Adolescence is a pivotal period for youth to acquire the attitudes, competencies, values, and social connections that will help carry them forward to successful adulthood. As described in Chapter 1, some young people do very well during this time; others experience gaps in their lives that lead to risky and harmful behaviors. Understanding how to characterize positive adolescent development was a fundamental aspect of the committee’s work.
This section has three goals: Chapter 2 provides an overview of adolescent development; Chapter 3 summarizes what is known about the personal and social assets that are likely to be linked to both well-being during adolescence and the transition into adulthood; and Chapter 4 explores what the daily settings and experiences of adolescents need to include in order to promote the acquisition of these assets and function as a positive developmental setting. In our view, a good understanding of these topics is important in the design and evaluation of community programs for youth. These programs are intended to both support positive development and prevent involvement in problematic behaviors likely to mortgage a youth’s future. To accomplish these aspirations, program designers and evaluators need to be guided by what is known about development during adolescence as well as about resilience more generally. They also need to be guided by what is known about the kinds of social experiences that facilitate positive development.
Scientists and program providers have suggested a number of core human needs, attributes, and both personal and social assets that can facilitate adolescents’ present well-being, reduce their risk-taking, and increase the likelihood of their successful future transitions. Development occurs over time, with experiences in the present being critical for both current well-being and future success. From research in this area, the committee developed a set of core concepts:
The acquisition of personal and social assets—in the domains of physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional, and social development—leads to positive adolescent development.
Adolescents with more personal and social assets in each of these areas have a greater chance of both current well-being and future success.
Personal and social assets are enhanced by positive developmental settings.
What do the daily settings and experiences of adolescents need to include in order to promote the acquisition of these assets and function as a positive developmental setting? Based on theories of positive development and empirical research on features of settings, the committee developed a list of eight features of settings that promote adolescent development: physical and psychological safety; appropriate structure; supportive relationships; opportunities to belong; positive social norms; support for efficacy and mattering; opportunities for skill building; and opportunities for integration among family, schools, and community efforts. Research shows that the more settings that adolescents experience reflecting these features, the more likely they are to acquire the personal and social assets linked to both current and future well-being.
There are a variety of settings in which adolescents’ can experience the opportunities needed for positive development. Young people need continuous exposure to positive experiences, settings, and people, as well as abundant opportunities to refine their life skills so that they have the means to move into productive jobs and other roles that build fulfilling relationships. Some youth live in families and neighborhoods that ensure these experiences; others live in environments in which community programs are necessary to ensure them.
What do you think of when you imagine an adolescent? Although some people picture a helpful, well-functioning young person, others envision a gangly, awkward, brooding, and troublesome individual. Even parents and teachers sometimes bemoan the changes that occur as their children move into and through adolescence. Elementary school-age children are seen as cute, cooperative, and ready to learn. In contrast, adolescents are often seen as problems waiting to happen. Until recently, researchers shared this view. Historically, this period of life was labeled by developmental scientists as a time of storm and stress (Arnett, 1999). Although we now know that most young people pass into and through adolescence with few major problems, some find this a very difficult period of life (Arnett, 1999; Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1989; Eccles et al., 1993; Moffitt, 1993; Rutter and Smith, 1995).
Many developmental scientists, policy makers, and practitioners working with youth believe that enhancing the lives of adolescents with positive opportunities and experiences could reduce the likelihood and magnitude of these problems (e.g., Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1989; Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, 1998a; Dryfoos,
1996; Eccles et al., 1993; Jessor, 1993, 1998; Larson, 1994, 2000; Lerner and Galambos, 1998; Lerner et al., 2000; Lipsitz, et al., 1997; Metropolitan Life, 1994; Pittman et al., 2000b; Roth, 1996; Quinn, 1999). In this chapter, we provide an overview of what is known about development during the years from 10 to 18 so that individuals interested in community programs for youth have an accurate understanding of whom adolescents are and what they need as they design, fund, operate, and evaluate programs.
What is adolescent development really like? There is no doubt that it is a time of great change on many levels. Probably most dramatic are the biological changes associated with puberty, which include shifts in the shape of the body, increases in gonadol hormones, emergence of cyclical patterns of gonadol and related hormonal systems in females, onset of fertility, and changes in brain architecture and the receptivity of neurons to a variety of chemicals (Brooks-Gunn and Reiter, 1990; Buchanan et al., 1992; Gubba et al., 2000; Herbert and Martinez, 2001). These biological transitions are linked to changes in sexual interest, as well as to changes in both cognitive and physical capacities and emotional well-being. There are also major social changes associated with both school transitions and shifts in the roles that adolescents are expected to assume as they mature. Finally, there are major psychological changes linked to increasing social and cognitive maturity. In fact, few developmental periods are characterized by so many changes at so many different levels.
