Beyond Urban Classrooms: Supporting Positive Adolescent Development


by Lisa Stein

Anyone who has endured the tumult of adolescence knows it isn't easy. Navigating all the physical, emotional and intellectual changes requires support, patience and learning the skills necessary to make a successful transition to adulthood. Many adolescents growing up in urban environments face particularly tough challenges, including exposure to crime and violence, poverty and high unemployment rates.

Teens in the After School Matters visual arts program created the mural for Chicago's Pulaski Road train station
Teens in the After School Matters visual arts program created the mural for Chicago's Pulaski Road train station and the other paintings shown in this article.
COURTESY OF AFTER SCHOOL MATTERS


Research by human development and social policy faculty members Barton Hirsch and Jelani Mandara focuses on ways to encourage positive adolescent development in urban environments during the time kids spend outside of school. Each takes a different perspective: one of Mandara's current studies examines how parenting and individual family dynamics affect adolescents, and Hirsch looks at how after-school programs help them prepare for the workforce and develop confidence and a sense of efficacy.

Preparation for the world of work
Hirsch has spent many of his 21 years at the School of Education and Social Policy researching social relations and developmental challenges during adolescence; he also has a background in program development and evaluation. A couple of years ago Hirsch was approached by After School Matters (ASM), one of the country's largest providers of after-school programs for high school students, to perform a thorough evaluation. Hirsch launched the evaluation last year with Larry Hedges, professor of HDSP and statistics, and they recently completed the first year in a four-year study that will assess how well ASM is meeting its goals—to promote teens' positive development, teach them skills that translate into the workplace and show them the career and educational opportunities that the city has to offer.

Professor Barton Hirsch is evaluating the Chicago after-school program, which uses a youth development approach to workforce preparation
Professor Barton Hirsch is evaluating the Chicago after-school program, which uses a youth development approach to workforce preparation.
PHOTO BY ANDREW CAMPBELL


ASM, which is currently offered in 45 Chicago public high schools, provides students with paid apprenticeships (at about $5 per hour) in technology, the arts, documentary production and childhood sports education. Headed by Maggie Daley, wife of Mayor Richard Daley, ASM partners with Chicago's public libraries, park district, department of children and youth services, cultural affairs department and community-based organizations.

"It's striking how successful ASM has been in drawing high school kids," Hirsch observes. "The majority are from low-income families and live in neighborhoods that don't offer many job opportunities. The students don't have access to intensive, sustained learning experiences on real-life problems. We're hoping that this program will give them important skills and a fighting chance for good jobs."

ASM participants work on projects such as fixing computer hard drives for nonprofit organizations, doing silk-screening for stained glass windows, providing graphic design for youth magazines, becoming certified lifeguards and honing skills in improvisational theater. They learn from instructors who are professionals practicing in Chicago—computer analysts, artists, actors, filmmakers and designers—for 90 hours over 10 weeks each fall and spring. The instructors serve as bosses, teachers and mentors.

Hirsch notes that ASM trains students not only in practical, hands-on skills, but also in the "soft skills" that have become vital in a global economy: teamwork, problem-solving and communication. In addition, ASM administrators hope that the program helps participants perform better in school and engage in fewer problem behaviors.

As part of the evaluation Hirsch designed a mock job interview that is conducted by human resource professionals. The interview entails an assessment of marketable job skills, including attitudes and behaviors, and concludes with a judgment about whether or not the student would be hired for an entry-level position in the private sector.

According to Hirsch, "These apprenticeships aim to teach young people to appreciate and adapt to the culture of the workplace. Students find out what it's like to work hard and be responsible for producing quality products. They have to get it right—maybe not the first time, but eventually. They can't be answering calls on their cell phones, and they have to adapt to times when the equipment doesn't work or they have to do a rush job on something. But they're also given more support and leeway than in an adult work setting. It's a youth development approach to workforce preparation."

