Some Things Do Make a Difference For Youth

February 7, 1999

Don't let the age of these reports fool you, they are still relevant and useful! This summary was updated in 2009 (and AYPF released a second installment of the compendium in 2003).

"How do we know that children will really appreciate our efforts?"

"If we help them, will they learn to help themselves as they become adults?"

Research shows that many adults raise concerns about getting involved in youth programs.
Bombarded by media images of youth who fall pray to drugs, crime and early pregnancy, adults
doubt that these programs really make a difference. They also worry about devoting time and
effort to young people who will neither be appreciative nor learn to help themselves.

But according to a report by the American Youth Policy Forum, many youth programs in
our country are in fact successful. Some Things Do Make a Difference for Youth: A
Compendium of Evaluations of Youth Programs
(1997) summarizes 69 evaluations, studies and
reports of 49 youth interventions to help educate policy makers and others who work on youth
issues at local, state and national levels. And, it gives adults better reason to feel good about
getting involved.

In his introduction to the Compendium, social policy consultant Thomas J. Smith reminds us
of the urgency of problems facing kids today, including a challenging economic future and the
threat of reduced earning power. So how do we shape youth policy to build a better

According to the Compendium, researchers and practitioners have identified these principles
as key components in youth programs that work:

1. Adult support, structure, and expectations
Simply stated, good programs connect young people with caring adults who advise, mentor,
sympathize, encourage and praise them. Programs must balance freedom and limitation while
demonstrating high expectations and consistent support.

2. Creative forms of learning
In order to succeed in the workforce, children need more than strong skills—they must be
able to continue to learn throughout a lifetime. Successful youth programs provide tasks that are
relevant, challenging, and interesting, using creative strategies to meet the needs of each

3. A combination of guidance and rich connections in the workplace
First, young people need connections to jobs and employers. Then, they need support that
extends past the job placement point.

4. Support and follow-up
For some young people, developing a trusting relationship with an adult may be the most
important part of attending a youth program. Through these relationships, they gain better access
to a wide network of resources to help meet their needs.

5. Youth as resources
Research shows that young people learn to solve their own problems and make positive
contributions in their communities more often when adults show confidence in their

6. Implementation quality
Together with its design, a program's day-to-day operation has great impact on the children who
attend it. Good program administrators create an atmosphere with flexibility, yet solid guidance
and support. Quality is key; poor quality programs can actually do more harm than good.

Many programs in this country have achieved success using these key principles. Strong
mentoring programs, for example, which are widely available at a relatively modest cost, can
discourage kids from drinking and taking drugs, and encourage them to stay in school and get
better grades. One such program is the century-old Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS),
whose local affiliates support one-to-one matches between volunteer adults and young

For more, see: Summary notes from the Briefing.

BBBS reported 75,000 of these active matches at the time of the study, "Making a Difference: An Impact
Study of Big Brothers Big Sisters
," one of the programs featured in the Compendium.
Researchers from Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) interviewed a sample group of 959 10- to
16-year-olds who applied to BBBS programs in 1992 and 1993, then randomly assigned them to
treatment and control groups. Eighteen months later, P/PV found that youths who had attended
the BBBS program were significantly less likely to initiate drug or alcohol use or to become
violent. These youths felt more confident about doing homework, had better relationships with
parents and peers, showed higher grade point averages, and skipped fewer classes.

Why does BBBS work so well? Researchers point to its stringent screening guidelines for
mentors, a volunteer orientation program, an in-depth matching process, and supervision by case
managers. Its approach also differs from the problem-oriented approach so prevalent in youth
programming today. According to P/PV, "This more developmental approach does not target
specific problems, but rather interacts flexibly with youth in a supportive manner."

Adult mentors and volunteers can make a significant difference in young people's lives by
letting them know they'll be there for them in the future. Quantum Opportunities Project (QOP),
for example, sticks with children from welfare families throughout their high school years and
boasts positive effects on their graduation and college attendance rates. QOP launched its
year-round, multi-year, comprehensive service program for disadvantaged youth (all from
families receiving food stamps and public assistance) in five communities around the country in

Researchers at Brandeis University found that QOP students from the five project cities
graduated from high school and went on to college more often, became teen parents less often,
and took action themselves—they frequently joined volunteer community projects in the six
months after attending the QOP program.

Key components of the QOP program, according to Brandeis, include financial incentives for
participants and staff, small sites that offered a strong sense of community, and a structure
designed to address the many challenges and obstacles that disadvantaged youth face. Again,
researchers identified caring adults who maintained long-term relationships: "If young people are
connected with caring adults for sustained periods of time, year-round, positive results do

Adults help instill self-confidence in young people by allowing them to make decisions for
themselves. In addition to providing occupational training, the Center for Employment and
Training (CET) offered an open-exit policy allowing youths to judge for themselves when they
were ready to take a job. CET proved to be the most successful of a series of training programs
for minority single mothers in California between 1982 and 1988. The program lifted
employment opportunities and earnings for participants, many of them young mothers on

According to Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., who conducted three separate evaluations
of these training programs, "Immediate, job-specific training . . . is a more effective way to
improve the earnings of single mothers than are alternative strategies that seek to improve basic
skills before offering job training."

So what are the implications of these findings for youth policy? Robert J. Ivry,
vice-president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, provides an overview of
lessons learned in a field that continues to search for—and find—successful strategies
for improving the lives of young people. Now that researchers have helped to identify what really
works, practitioners may replicate programs that will work best in their communities. And, adults
may get involved, secure with the knowledge that their time and effort can make a

The Compendium of Evaluations of Youth Programs is designed to assist policy makers at local, state, and national levels.
Each evaluation study contains up to nine sections including key components, contributing
factors, study methodologies, and program updates. Copies are available online from the American Youth Policy Forum.