Adolescence is also a time when individuals in most Western and postindustrialized cultures make many choices and experiment with a wide variety of behaviors and experiences that can influence the rest of their lives (Brown and Corbett, forthcoming; Mortimer and Larson, 2002). For example, adolescents select which peer groups to join and how to spend their after-school hours. Adolescents make future educational and occupational plans and then pursue them through secondary school course work and out-of-school vocational and volunteer activities. Finally, some youth experiment with risky behaviors, such as tobacco use, alcohol and other drug use, and unprotected nonmarital sexual intercourse. For some of these youth, the experimentation has few or no long-term consequences; for others, this experimentation seriously compromises their future (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1989; National Research Council, 1999c; Cairns and Cairns, 1994; Cicchetti and Toth, 1996; Elder and Conger, 2000; Jessor et al., 1991; Moffitt, 1993; Steinberg and Morris, 2001). Given the influence that these choices and behaviors can have over future life options, it is critical to understand
what influences whether young people stay on healthy, productive pathways or move onto more problematic, and potentially destructive ones as they pass through this important life stage.
DEVELOPMENTAL CHALLENGES, OPPORTUNITIES, AND RISKS
Many theorists have proposed systematic ways to think about the developmental challenges, opportunities, and risks of this period of life. Historically, most prominent among these was Eric Erikson (1968). Integrating adolescence into his more general life-span model of development (see Appendix A), he suggested that the specific challenges for children between ages 10 and 18 are: developing a sense of mastery, identity, and intimacy. Others have expanded these challenges to include autonomy, sexuality, and achievement (e.g., Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1989; Havinghurst, 1972). In many cultural groups, these challenges translate into the following more specific tasks: (1) changing the nature of the relationship between young people and their parents so youth can take on a more mature role in the social fabric of their community (among white Americans this change often takes the form of greater independence from parents and greater decision-making power over one’s own current and future behavior; in other cultures, this change can take the form of greater responsibility for family support and increased participation in family decision making; in all cultures this change typically results in starting one’s own family and becoming integrated into the mainstream adult community); (2) exploring new personal, social, and sexual roles and identities; (3) transforming peer relationships into deeper friendships and intimate partnerships; and (4) participating in a series of experiences and choices that facilitate future economic independence and interdependence.
As made clear by many scientists interested in adolescence, each of these tasks is played out in an increasingly complex set of social settings and in both cultural and historical settings (e.g., Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 1998; Cairns and Cairns, 1994; Eccles et al., 1993; Elder, 1998; Elder and Conger, 2000; Elliott, et al., 1996; Erikson, 1968; Jessor and Jessor, 1977; Lerner and Galambos, 1998; Moffitt, 1993; Rutter and Smith, 1995; Steinberg and Morris, 2001). Optimal progress on each of these tasks depends on the psychosocial, physical, and cognitive assets of the individual, the social supports available to the individual, and the
developmental appropriateness of the each of the social settings encountered by young people as they pass through adolescence.
With rapid change of course comes a heightened potential for both positive and negative outcomes. Although most individuals pass through this developmental period without excessively high levels of storm and stress, a substantial number do experience difficulty (see Chapter 1). Involvement with criminal and antisocial behavior accelerates dramatically between the ages of 10 and 15, as does drug and alcohol use and sexual interactions (see Cicchetti and Toth, 1996; Eccles et al., 1996a; Moffitt, 1993; Steinberg and Morris, 2001). The incidence of mental health problems and more general alienation also increases, particularly in modern, postindustrialized societies (Giddens, 1990; Eccles et al., 1996a; Rutter and Smith, 1995). Finally, rates of school disengagement and school failure in the United States increase (see Eccles et al., 1998, for a review). Many of these changes begin during the earliest years of adolescent development—between the ages of 10 and 14. In turn, these early changes set in motion problems that can culminate in subsequent school failure, high school dropout, incarceration, and teen pregnancy— any one of which can have serious consequences for young people’s future (Jessor et al., 1991; Sampson and Laub, 1995).
With specific regard to the developmental tasks of adolescence outlined above, there are several concrete risks. First, renegotiation of the relationship with one’s parents can be so turbulent that a permanent rift and alienation between youth and their families emerges. Second, adolescents can get so caught up with a deviant peer group and its behaviors and values that they get involved in behaviors and circumstances that seriously endanger their ability to make a successful transition into mainstream adulthood. Third, adolescents can fail to make social connections with the kinds of adults and social institution that can help them make the transition into mainstream adulthood. Fourth, educational opportunities can be so limited that some adolescents fail to acquire the intellectual and soft skills needed to move successfully into the labor market. Fifth, experiences with civic engagement and social institutions can be so minimal or so poorly designed that some adolescents fail to develop either the will or the skills necessary to participate fully as adult community members. Finally, experiences of racism, prejudice, and cultural intolerance can so alienate some adolescents that they withdraw from or rebel against, mainstream society and conventional social institutions.
Community programs for youth have the potential to play a critical role during this developmental period. Evidence from several sources
supports the conclusion that participation in constructive and supportive programs during out-of-school hours both encourages positive development in many areas and reduces the likelihood of engagement in problematic behaviors. These programs can remediate deficiencies in skills already evident by early adolescence, teach new intellectual and soft skills critical for high school success and movement into jobs that provide sufficient income to support a family, provide intellectually challenging experiences to foster continued cognitive development, support continued positive socioemotional development, help establish strong social connections between the kinds of individuals and social institutions that help youth both to be conventionally successful during their adolescence and to make a successful transition into adulthood, provide a place to meet peers with positive social values and a positive vision of their futures, and provide a place where adolescents can feel accepted and can explore both their personal and social identities without having to continually confront racism and cultural intolerance (e.g., Barber et al., in press; Blum et al., 2000; Larson, 2000; Vandell and Posner, 1999; Eccles and Barber, 1999; Furstenberg et al., 1999; Elder and Conger, 2000; see Chapters 4, 5, and 6 for more details).
