The term “at-risk” is widely used in the fields of youth justice and preventive services, but there can be many definitions of the term. This is due to the flexibility of the concept and its application to different populations. Youth-serving programs need to identify clearly what risks youth face and how the extent and effects of those risks are to be measured. Of course, designing effective youth programs requires a complete understanding of adolescent development. This must include more than an assessment of risk (Catalano et al. 2004; National Research Council 2013). Agencies should devote just as much effort to ensuring protective factors, or what are sometimes called strengths and assets in a positive youth development or “positive youth justice” model.
Still, the risks that often hinder adolescent development are critical intervention targets for youth-serving programs. Some examples of risks that may affect youth include:
- Negative peer relationships
- Anti-social behavior
- Substance abuse
- Unplanned pregnancy
- Dropping out of school
- Academic disengagement; truancy
- Unemployment; underemployment in young adulthood, and later
- Youth or criminal justice contact, and
- Impaired development of life-skills.
Broadly, the term “at-risk youth” describes a young person who may not acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes to mature into a successful and responsible adult (Dryfoos 1990). Such risks are often heightened during adolescence, a critical period of development. In many cases, risks can be exacerbated by a variety of environmental stressors, including but not limited to:
- Low socioeconomic status
- High-crime neighborhood
- Low parental education level
- Inadequate parental supervision and support, and
- Ineffective school with little support for students.
Various assessment tools are used by youth-serving agencies to identify the environmental stressors and individual risk factors that may be affecting a young person. Assessment tools may also help to match youth with appropriate interventions. Some interventions may be directly related to the behavior that brought the youth to the attention of the justice system, but other preventive interventions may be helpful even if they are not court ordered or court monitored.
Catalano, Richard F., M. Lisa Berglund, Heather S. Lonczak, and J. David Hawkins (2004). Positive youth development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 591(1): 98-124.
Dryfoos, Joy G. (1990). Adolescents at risk: Prevalence and prevention. New York: Oxford University Press.
Moore, Kristin Anderson (2006). Defining the term at-risk. Child Trends: Research to Results Brief 12. Washington, DC: Child Trends.
National Research Council (2013). Reforming juvenile justice: A developmental approach. Richard J. Bonnie, Robert L. Johnson, Betty M. Chemers, and Julie A. Schuck (Editors). Washington, DC: National Research Council of the National Academies.