Rethinking Prevention

Waiting for a young person to fail before engaging them in their own education is a terrible route to finding your voice. Allowing young people to use drugs, letting them drop out of school, watching them tear themselves and their lives apart is messed up. And yet when I talk about reaching youth and connecting them to our programs I’m thinking about these young people. That’s because the programs I have worked in – including suicide prevention, adult living skills, mentoring and recreation programs – have led me in that thinking. When I began working in the national youth voice movement I was almost immediately steered away from those youth, and I found resonance with people who bucked that thinking in order to work with youth who were like me when I was a kid, including my friends Mishaela Duran, Heather Manchester and LaNovia Muese.

Shhh! I found something out today from my colleague Annie Blackledge… it turns out there is a very sophisticated conversation going on out there about “rethinking prevention” and involving youth in decision-making that affects their lives, and that conversation has nothing to do with our international conversation about youth voice, youth involvement, etcetera. It turns out there is science and law behind this model. While I’m not ready to promote it as the end-all-be-all (there may be issues that I haven’t found in my preliminary scan) I am ready to say that “Response to Intervention“, or RTI, may be a model that we all need to explore, in order to identify its implications for our work. A dilemma is that RTI’s premise might scare a lot of people these days, especially after the last eight years of No Child Left Behind. That premise is that we allow data to drive our programming with young people. The secret here is that a primary data source in the RTI model is… youth themselves.

What if we actually engaged youth in determining the success of every single intervention we were attempting in their lives?!? And I’m not just talking about surveys every month. Instead we’re looking across the spectrum of their analyses, including attitudinal measurements, participation in cultural activities, emotional responses, and other data which has been historically left up to adults to determine and collect. The essence of RtI, from what I can tell so far, is that youth themselves have the primary role in this collection. This flies in the face of traditional youth development programs that rely on adult perceptions of youth needs in order to design the activities. The model also contradicts youth prevention programs that rely on young people doing “bad things” before they got involved. That’s because instead of focusing on just the “bad kids” RtI examines the views and perspectives of every youth.

RtI looks like it has been important in special education [PDF] and working with emotionally disturbed youth. I’m sure there’s already a conversation out there about moving RtI into the mainstream. Also, I’m sure there’s a conversation out there addressing critical concerns, too. I want to see both of these – if you know of them please share.

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