Rethinking Risk and Protective Factors For Youth

Rodney Skager
November 1, 1995

The at-risk concept underlying prevention programs is now widely perceived as just another racist label. And no wonder. Instead of conditions assorted with risk, we hear about at-risk children. And the children are always of color and poor.

In education especially, tired old poverty programs and their personnel have been recycled as brand new at-risk programs. At the same time, other educators have generalized risk beyond any practical utility by asserting that "all of our children are at risk." This assertion, of course, emanates from school districts low on minority enrollments, but thirsty for dollars that come with showcase programs.

Initially, risk did coalesce broad political support for youth prevention programs. The idea was that welfare and criminal justice costs would be cut and a more competent and reliable labor pool assured for the future.

Researchers responded by identifying antecedent conditions associated with the big four of youth dysfunction—alcohol and drug abuse, school failure and dropping out, risky sexuality and early pregnancy, criminality and violence. The result was a catalogue of personal, family, peer, and community conditions associated with later problematic behavior in young people.

Risk factors were found to be generic across the four categories. For example, most antecedents of alcohol and drug abuse also predict school failure and delinquency. Moreover, different combinations of factors operate at different ages for young people from various socio-economic and cultural groups. Finally, risk factors are additive. The more that impact on a child, the more likely there will be consequences later on.

The idea that risk referred to damaging conditions rather than bad kids was, alas, mainly forgotten in practice. Researchers and educators, concerned with this failure, rushed to identify so-called protective factors capable of insulating children who are subject to adverse conditions and personal vulnerabilities. In other words, rather than try to change the conditions, we should figure out how to make the kids affected by them tougher, more resilient.

But the protective factors/resiliency bandwagon has an ominous potential for ignoring intolerable social and environmental conditions. Attempting to enhance factors that protect children in pathological families and neighborhoods, while at the same time doing nothing about the conditions that threaten them, would be a cop-out of the first order.

The prevention field is itself in a tragically dysfunctional state. Categorically funded agencies and their professional clientele hold tenaciously to a particular life of youth dysfunction. Discrete programs for alcohol, illicit drugs, smoking, teenage pregnancy, AIDS, violence, dropouts, runaways and gangs create a system that is expensive, ineffectual, and ludicrously fragmented.

Risk and protective factors, when linked, offer an alternative for those young people in the greatest danger. Together, they direct attention to underlying antecedent conditions that either predispose children to self-damaging behavior or that neutralize the effects of risk conditions.

They reveal that early, generic interventions are desperately needed. These include a spectrum of services such as well-baby clinics, preschool programs and tutoring programs, support groups for children from neglectful, violent and substance abusing families, family assistance and intervention, after-school and day care services, and student assistance programs for young people who have been further stressed or damaged by their own behaviors.

The need for drastic changes in the nature and timing of interventions with children and youth at-risk ought to be fully apparent. Creating meaningful links between risk and protective factors promotes interventions focused on healthy youth development, the only really viable goal for prevention.

Rodney Skoger, Ph. D is a professor in the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Los Angeles.

Skager, Rodney. "Rethinking Risk and Protective Factors For Youth." Youth Today, November/December 1995, p. 46.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.