In 2006 and 2007 Hirsch and Hedges studied three schools and plan to collect data on about 520 students participating in 13 schools by 2009. "We see ASM as a promising direction for after-school programs for high school youth, and one that could have important policy implications for the way programs are designed in the future. That said, we're going to do a rigorous evaluation to see whether it actually works," Hirsch asserts.

Improving the parenting of adolescents
While Hirsch studies adolescent development in the public sphere of after-school programs, Mandara researches the private, personal sphere of parenting and its effect on children, especially those living in poor urban neighborhoods. A family and developmental psychologist, Mandara is frequently asked by schools, churches and community groups throughout the Chicago area to give workshops on parenting issues.

Assistant professor Jelani Mandara administers a survey to adolescents as part of his study of effective family-based techniques to reduce adolescent sexual behavior, drug use and poor academic achievement
Assistant professor Jelani Mandara administers a survey to adolescents as part of his study of effective family-based techniques to reduce adolescent sexual behavior, drug use and poor academic achievement.
PHOTO BY ROBB HILL


Mandara recently launched a study funded by the National Institutes of Health that will include teaching effective, family-based techniques to reduce adolescent sexual behavior, drug use and poor academic achievement while promoting general mental health. The large-scale study will take place in six schools, the first being a mostly African American high school on Chicago's West Side where the vast majority of students qualify for free lunch.

"The parents in the neighborhood have a lot to deal with. The mothers especially have a lot of stress in their lives and are often overwhelmed," Mandara says.

The study will include a training manual written for parents as well as workshops that teach parents how to provide the most effective, academically and cognitively stimulating home environments for their kids. Mandara advocates what is known as authoritative parenting, widely considered the healthiest and most balanced approach to raising kids. It combines responsiveness to children's emotional needs with setting limits on behavior and firm, consistent discipline.

SESP students Fatima Varner, Veronica Maxam and Scott Richman assist Mandara with his research on the parenting of adolescents.
SESP students Fatima Varner, Veronica Maxam and Scott Richman assist Mandara with his research on the parenting of adolescents.
PHOTO BY ROBB HILL


Psychologists favor authoritative parenting over the other three categories—authoritarian, permissive and neglectful. The first emphasizes discipline above all else, the second uses an "anything goes" approach and the third essentially lets the children raise themselves.

"Permissive parents produce children who have little self-control and who are afraid of power in the world," Mandara explains, "and authoritarian parents produce children who can be submissive or rebellious. But authoritative parents produce kids who exhibit self-control and follow the rules, which allows the children to grow and develop a sense of agency in the world."

Painting by Robert Puschantz, age 17
Painting by Robert Puschantz, age 17
COURTESY OF AFTER SCHOOL MATTERS

Painting by by Michael Caldwell, age 16
Painting by by Michael Caldwell, age 16.
COURTESY OF AFTER SCHOOL MATTERS


Mandara's previous studies on test scores for children raised with different parenting styles show those with authoritative parents far surpass their counterparts, with those raised in permissive and neglectful households lagging the most. Authoritative parenting can also help offset the effects of poor teachers, even those whose permissiveness creates chaos in the classroom.

Ideally parents use authoritative techniques to raise children from the start, and Mandara acknowledges that adopting an authoritative style when children are adolescents presents a serious challenge. "We're starting late in the game. You can't force an adolescent to do something after years of permissive parenting. By the time a child is 14 or 15 years old there may be issues with anger. The kids who never learned to control their emotions will explode. There can be drug and alcohol use, and a higher risk for ADHD," Mandara says.

The key is to start slowly and be persistent. "Problems come up when parents get strict all of a sudden, because the child interprets that as the parents being mean. The workshops' goal will be to help parents transition to authoritative parenting. It's difficult but it's possible."

Painting by Germel Lewis, age 18
Painting by Germel Lewis, age 18.
COURTESY OF AFTER SCHOOL MATTERS
By Lisa Stein