But such programs need to be developmentally, as well as culturally, appropriate to achieve these goals. As we discuss in more detail in the following sections, youth of different ages are likely to benefit from different experiences. During the years between 10 and 14, they are experiencing the most dramatic biological changes and are most susceptible to peer influence. During this time they also typically experience the transition from elementary school to secondary school, and conflicts with parents peak. Finally, they are just beginning to have the cognitive capacity to engage in formal reasoning. Programs for this age group need to take these characteristics into account. Developmental theory and the empirical evidence reviewed in Chapters 3 and 4 suggest the following kinds of programmatic needs for this age group:
Educational programs that:
Help young adolescents and their parents understand the biological changes they are experiencing;
Make sure young adolescents have the academic skills necessary to take and succeed in college preparatory secondary school courses; and
Provide sufficient intellectual challenge that young adolescents can learn to use formal reasoning skills effectively.
Social and communication skill training programs that:
Help them learn to resist negative peer pressures and to communicate better with their parents about such issues as sexuality, negative peer pressures, and the health risks of drug and alcohol use.
Career planning activities that:
Expose young adolescents to a wide range of possible careers, help them to develop high expectations for themselves about their future, and provide them with the information needed to begin to make appropriate educational choices that will help them achieve their future aspirations.
Respect young adolescents’ growing maturity by providing opportunities for meaningful inputs into program development and governance.
Evidence reviewed later in this report suggests that, as youth get older, the family conflicts common to the early adolescent years decrease, susceptibility to peer influence decreases, and both personal and social identity concerns increase, particularly those related to occupational, sexual, and ethnic identities. In addition, the biological systems stabilize, cognitive skills increase, and expertise in a variety of areas grows. Programs for older youth need to change in ways that reflect their growing maturity and expertise, the new courses they are taking in high school, their increasing cognitive capacities, their increased concerns about identity issues, and their movement toward the transition into adulthood. Again, developmental theory and empirical evidence suggest the following kinds of programs for older youth:
Educational programs that:
Provide tutoring for college preparatory courses;
Teach about multiple cultures; and
Help youth learn skills needed to navigate across multiple cultural settings.
Play an increasing role as mentors of younger adolescents and to be leaders in an organization.
Career-related experiences in a variety of occupational settings and career planning activities that:
Help them begin to focus their educational and career goals in ways more directly related to their emerging personal identities.
A complete review of the biological changes associated with puberty is beyond the scope of this report, but, given the centrality of these changes, it is important to provide a brief overview (see Adams et al., 1989; Brooks-Gunn and Reiter, 1990; Brooks-Gunn et al., 1994; Buchanan et al., 1992; Caspi et al., 1993; National Research Council, 1999a). As a result of the activation of the hormones controlling pubertal development, most children undergo a growth spurt, develop primary and secondary sex characteristics, become fertile, and experience increased sexual libido during early adolescence. Recently researchers have studied exactly how the hormonal changes occurring at early adolescence (ages 9 to 13) relate to changes in behavior (e.g., see Buchanan et al., 1992; Petersen and Taylor, 1980). There is some evidence for direct effects of hormones on such behaviors as aggression, heightened sexual feelings, and mood swings (e.g., Albert et al., 1993; Brooks-Gunn et al., 1994; Buchanan et al., 1992; Caspi and Moffitt, 1991; Olweus et al., 1988; Sussman et al., 1987; Udry et al., 1986). However, these relations are quite complex, with hormones and other biological systems interacting in complex ways with both social behavior and genetic predispositions to influence behaviors; the direct effects of hormones are often overridden by social experiences (e.g., see Kendler and Karkowski-Shuman, 1997; Haggerty et al., 1994a; Robins and Robertson, 1998; Silberg et al., in press). To make matters even more complex, behaviors and experience, in turn, influence the hormonal systems in quite complex ways, including even the timing of the onset of menarche (Goodyer, 1997; Graber et al., 1995).
Because the hormonal changes are most dramatic and more irregular during the early adolescent period, some developmental scientists have suggested that young adolescents are particularly susceptible to these
biological influences (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1989). The actual evidence for this suggestion is minimal due to paucity of relevant research (see Buchanan et al., 1992). But this suggestion is consistent with evidence that many of the mood and behavioral changes most often hypothesized to be related to the hormonal changes associated with puberty are most marked during the early adolescent years (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1989; Moffitt, 1993).
