the individual has regarding himself, his parents and others. Respect is one of the most important things our youth should be taught. Unfortunately, there remains a question regarding who should teach them this invaluable life skill. Should it be the parents, school, or the church? Teaching respect is a responsibility, which requires a collaborative effort among and between those involved in the life of the male. It requires appropriate modeling so that he knows what respect looks like, feels like and sounds like in a variety of settings. It involves teaching them respect for parents/guardians, peers, authority, rules, property and most importantly respect for themselves. This must not be a haphazard approach but an intentional endeavor. Self-respect and self-esteem are often used interchangeably, even though they are quite different. At-risk adolescent males are frequently described as having low self-esteem, tend to measure themselves against other peers and against the portrayal of young men as depicted by the media. Regardless of what many people think, males, including at-risk adolescent are very sensitive and their egos can easily be damaged. However, with the right support systems their self-esteem- self-image can be enhanced. What we know is when males including those identified as being in at-risk situations, have a high level of self-respect, it is produced through that male’s positive contributions at home, school or community coupled with his acceptance of himself as an individual who he believes has value. Teaching the young male self-respect – learning to like himself for who he is and not because of what he can or cannot do will have a rippling effect on improving his self-esteem. Learning self-respect serves as a foundation for helping the adolescent male’s commitment to respecting his parents/guardians, teachers, authority figures, rules, and property. Hence, the first R – Respect is crucial to the success of at risk males.
READING There has been a sizeable body of research over the past decade concentrating on the needs, interests, and capacities of adolescents who have trouble with reading. Adolescent males have long been targeted as students experiencing the greatest challenge in the area of literacy. At-risk males have been deemed at the crises level and are more likely than any other group to drop out of school before graduation. They tend to give up on school because they have marginal reading skills that make learning stressful and difficult. Dropping out of high school severely limits the chances of future success for these males. It also deepens and continues the cycle of poverty of which most experience into future generations. Receiving a diploma including becoming proficient readers is a matter of urgency. It serves as the lifeline for at-risk males by which they can lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty. We know that there continues to exist a disproportionately high number of adolescents from poverty-stricken families and/or who are second language learners whose educational and other opportunities are compromised by poor reading skills. The widening gender gap in academic achievement is real and impends the future of young males. The data has been consistent: Adolescent male readers lag behind their female counterparts in literacy skills. This is particularly evident for males identified as at-risks. The stakes are high for at-risk males who read far below grade level. If early appropriate interventions are not put in place, the results are devastating. The good news is we know why they struggle with reading, how to close the achievement gaps that currently exist and how to enable them to become proficient readers. To accomplish this goal each of us may need to reflect upon and answer the question from Ron Edmonds’ famous quote: “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” Parents as well as educators must create opportunities to engage at-risk males and do what is needed to help them become proficient readers. Failing to address this challenge also reflects a glaring social justice issue since the majority of these at-risk males are males of color and will suffer disproportionately as adults if they cannot learn to become competent readers. Addressing their reading deficits will also assist in increasing their educational, occupational, and civic opportunities and ultimately the potential for them to become productive and responsible citizens. RESILENCY Adolescents today live in a world quite different from the world many of us as adults lived as teens. They face increased poverty, exposure to and increased violence and drug use, an increase in gangs, bullying and other criminal activities both inside and outside of the school setting. These circumstances are more often than not amplified for at-risk adolescence males. They may experience difficult and harmful challenges such as poverty, poor nutrition, homelessness, school mobility, and family or neighborhood violence. These distinctive risk factors influences a student’s ability to be successful both within and outside of the school setting. Building resilience – the ability to adjust well to adversity, trauma, threats and tragedy is a life skill critical to the success for these young men. The ability to survive difficult situations and thrive despite these challenges arises from the skills of resilience. Resilience involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned over time. While there is not a single definition for the term resilience, its definition is grounded in an individual’s ability to access protective mechanisms that alter how he/she might respond to situations that involve risks. Rutter (1987) described resilience as the ability to adjust one’s circumstances while facing negative life events and to exhibit a positive role in stress and adversity. Since we know risk factors increases the chance of poor results, and protective factors raise the likelihood of good outcomes for young adolescent males, then helping them identify and develop protective factors often referred to as resiliency skills is a key component to creating successful pathways for them. Teaching them resiliency skills will help them adapt and move forward despite the challenge they face or the limitations of the resources available to them. Increasing resilience for these young men requires continued nurturing from the family, school and community. What we know is that when any young person has strong relational connections in their homes, schools, and communities then they will also have higher educational aspirations. This will also be the case for at-risk adolescent males. Studies support youth are more resilient when they have strong connections to families, schools, and communities, live in safe and stable environments and are able to develop appropriate social and cognitive skills. While each at-risk young man is unique and is impacted by his own unique circumstances or risk factors counteracting factors must be strengthening at the individual, family, and community levels and requires a collaborative effort. Changing the current bleak trajectory for at-risk males requires commitment and investment in high quality strength-based approaches based on best practices for intense academic interventions, instituting continual monitoring, addressing emotional and social learning, facilitating mentoring and incorporating the meaningful engagement of parents/guardians, families, schools and the community. Given the right opportunities and necessary investment, at risk adolescent males can achieve success in school and enjoy a meaningful and self-sufficient life. Lots of resources for interventions and strategies available via books and website resources that can foster resiliency, reading and respect successfully in at-risk youth, particularly our young males. Good News – A new innovative comprehensive gender-based curriculum is now available. The MAN-UP” Institute Guide (Motivating Attitudes that Nurture an Understanding of your Potential) offers an innovative strengths-based approach to creating positive pathways for at-risk adolescent males. This guide addresses the three Rs and more. The guide provides a proactive strengths-based approach that addresses the three Rs (Respect, Reading, Resiliency) and other critical areas such as life, college and career readiness skills. The guide provides a user-friendly visually appealing content and the flexibility of implementing the program beyond the school hours to civic, business and faith base organizations or implementation within the family structure. It is not intended to replace academic content but to serve as an enhancement and/or intervention program to address areas of gap for the at-risk adolescent male. The defining question remains: “Are we willing and committed enough to serve as advocates for our at-risk adolescent males by addressing the critical areas – three Rs that are the keys to their success?”