Who are at-risk youth?
In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report, A Nation at Risk. Since then, the term at- risk has been used to identify specific social- psychological problems that limit many young peoples potential for becoming responsible and productive adults.
Unfortunately, the term at-risk youth has taken on such broad connotations that it must be specifically defined to be useful. In the current context, at-risk youth are those who have some of the following characteristics: live in chronic poverty, go to a poor school, have poor eating habits, have poor school performance, are in a negative peer group, have poor social skills, use drugs themselves or are with a caregiver who does, live in a bad neighborhood (drugs, violence, lack of things to do, low community support), or have a family situation characterized by stress, excessive work load and hours, depressed caregiver, lack of structure and rules, poor parenting skills, or negative role models. These are necessarily general, but they are illustrative.
Risk falls along a continuum. Having one or two risk factors would likely place a child in the minimal- or remote-risk category. A high-risk child, for example, might be one who goes to a poor school, hangs out with a bad crowd, is aggressive, and does gateway drugs such as smoking or alcohol. A child at imminent risk, for example, might be one who engages in early sexual behavior, has been in legal trouble, has dropped out of school, and may be entering the early stages of obesity.
What do they really need to succeed?
After more than 30 years of scientific study of over one million children, we know that two-thirds of moderate to high at risk youth will fall by the wayside and experience one or more of a host of negative outcomes. We also know what separates one-third who make it from the two-thirds who don't. The children who make it are said to be resilient and the study of resiliency has yielded a core set of characteristics that matter above all others.
Those fundamental personal assets are: general self-efficacy (independence and/or self-confidence), hope & goals (future sense of self), positive peer influence, self-esteem, social skills (responsibility, empathy, cooperation, assertiveness, & interpersonal skill), the ability to delay gratification/have impulse control/be restrained, and a tolerance for stress.
Outside of the school system, which often fails children from lower socio-economic areas, it is up to the family, church, community, and dedicated mentors to provide these resiliency elements. Targeting the community, mentor, and family domains, a unique and powerful opportunity to be a force in at-risk youth's lives has been created.