Equally critical for this report is the issue of individual and group differences in both the rates and types of changes in these hormonal systems and individual differences in the reactions to these changes. Both current and previous life events and genetically linked vulnerabilities and propensities affect adolescents’ reactions to the hormonal changes occurring particularly during early and middle adolescence (Caspi and Moffitt, 1991; Graber and Brooks-Gunn, in press; Gubba et al., 2000; Rutter et al., 1997; Silberg et al., in press). The nature of these interactions suggests that early adolescents living in high-risk settings may be more prone to the problematic effects of changes in the gonadol and adrenal hormone systems associated with late childhood and early adolescence.
There are, of course, also sex differences in the nature of pubertal change. The hormonal changes associated with puberty are different for girls and boys: levels of testosterone increase more in boys, while levels of estrogen and progesterone increase more in girls. In addition, girls develop a monthly cycle of gonadol hormones; for the most part, boys do not. It has been suggested that the sex differences associated with the emergence of depression, eating disorders, and aggression may be linked to these differences in patterns of hormonal changes associated with pubertal development. But evidence suggests that the origins of both sex differences and individual differences more generally in these mood and behaviors patterns lie in complex interactions between experience, life events, intensified gender role socialization, genetically linked vulnerabilities, and changes in hormonal systems (Buchanan et al., 1992; Goodyer, 1995; Graber and Brooks-Gunn, in press b; Keel et al., 1997; Kendler and Karkowski-Shuman, 1997; Kessler et al., 1993; Petersen et al., 1991; Rutter et al., 1997; Silberg et al., in press; Wichstrom, 1999; Zahn-Waxler et al., in press). Each of these authors stresses that we are just beginning to understand the nature of these interactions and therefore encourages cautious interpretation of simplistic models of the role of hormones in accounting for sex differences in moods or behaviors.
There are also sex and ethnic group differences in the timing of puberty. In general, pubertal changes begin 12 to 18 months earlier for
girls than for boys—a fact that is likely to affect social interactions between males and females of the same age, particularly during the early years of adolescence. In addition, pubertal changes begin about 15 months earlier in black females than in white females (Herman-Giddens et al., 1997; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1999a). As a result, anyone working with 6th graders will immediately notice major differences in the physical maturity between girls and boys, as well as among groups of girls. Many females at this age look and act like fully mature young women. In contrast, most of the males still look and act like boys. The impact of these differences on the development of early adolescents is likely to vary by cultural group, depending on beliefs and norms about appropriate roles for physically mature individuals, appropriate sexual activities, and ideals related to female and male beauty. Such differences also have implications for the design of developmentally appropriate experiences for early adolescent girls and boys of different racial or ethnic groups in community programs. Girls will need educational programs related to puberty and fertility change earlier than boys. Girls are also likely to need places in which to discuss family interactions and concerns about their changing bodies at a younger age than boys are, and black girls are likely to need these experiences at a younger age than white girls.
There are also major individual differences in the timing of puberty within each sex and racial/ethnic group—some children begin their pubertal changes earlier than others (Stattin and Magnusson, 1990). The timing of pubertal development has major implications for many aspects of life. Once again, cultural beliefs and norms are likely to influence the meaning of early maturation for both girls and boys, so the implications of pubertal timing for youth programming will differ across groups. For example, among white populations, early maturation tends to be advantageous for boys, particularly with respect to their participation in sports activities and social standing in school. In contrast, early maturation is often problematic for white girls—being linked to increased rates of eating disorders, depression, and involvement in a variety of problematic behaviors (Caspi and Moffitt, 1991; Flannery et al., 1993; Ge X et al., 1996b; Graber and Brooks-Gunn, in press; Silbereisen et al., 1989; Simmons and Blyth, 1987; Stattin and Magnusson, 1990). Interestingly, these problematic correlates of early puberty are not as evident in black populations (Michaels and Eccles, 2001; Simmons and Blyth, 1987). We do not know about the strength of association for other racial/ethnic groups. Although we do not yet understand the origins of these ethnic
group differences, it has been suggested that early pubertal maturation may be particularly problematic for white American girls, because the kinds of physical changes girls experience with puberty (such as gaining weight) are not highly valued by many white Americans, who seem instead to value the slim, androgynous female body characteristic of white fashion models (see Petersen, 1998; Simmons and Blyth, 1987). In fact, early-maturing white females have lower self-esteem and more difficulty adjusting to school transitions, particularly the transition from elementary to junior high school than later-maturing white girls, white boys in general, and both black girls and boys (e.g., Eccles et al., 1996b; Simmons and Blyth, 1987). These results suggest that youth-serving organizations should be especially sensitive of the need to design programs that will support self-esteem and prevent depression and eating disorders for early-developing white adolescents.
Early maturation can also lead to increased sexual attention from boys and men, which can be quite difficult for adolescent girls to handle. Programs designed to help girls deal with these pressures would be especially useful during the early adolescent years. The need for such programs is made even more salient by the work of Magnusson and Stattin (Magnusson, 1988; Stattin and Magnusson, 1990).
Magnusson and Stattin traced the long-term consequences of early maturation in a population of Swedish females. The early-maturing girls in this study obtained less education and married earlier than their later-maturing female peers. These researchers attributed this difference to the fact that the early-maturing females were more likely to be recruited into older peer groups and to begin dating older males; in turn, as these girls got older, they were more likely to drop out of school and get married, perhaps because school achievement was not valued by their peer social network, while early entry into the job market and early marriage were (Magnusson, 1988; Stattin and Magnusson, 1990).
