Special Focus Areas
Youth Catalytics has worked with states, communities, social service agencies and schools for more than 30 years, and every one of our jobs and projects has had a single goal: to improve life chances for the most vulnerable young people in our society. What have we learned in all that time? Two things stand out. The first is that making positive changes for youth can be hard. The second is that ideas – good, solid ideas that produce real results – are almost always available, though people on the ground may need help making them work. As long-time researchers and capacity-builders with direct knowledge of hundreds of youth-serving programs of all sorts, we’re collectors of good ideas and curators of the information that supports them.
Below is our current crop of good ideas. Each one warrants implementation in 2016.
Curbing youth homelessness
Our idea? We start by assuming that most communities have large numbers of young people disconnected from their families, floating around without support or guidance. (Doubt this is true? See our research on this topic, conducted over 15 years). Homelessness is undeniably bad for academic achievement, and those impacts last a long time. So you want to catch these young people. The good news is you don’t have to know exactly who they are; just begin reaching out to them. If you have something meaningful to offer them, they’ll come to you. What do they need? Short or long-term housing; food and clothes; transportation; tutoring; someone to intervene with their families so they can go home. Not everybody will need everything, and some will need very little – just someone to listen to and encourage them. Given the right mix of concrete support and hands-off monitoring, they’ll stabilize themselves and eventually head off in a positive direction, toward finishing high school and enrolling in post-secondary education. This isn’t wishful thinking – it can happen. Here’s the evidence.
Minimizing relationship fallout among youth in foster care
Our idea? We know that youth in, or aged out of, foster care have very particular needs regarding sexual health and safety. An abundance of research bears this out. A few good relationship and sex curricula have been designed for them, but since most foster youth aren’t exposed to them, they don’t get the benefit. So how do we reach young people? By engaging them directly in the process, not as token representatives but as co-designers of their own intervention. And, of course, by keeping it real about sex. That means no lectures, scolding or scare tactics. Those approaches aren’t respectful or realistic, and they don’t work anyway. What will work? In 2016, that’s what we’re going to finding out. Enter Love Life Rules, the prototype we’re developing with youth 12-18 in foster care.
Technology, plus an extra something
Got a problem? There’s got to be an app for it. The thing is that most apps aren’t evaluated for usefulness, and most are never used by the people who could benefit from them. Relative to sexual health and homelessness prevention for youth, some apps do exist (no surprise there). Do they work? How well do they work? What could make them work better? One thought, straight from the National Academy of Sciences: an actual person behind the app, connecting to and guiding users. (See our blog post.) In 2016, we’re taking the app project to youth themselves, asking them to be co-creators of its content and testers of its usefulness.
Putting brain science to work in communities
We’ve all heard of the public health approach to addressing social problems. It’s the idea that to counteract a contagion (like say, violence against or committed by young people, or the current scourge of opiate addiction), you don’t just treat the individuals involved. You treat the whole community, creating a sort of baseline of healthy behavior that inoculates the community against social breakdown. Our idea? Train everybody in the community who interacts with youth on why young people think and act as they do. On how to engage them rather than control, humiliate and punish them. We want to train teachers, coaches, librarians, parks and recreation staff, church youth group leaders, parents, foster parents, juvenile detention officers, mentors – all the adults who are on the front lines of youth development. The good news is that we have the training to do it, and we’ve already started rolling it out in communities across the country. It’s called Youth Thrive. Check out what people are saying about it. 2016 is its year.
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