“A stitch in time saves nine.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” These are but two of many familiar adages regarding the value of prevention over treatment. Most of us organize many of our daily activities and habits around this concept. For example, we brush our teeth to avoid cavities, change oil in our cars to avoid costly engine repairs, and become immunized against many formerly crippling or even fatal diseases such as Polio, Yellow Fever, Typhus and the like.

But can a teenager be “immunized” against risk-taking behaviors? This intriguing possibility arose from a 2006 study conducted by The Legacy Center for Community Success (TLC) using the concept of Developmental Assets originated by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute. Developmental Assets are a series of 40 positive character traits or qualities that all adolescents should possess. Twenty of them are defined as External in that they describe a youth’s relationships with family, school, community and the like. The remaining 20 are said to be Internal in that they portray intrinsic qualities such as honesty, self-esteem, integrity, etc.

In the 2006 study, TLC found that the more Developmental Assets teens possess, the fewer the number of risk-taking behaviors in which they participate. As indicated in Figure 1, teens with 31-40 Assets participated in fewer than one of the 24 risk-taking behaviors studied. At the other end of the spectrum, youth with 0-10 Assets were involved in an average of 8.8 risk-taking behaviors. These intriguing results strongly suggested that if teens were instilled with the Developmental Assets they become essentially “immune” from risk-taking behaviors.

This “immunization” idea was all the more interesting because extensive research indicates that the conventional strategy of trying to curb risky behaviors by speaking to their negative consequences is not very effective. The gains from the risk-taking behavior are immediate, whereas the negative consequences are deferred in time and merely probable or even likely, but never certain. In addition, according to Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg in a recent National Geographic article on the “Teen Brain”, teens value rewards much more than concerns about negative consequences, they are significantly more apt to take risks, and the influence of friends profoundly affects their behavioral choices.

Midland County Probate Court Judge Dorene Allen decided to take advantage of these findings by providing evidence-based Developmental Asset-building programs for her Court Wards. The results have been truly stunning. Over the past 4 years, delinquency declined in Midland County by 35%, reoffense/rearrest rates are down ~70%, fewer than 5% of the younger siblings of offenders have offended, significantly fewer out-of-community placements have been required, and the Probate Court has cumulatively come in under budget by $2.2 million, a significant savings for Midland County taxpayers.

TLC also conducted an analysis of the study results to determine which Developmental Assets were most impactful. The results indicated that the Asset called “Positive Peers” was overall the most effective in reducing adolescent risk-taking behaviors. This study indicated that Developmental Assets increase from birth through about the 6th grade owing to “institutional” factors that positively influence the growth of Assets. These include primarily the child’s family, school, faith-based community and the community at large.

With the onset of adolescence, however, youth naturally begin resisting these “institutional” factors and turn increasingly instead to peers for advice and counsel. All things being equal, peers are not as effective as “institutions” in guiding the youth. TLC’s results indicate that after reaching a peak at the 6th grade, the number of Assets declines linearly each year from 6th to 12th grade by a total of about 25%. Youth with Positive Peers, however, continue to increase their Assets during adolescence while those without them suffer significant declines, thereby increasing the probability of involvement in risk-taking behaviors. As Professor Steinberg puts it, “Think of it as an equation where consequences aren’t given the weight they should be. And when teens are around friends, that throws off the equation even more.”

This analysis then sought to determine what factors contributed to “Positive Peers”. Three Assets were found to be significant: Creative Activities (art, theater, music, dance, choir,…), Organized Youth Activities (school sports, Boy/Girl Scouts, 4H,…) and Religious Community Activities (not church attendance but participation in youth group programs such as building a Habitat House, service work,…). These three Assets are characterized by several common elements that contribute to the growth of Developmental Assets overall:

  • Increased probability of association with other wholesome youth
  • Expenditure of time and energy
  • Include imposed structure or rules
  • Association with adult role models
  • Provide opportunities for adult role models to “coach”—i.e., give advice that is more likely to be heeded than that from other “institutional” adults, e.g., parents

These findings prompted various Midland County youth-serving agencies to adopt Developmental Asset-building strategies and programs. A partial list of agencies that are embracing the concept include the ROCK, Midland Community Centers, Boy/Girl Scouts, West Midland Family Center, Grace A. Dow Library, Midland Area Partnership for Drug Free Youth, Family and Children’s Services, 4H, Midland Center for the Arts, Creative 360, our county schools and others.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, TLC was able to repeat the study of Developmental Assets and risk-taking behaviors earlier in early 2011. Slightly more than 86% of eligible Midland County teens participated in the study resulting in error rates in the +/- 1% range. The results are very gratifying. As indicated in Figure 1, risk-taking behaviors declined significantly compared with the 2006 results. Teens with 31-40 Assets participated on average in only 0.5 risk-taking behaviors supporting the “immunization” concept. Thirty two of the 40 Assets increased and 6 remained unchanged from 2006 with “Positive Peers” the highest scoring of all the Assets at 76%. In addition, most risk-taking behaviors declined including smoking, alcohol and drug use, fighting, violence, eating disorders, depression, suicide ideations, shoplifting, gambling, vandalism and truancy. The frequency of sexual activity remained unchanged while the use of smokeless tobacco increased from 7 to 8%. A major disappointing finding is that “Creative Activities” is the lowest scoring of all the Assets with only 19% of Midland County adolescents reporting this Asset. Schools, the Midland Center for the Arts, Creative 360, churches, and private providers currently are collaborating to increase the number of teens involved.

The 2011 study generally supported and reinforced the findings of the 2006 study, as well as the empirical results realized by Judge Allen and the Probate Court. Developmental Assets do seem to provide a degree of protection for adolescents from risk-taking behaviors that conventional strategies do not. Youth-serving agencies that provide evidence-based Developmental Asset-building programs targeting teens appear to be gaining traction in mitigating risk-taking behaviors across the county. Emphasis on Creative, Organized Youth and Religious Activities should be continued and accelerated as key strategies for instilling Developmental Assets among adolescents. The recently developed Midland County Youth Master Plan includes many specific Action Plans targeting Developmental Assets that should be implemented. Another study should be conducted in 5 years to measure whether and to what extent progress is being realized in increasing the average number of Developmental Assets among our community’s youth.

By supporting and encouraging the progress realized thus far in instilling Developmental Assets among our teens, Midland County can indeed achieve the Vision of its Youth Master Plan, viz., “A community where all children, youth and their families flourish and thrive.”