Although this study focused on Swedish youth, it clearly illustrates the fact that pubertal changes influence individual development as much through their impact on social roles and social interactions as through their direct impact on the mind and body of the individual. Because these girls looked more mature, they were recruited into an older peer group. In turn, participating in older peer groups created a particular set of experiences that had long-term consequences for individual development.
Similar processes are now being studied in other groups. For example, there is growing concern about the ways in which adults change
their interaction style with black boys as these boys’ bodies mature. Teachers and adults on the street react with more fear and avoidance of black boys as they begin to look more like men (Spencer, 1995; Spencer et al., 1998). Similarly, the body changes associated with puberty may lead to increased pressure to join gangs in communities in which gangs are a major form of peer interaction. As discussed throughout this report, community programs have the potential to provide alternative settings that reduce such pressures and negative experiences. Such programs are particularly important during the early adolescent years, when young people do not have the social and emotional maturity to cope well with these kinds of pressures.
Directly linked to the biological changes associated with puberty are the changes in both body architecture and emotions related to sexuality. Puberty is all about the emergence of sexuality. The physical changes of puberty both increase the individual’s own interest in sex and others’ perception of them as sexual objects. Both of these changes can have a profound impact on development. Sexual behavior increases dramatically during early to middle adolescence: the most recent report from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Blum et al., 2000) indicates that rates of sexual intercourse rise from 16 percent among 7th to 8th graders to 60 percent among 11th and 12th graders.
Accompanying these age-related increases are increases in pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The rate of age-related increases in sexual intercourse is particularly high among blacks and adolescents living in poor and single-parent households. The rate of age-related increase in sexual intercourse is also especially high among adolescents who are involved in an extended romantic relationship and who perceive the benefits of sexual relations as high and the cost of sexual relations (including the cost of becoming pregnant) as low. Rates are particularly low among adolescents who want to avoid becoming pregnant so that they can fulfill their educational and occupational aspirations (Blum et al., 2000; see also Kirby and Coyle, 1997).
Some interventions designed to help adolescents form and maintain high educational and occupational aspirations and to reduce their early involvement in romantic relationships have been effective at lowering rates of unprotected sexual activity and unplanned pregnancies (Kirby and Coyle, 1997; Nicholson and Postrado, 1992; Weiss, 1995). Community programs have the potential to support these aspirations as well as provide adolescents with constructive activities that help them resist peer pressure for involvement in unprotected sexual behavior. Programs
that help girls and boys deal with sexual feelings and support positive communications with parents would be especially useful for early adolescents. Programs that stress future life planning and support high educational goals would be especially useful as the boys and girls mature into middle and late adolescence.
Interesting new research on the development of the brain during adolescence also points to the important biological changes youth undergo. Based on a series of brain scans, neuroscientists have documented that the development of the brain continues beyond the early years into adolescence. In fact, the frontal lobes of the brain, responsible for functions such as self-control, judgment, emotional regulation, organization, and planning, may undergo the greatest change between puberty and young adulthood (Begley, 2000). This work points to the importance of opportunities to develop and practice these skills during the early and middle adolescent years. We discuss this need in more detail in the next section.
Changes in Cognition
The most important cognitive changes during this period of life relate to the increasing ability of youth to think abstractly, consider the hypothetical as well as the real, process information in a more sophisticated and elaborate way, consider multiple dimensions of a problem at once, and reflect on oneself and on complicated problems (see Keating, 1990). Indeed, such abstract and hypothetical thinking is the hallmark of Piaget’s formal operations stage, assumed to begin during adolescence (e.g., Piaget and Inhelder, 1973). Although there is still considerable debate about when exactly these kinds of cognitive processes emerge and whether their emergence reflects global stage-like changes in thinking skills as described by Piaget, most researchers are now convinced by evidence that these kinds of thought processes are more characteristic of adolescents’ than of younger children’s cognition. The emergence of these skills, however, is a gradual process that takes place over the entire adolescent period and depends on having extensive experience in learning how to use these skills and then practicing them repeatedly and applying them to novel and increasingly complex problems (Clark, 1988; Keating, 1990). Too often, however, such opportunities are not provided in secondary schools, particularly in high-risk and poor neighborhoods (Coleman et al., 1966; Coleman and Hoffer, 1987). Out-of-school community programs may help fill this gap.
