Introduction

Concerns about the increasing involvement of many adolescents in high-risk behaviors have prompted a search for strategies and approaches that can guide youth away from unhealthy and unsafe practices and engage them in becoming productive members of society. This search has revealed many uncertainties in understanding how teenagers negotiate critical transitions, such as from school-to-work and from child to parent, the formation of self-identity, and the selection of life options. In situations in which communities must struggle with the problems of poverty, crime, drugs, and other negative influences, some youth are able to connect with social and economic networks that can help them become successful and productive adults. Others never gain access to or turn away from such networks.

In seeking to explain these variations in adolescent development, researchers have focused traditionally on personal characteristics, family relationships, and peer friendships. Such lines of inquiry suggest that these factors interact across multiple dimensions to influence youth outcomes. More recently, research scholars have noted that social settings represent a whole new area that has largely been ignored in traditional scholarship. The recent emphasis on social settings in youth development research has stimulated new lines of research inquiry and research methods designed to explore how individual, family, and peer relationships and outcomes are influenced by factors such as physical environment, economic opportunity structures, and ethnic and social networks, especially in urban areas characterized by concentrated poverty. Scholars are investigating relationships between types and density of social interactions, youth perceptions of positive and negative influences within their social and physical environments,



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--> Introduction Concerns about the increasing involvement of many adolescents in high-risk behaviors have prompted a search for strategies and approaches that can guide youth away from unhealthy and unsafe practices and engage them in becoming productive members of society. This search has revealed many uncertainties in understanding how teenagers negotiate critical transitions, such as from school-to-work and from child to parent, the formation of self-identity, and the selection of life options. In situations in which communities must struggle with the problems of poverty, crime, drugs, and other negative influences, some youth are able to connect with social and economic networks that can help them become successful and productive adults. Others never gain access to or turn away from such networks. In seeking to explain these variations in adolescent development, researchers have focused traditionally on personal characteristics, family relationships, and peer friendships. Such lines of inquiry suggest that these factors interact across multiple dimensions to influence youth outcomes. More recently, research scholars have noted that social settings represent a whole new area that has largely been ignored in traditional scholarship. The recent emphasis on social settings in youth development research has stimulated new lines of research inquiry and research methods designed to explore how individual, family, and peer relationships and outcomes are influenced by factors such as physical environment, economic opportunity structures, and ethnic and social networks, especially in urban areas characterized by concentrated poverty. Scholars are investigating relationships between types and density of social interactions, youth perceptions of positive and negative influences within their social and physical environments,

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--> and ways in which these relationships and perceptions are associated with the emergence of problem behaviors within communities (such as crime, gangs, substance abuse, child maltreatment, and teenage pregnancy). Although this field of study is relatively young and lacks well-established theories and comprehensive data sets, research on social setting factors and adolescent development has significant implications for the design and evaluation of programs that serve youth. An emphasis on social settings compels service providers to move beyond a perspective that focuses on the deficits of today's youth (such as delinquency, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and violence) and to examine the density and quality of social interactions as well as demographic features and economic measures in assessing a community's resources. The emphasis on social context has stimulated a new agenda for program development and evaluation, one that stresses the importance of knowing how, when, and where adolescents interact with their families, peers, and unrelated adults in settings such as home, employment, recreation, and education. Research on social settings has spurred interest in describing and explaining how the diverse strategies used by youth, families, neighborhoods, and ethnic groups reflect their efforts to deal with conditions of instability, adversity, limited resources, and social change. The emerging research has also called attention to the importance of understanding how youth themselves perceive assets and deficits within their social settings, including their perceptions of schooling, appropriate peers, and reference groups. Finally, the research on social settings has highlighted the need to integrate the youth development research literature with other research on community development and community organization (in the fields of economics, urban studies, anthropology, and sociology, for example) so that knowledge can inform efforts to build communities that are supportive and protective of their youth and families. For these reasons, the Board on Children, Youth, and Families was asked by the Administration for Children and Families to convene a Committee on Youth Development to determine the need for an ongoing review of the research base that could contribute to a broad range of governmental and private foundation youth initiatives. The committee was asked specifically to examine research that could inform the development of comprehensive, community-wide initiatives intended to improve the life trajectories of at-risk youth in economically poor areas.