Shifting Perspectives: The Problem with Problem Orientations

During the workshop, participants observed that, in the past few decades, researchers have started to examine why some adolescents in low-income communities successfully navigate environmental challenges, while others, similarly situated, adopt lifestyles characterized by drug use, unprotected sexual behavior, dropping out of school, delinquency, gang membership, and violence. In a similar manner, researchers have sought to identify risk factors that foster problems for youth, as well as patterns of resiliency that protect them from risky lifestyles. This research has emphasized the need to examine the ''whole'' youth (a concept that describes the assets as well as the deficits of individual adolescents), rather than isolating selected problem behaviors associated with youth in difficult circumstances.

The emphasis on the whole youth has led to a new appreciation of the importance of physical and social settings on adolescent development and the ways in which positive as well as negative influences within these settings foster or inhibit constructive adult-youth interactions. Such research has stimulated interest in recognizing how adolescents themselves perceive role models of successful adult behavior, how they protect themselves during periods of danger or uncertainty, and how they seek out individuals or groups that constitute community assets capable of helping them become productive members of society. The settings approach has also stimulated interest in the influence that ethnicity or group networks can exercise in facilitating or discouraging the ways in which youth connect with the world of adults.

The workshop participants observed that many researchers engaged in these studies have grown dissatisfied with the constraints imposed by the problem



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--> Shifting Perspectives: The Problem with Problem Orientations During the workshop, participants observed that, in the past few decades, researchers have started to examine why some adolescents in low-income communities successfully navigate environmental challenges, while others, similarly situated, adopt lifestyles characterized by drug use, unprotected sexual behavior, dropping out of school, delinquency, gang membership, and violence. In a similar manner, researchers have sought to identify risk factors that foster problems for youth, as well as patterns of resiliency that protect them from risky lifestyles. This research has emphasized the need to examine the ''whole'' youth (a concept that describes the assets as well as the deficits of individual adolescents), rather than isolating selected problem behaviors associated with youth in difficult circumstances. The emphasis on the whole youth has led to a new appreciation of the importance of physical and social settings on adolescent development and the ways in which positive as well as negative influences within these settings foster or inhibit constructive adult-youth interactions. Such research has stimulated interest in recognizing how adolescents themselves perceive role models of successful adult behavior, how they protect themselves during periods of danger or uncertainty, and how they seek out individuals or groups that constitute community assets capable of helping them become productive members of society. The settings approach has also stimulated interest in the influence that ethnicity or group networks can exercise in facilitating or discouraging the ways in which youth connect with the world of adults. The workshop participants observed that many researchers engaged in these studies have grown dissatisfied with the constraints imposed by the problem

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--> orientation in research on adolescent behavior. The problem orientation imposes a deficit model that often masks the personal, family, or community strengths that constitute social assets to help youth navigate through troubled times. It leads to fragmentation in studying youth, placing greater emphasis on negative behaviors to the detriment of positive developments, and it can discourage collaborative efforts to identify common origins for problems that may co-occur among youth. Researchers have noted that the problem orientation has discouraged a search for measures that can assess positive developments in youth outcomes, in contrast to the negative measures that are often cited in media reports and studies of adolescent behavior. The limitations of the problem-oriented perspective are also reflected in the fragmentation of numerous federal programs that address the needs of delinquent and at-risk youth. The President's Crime Prevention Council, for example, identified 50 separate federal programs that help communities help their youth, including major programs such as the Job Corps, the Summer Youth Employment and Training Program, community policing, programs for educationally disadvantaged children, and the Public Housing Urban Revitalization Program (President's Crime Prevention Council, 1995). The General Accounting Office (GAO) has identified 131 programs administered by 16 different departments and other agencies that seek to benefit at-risk or delinquent youth, the costs of which exceeded $4 billion in fiscal year 1995 (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1996). The creation of numerous federal programs to address the needs of youth within disadvantaged communities has raised questions about program efficiency, overlap, and duplication of effort (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1996). The GAO report concluded that Congress may want to reexamine the structure of these programs because many of them target the same clients, share the same goal, and provide similar services. The efforts of some private foundations represent alternatives to problem-oriented approaches in responding to the needs of youth in disadvantaged communities. Many of these programs are designed to improve the social settings of at-risk youth through comprehensive neighborhood initiatives, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Community Change for Youth Development project, the Ford Foundation's Neighborhood and Family Initiative and Quantum Opportunities Program, and the Foundation for Child Development's Neighborhood Research Grants Program. Although evaluations of the impact of these programs are limited, they represent an important body of experience in testing new models of community partnership and youth participation.