Many cognitive theorists have also assessed how more specific information-processing skills (topic-specific thinking and problem-solving skills), cognitive learning strategies (strategies consciously used by people to learn new information), and metacognitive skills (skills related to the conscious monitoring of one’s own learning and problem-solving activities) change over development (e.g., Bjorklund, 1989; Siegler, 1986; Zimmerman, 1989). There is a steady increase in children’s information-processing skills and learning strategies, their knowledge of a variety of different topics and subject areas, their ability to apply their knowledge to new learning situations, and their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses as learners. Although one would think that these types of cognitive changes ought to allow adolescents to be more efficient, sophisticated learners, ready to cope with relatively advanced topics in many different subject areas, Keating (1990) has argued that these changes do not necessarily make adolescents better thinkers, particularly during the early adolescent years. They need a lot of experience exercising these skills before they can use them efficiently (see also Clark, 1988). Community programs may provide adolescents the opportunity to practice these skills and take advantage of increasing competence by allowing them to play significant roles in program design and implementation. Enlisting adolescents as peer tutors for younger children, for example, is an excellent example of both of these opportunities. Tutoring experiences are also likely to help adolescents: (1) consolidate earlier learning related to the fundamental skills needed for college preparatory high school courses; (2) learn to analyze learning as they try to teach someone else new skills (which in turn can help them become better learners themselves); (3) feel valued and respected by adults; and (4) improve their skill at taking the perspective of others.
Along with their implications for children’s learning, these cognitive changes also affect individuals’ self-concept, thoughts about their future, and understanding of others. Theorists from Erikson (1963) to Harter (1990), Eccles (Eccles and Barber, 1999), Youniss (Youniss, 1980; Yates and Youniss, 1998), and Sullivan (1953) have suggested that the adolescent years are a time of change in self-concept, as young people consider what possibilities are available to them and try to come to a deeper understanding of themselves in the social and cultural settings in which they live. In a culture that stresses personal choice in life planning, these concerns and interests set the stage for personal and social identity formation focused on life planning toward educational, occupational, recreational, and marital choices. These sorts of self-reflections require the
kinds of higher-order cognitive processes just discussed. Community programs have the potential to provide the opportunity for youth to use these new cognitive skills to form positive, realistic views of themselves and then to make well-informed future plans.
During adolescence, individuals also become much more interested in understanding others’ internal psychological characteristics, and friendships come to be based more on perceived similarity in these characteristics (see Selman, 1980). Again, these sorts of changes reflect the broader changes in cognition that occur at this time. Community programs have the potential to provide a safe setting in which adolescents can explore themselves in relation to a wide range of activities and people. Such experiences are likely to help adolescents deal with issues related to social identity formation, as well as both tolerance and respect for cultural diversity. This should be especially true for adolescents during their high school years.
Changes related to social context associated with adolescence in the United States need to be taken into consideration in designing community programs for youth. These include friendships and peer groups, changes in family relations, and school transitions.
Friendships and Peer Groups
Probably the most controversial changes during adolescence are those linked to peer relationships. One major change in this area is the general increase in peer focus and involvement in peer-related social, sports, and other extracurricular activities; the other major change is the increase in the importance of romance and sexuality in peer relationships. We discussed this second aspect of adolescent peer relationships earlier. Here we focus on the first aspect of change in peer relationships.
Many adolescents attach great importance to the activities they do with their peers—substantially more importance than they attach to academic activities (Wigfield et al., 1991). Indeed, often to the chagrin of parents and teachers, activities with peers, peer acceptance, and appearance take precedence over school activities, particularly during early adolescence. Furthermore, early adolescents’ confidence in their physical appearance and social acceptance is often a more important predictor of self-esteem than confidence in their cognitive or academic competence
(Harter, 1990; Lord et al., 1994). The strength of these relationships declines as adolescents get older and more confident of their abilities, their social standing, and their own goals and values.
In part because of the importance of social acceptance during adolescence, friendship networks during this period often are organized into relatively rigid cliques that differ in social status within school and community settings (see Brown, 1990). The existence of these cliques probably reflects adolescents’ need to establish a sense of identity; belonging to a group is one way to answer the question: Who am I? Several theorists have argued that the peer group is a powerful place for identity formation and consolidation (Eccles and Barber, 1999; Mead, 1935; Sullivan, 1953; Youniss, 1980; Youniss et al., 1997). Vygotsky (1978) argued that peer interactions are also particularly important for the kinds of advances in cognitive reasoning associated with adolescence precisely because these interactions are more egalitarian than adult-child interactions.
Also, in part because of the importance of social acceptance, children’s conformity to their peers and susceptibility to negative peer influence peaks during early adolescence (Brown, 1990; Ruben et al., 1998). Much has been written about how this peer conformity can create problems for adolescents, and about how “good” children often are corrupted by the negative influences of peers, particularly by adolescent gangs (Harris, 1995; Steinberg, 1997; Steinberg and Morris, 2001). In fact, many of the prevention programs discussed in Chapter 6 were specifically designed to counter negative peer influences. However, although pressure from peers to engage in misconduct does increase during adolescence (see Brown, 1990; Ruben et al., 1998), most researchers do not accept the simplistic view that peer groups are primarily a bad influence during adolescence. More often than not, adolescents agree more with their parents’ views than their peer groups’ views on major issues, such as morality, the importance of education, politics, and religion (Ruben et al., 1998; Smetana, 1995; Smetana et al., 1991). Peers have more influence on such things as dress and clothing styles, music, and activity choice. In addition, adolescents tend to hang around with peers who hold similar views as their parents on the major issues listed above. Finally, adolescents usually seek out similar peers; this means that those involved in sports will have other athletes as friends; those serious about school will seek those kinds of friends.
These changes in the nature of peer relationships provide an excellent rationale for the availability of high-quality community programs.
By their very nature, these programs create and support peer groups. By providing a setting in which youth in peer groups can be actively and regularly involved in social, productive activities, these programs likely can increase the positive and decrease the negative influence that peers can have in each other’s development. Such experiences are likely to be especially important during the early and middle adolescent years, when there are such dramatic increases in involvement in delinquent and antisocial behaviors (Moffitt, 1993) and when susceptibility to negative peer influences is at its peak. Later in adolescence, community programs can provide opportunities for middle and late adolescents to both work with and supervise younger adolescents and be mentored by older adolescents and young adults. Such experiences both provide the older adolescents with a feeling of being respected and making an important contribution to the organization, as well as the opportunity to see concrete examples of successful transitions into adulthood.
Youth-serving organizations do have to be careful about one thing: programs that enroll or attract a disproportionately large number of adolescents who have antisocial values and are already involved in criminal, aggressive, and otherwise problematic behaviors. Work by Tom Dishion and his colleagues have shown that one can get increases in problem behavior when programs specifically target youth already involved in problematic behaviors (Dishion and Andrews, 1995; Dishion et al., 1999a). This is particularly likely if such youth are the majority of program participants.
Changes in Family Relations
Although the extent of actual disruption in parent-adolescent relations is not as great as one might expect given stereotypes about this period of life, there is little question that parent-child relations do change during adolescence (e.g., Buchanan et al., 1992; Collins, 1990; Paikoff and Brooks-Gunn, 1991; Petersen, 1988). As adolescents mature, they often seek more independence and autonomy and may begin to question family rules and roles, leading to conflicts particularly around issues like dress and appearance, chores, and dating, particularly during the early adolescent years (see Collins, 1990; Smetana, 1995; Smetana et al., 1991). However, despite these conflicts over day-to-day issues, parents and adolescents agree more than they disagree regarding core values linked to education, politics, and spirituality.
With the onset of adolescence, parents and their children in some cultural groups show a decrease in the time they spend interacting with each other and in the number of activities they do together outside the home. These declines are quite common in white middle-class families in America (Larson and Richards, 1991; Steinberg, 1990). We know much less about how typical these declines are in other cultural groups. Steinberg (1990) argues that this “distancing” in relations between adolescents and parents is a natural part of adolescent development, citing evidence from nonhuman primates that puberty is the time at which parents and offspring often go their separate ways. Because parents and adolescents in American culture usually continue to live together for a long time after puberty, distancing rather than complete separation may be the evolutionary vestige in humans. Although he did not take an evolutionary perspective, Collins (1990) also concluded that the distancing in parent-adolescent relations has great functional value for adolescents, in that it fosters their individualization from their parents, allows them to try more things on their own, and develops their own competence and efficacy. It should be noted, however, that this distancing is not universal. It occurs less frequently and less extremely in many non-Western cultures and in both Hispanic and Asian communities in the United States (Larson and Verma, 1999; Mortimer and Larson, 2002).
These changes in family relationships have two important implications for community programs for youth. First, community programs, particularly for early adolescents, can help support good communications and relationships between youth and their parents. Programs such as those developed by Girls, Inc. (2000a) for preventing adolescent pregnancy have specifically focused on facilitating parent-youth communication about issues of sexuality and resisting peer pressure. Community programs can provide a setting outside the family in which adolescents can explore their growing independence and autonomy from their parents in well-supervised, safe, and constructive environments. These programs have the potential to provide the opportunity for youth to form close supportive relationships with both familial and nonfamilial adults. These relationships in turn can provide a way for youth to discuss and explore issues of identity and morality as well as future life options. These relationships also have the potential to provide them with important social connections that can help them as they navigate adolescence and the transition into adulthood.
In most American communities, youth experience at least one major school transition—the transition into high school—and often two major school transitions—an additional transition into either middle or junior high school—during the years from 10 to 18. Several scholars and policy makers have suggested a link between these school transitions and the declines in academic success experienced by many early adolescents. For example, Simmons and Blyth (1987) compared the developmental outcomes for youth in two different school configurations: a traditional K-6, 7–9, 10–12 grade configuration versus a K-8, 9–12 school configuration. They found a greater decline in school grades for those adolescents who moved from an elementary school into a junior high school at the end of 6th grade than for those who remained in a K-8 school. Furthermore, because this decline in grades was predictive of subsequent school failure and dropping out, the youth who experienced the junior high school transition were at greater risk of subsequent school failure and dropping out than those who remained in the K-8 schools. Roderick (1993) provided similar evidence of an association between the drop in grades over the junior high school transition and high school dropout. Simmons and Blyth (1987) also documented a greater decline in females’ self-esteem and a greater increase in males’ sense of being victimized for young people who experienced the junior high school transition than for those in the K-8, 9–12 grade configuration. Both Eccles and her colleagues (Eccles et al., 1993) and the Carnegie task force on middle grades education concluded that the junior high school transition also contributes to declines in interest in school, intrinsic motivation, self-concepts and self-perceptions, and confidence in one’s intellectual abilities, especially following failure (see Carnegie, 1995; Eccles et al., 1993, for evidence that these declines are especially marked for youth living in poor communities and for youth who are already having academic or other difficulties before the school transition).
Drawing on person-environment fit theory, Eccles and Midgley (1989) proposed that the negative motivational and behavioral changes associated with these school transitions result from the fact that many junior and senior high schools do not provide appropriate educational environments for youth in early and middle adolescence. According to this theory, behavior, motivation, and mental health are influenced by the fit between the characteristics that individuals bring to their social environments and the characteristics of the environments themselves.
Individuals are not likely to do very well or be very motivated if they are in social environments that do not fit their psychological needs. If the social environments in the typical junior high schools and middle schools do not fit very well with the psychological needs of adolescents, this theory predicts a decline in their motivation, interest, performance, and behavior.
Evidence from a variety of sources supports this hypothesis (see Eccles et al., 1998). Both of these early adolescent school transitions often involve the following types of contextual changes: (a) a shift from a smaller to a larger school; (b) a shift from a less to a more bureaucratic, more controlling, and more heterogeneous social system; (c) a shift to a social setting with less personal contact with adults and less opportunity to be engaged in school activities and responsible school roles; (d) a shift to a more rigid, socially comparative grading system; and (e) a shift to a more rigid curriculum tracking system focused on different life trajectories (e.g., the vocational educational track versus the college-bound educational track). Along with these changes, evidence from classroom-based studies suggest that teachers in junior high schools and large middle schools feel less able to teach all of their students the more challenging academic material and are more likely to use exclusionary and harsh discipline strategies that can effectively drive low-achieving and problematic students away from school (see Eccles and Midgley, 1989; Fine, 1991).
Research in a variety of areas has documented the impact on motivation and school engagement of such changes in classroom and school environments. For example, the big school/small school literature has demonstrated the motivational advantages of small secondary schools, especially for marginal students (Barker and Gump, 1964; Elder and Conger, 2000). Similarly, the teacher efficacy literature has documented the positive consequences of high teacher efficacy on student motivation (Ashton, 1985; Brookover et al., 1979). The list of such influences could go on. The point is that the motivational problems seen at early adolescence may be a consequence of the type of school environment changes these students are forced to adapt to rather than the characteristics of the developmental period per se.
Eccles and her colleagues stress the fact that these school changes are particularly problematic for early adolescents—in fact they label this phenomenon stage-environment misfit. Evidence suggests that early adolescent development is characterized by increases in the desire for autonomy, peer orientation, self-focus and self-consciousness, salience of
identity issues, concern over heterosexual relationships, and capacity for abstract cognitive activity (see Brown, 1990; Eccles et al., 1998; Harter, 1990; Keating, 1990; Simmons and Blyth, 1987). Simmons and Blyth (1987) argue that young adolescents need safe, intellectually challenging environments to adapt to these shifts. In light of these needs, the environmental changes associated with the transition to junior high school seem especially harmful, in that they emphasize competition, social comparison, and ability self-assessment at a time of heightened self-focus; they decrease decision making and choice at a time when the desire for control is growing; they emphasize lower-level cognitive strategies at a time when the ability to use higher-level strategies is increasing; and they disrupt social networks at a time when adolescents are especially concerned with peer relationships and may be in special need of close adult relationships outside the home. Consequently, the nature of these environmental changes, coupled with the normal course of individual development, is likely to result in a poor fit between early adolescents and their classroom environment, increasing the risk of negative motivational outcomes, especially for low-achieving adolescents.
Youth-serving organizations can use this information to design more developmentally appropriate activities and settings for early adolescents. By so doing they may be able to counteract the experiences in many schools that undermine early adolescents’ academic motivation and school engagement, through activities such as tutoring younger children and having a real voice in program decision making.
In this chapter, we have provided a general overview of adolescent development and summarized the major changes associated with adolescent development. We stressed the fact that adolescence itself is not a static stage of life. Early adolescents (between ages 10 and 14) are much different from older adolescents (between ages 15 and 18). In many ways, early adolescence is likely to be the most stressful. It is during this period that youth are dealing with the most dramatic changes on all levels—from the biological changes associated with puberty to the social changes linked to the onset of roles and norms linked to adolescent culture. Many also have to deal with major transitions at school. During this period we see the most dramatic increases in problematic behaviors and decreases in school engagement, the most evidence of family conflict, and the most evidence of negative peer influences. By middle ado-
lescence, some of this turmoil has settled down, but the long-term consequences of some of these changes begin to emerge—consequences such as inadequate academic skills needed to take college preparatory courses, teen parenthood, dependence on drugs and alcohol, and alienation from conventional social institutions. By middle adolescence, there are also growing needs for help with more intellectually challenging courses and support in dealing with identity issues, cultural heterogeneity, career planning, and romantic relationships. By late adolescence, occupational and postsecondary educational issues are particularly salient.
It is critical that community programs for youth take these developmental changes and needs into account. First and foremost, program designers need to make sure programs are developmentally appropriate by providing the opportunity for increasing autonomy, participation in program decision making, leadership, and exposure to intellectually challenging material as participating youth mature. Second, program designers need to design the specific content of their programs to the changing developmental needs of the young people attending their programs.