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ucla.eduG:\packets backup\fact & Info sheets and guidance notes\Fact & Info Sheets\reengagestudents.wpdA Center Policy & Practice Analysis Brief . . . Youth Risk Taking Behavior:The Role of SchoolsJune, 2007This Center is co-directed by Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor and operates under the auspice of the School Mental Health Project, Dept. of Psychology, UCLA. Center for Mental Health in Schools, Box 951563, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563(310) 825-3634 Fax: (310) 206-5895; E-mail: [email protected] Website: http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu Permission to reproduce this document is granted. Please cite source as the Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA.Please reference this document as follows: Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. (2007). Youth Risk Taking Behavior: The Role of Schools Los Angeles, CA: AuthorCreated: June, 2007Copies may be downloaded from: http://smhp.psych.ucla.eduIf needed, copies may be ordered from:Center for Mental Health in SchoolsUCLA Dept. of PsychologyP.O. Box 951563Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563iiiPrefaceRisk taking is natural. As the bumper stickers says: Risk taking happens!Risk taking behavior may be beneficial or harmful.Some risk taking is unintentional. But a considerable amount stems from proactiveor reactive motivation. For schools, some forms of student risk taking behavior are a necessity, and someforms are a problem. With respect to the former, it is clear that learning frequently isa risky business. That is, it is a given that successful instruction calls for students totake risks (e.g., to attempt hard tasks and risk making errors). It is also a given,however, that schools m ust contend with risk takers whose behavior may be harmfulto themselves and/or others.As schools try to address harmful risks taken by young people, many of thepresumptions about risk taking that have dominated thinking must be set aside. Forexample, Byrnes (2003) and others indicate available evidence does not support theviews that >Adolescents take risks because they lack knowledge>Adolescents take risks because they think they are invulnerable>All forms of risk taking are bad>Adolescents who take risks in one domain usually take risks in others as well>Risk taking diminishes with age>Males are always more likely to take risks than females>Decision making can be improved simply by giving teenagers metacognitive insight into the nature of decision making In place of such assumptions, schools need to reflect on several motivationalquestions. For example: “What motivates risk taking?” “What motivates people to override their natural protective mechanisms when they choose to take risks?” “What motivates people not to engage in those risky behaviors that society has labeled illegal or extremely dangerous to one’s health?”More broadly, school decision makers must approach harmful risk taking behaviors,and all other factors that can be barriers to learning and teaching, in terms of theoverall mission of the institution and ongoing efforts to improve schools. From thisperspective, they need to consider the impact of the current trend to adopt problem-specific programs focused on st udents per se. They also need to analyze the roleschool policies and practices may be playing in stimulating such behaviors.The analysis presented in this brief was designed to highlight these matters byviewing youth risk taking behavior in the context of school improvement efforts. As with all of the Center policy and practice analysis briefs, the followingincludes an overview that draws on those who have focused extensively on thetopic. At the same time, it should be stressed that we assume responsibility forany errors of omission or commission and for all conclusions.ivContentsIntroduction 1What Schools Do with Respect to Risk Taking Behaviors 4Concerns about Current School Approaches 6What Should Schools Do? 9Recommendations for School Policy and Planning 15References and Resources 16Exhibits1. Deciding to Take a Risk? 32. Suggested Common Elements of Promising Programs 53. What Researchers Say About School Engagement 10AppendicesA. About School Engagement and Re-engagementB. A School Improvement Tool for Moving toward a Comprehensive System of Learning Supports1Youth Risk Taking Behavior: The Role of SchoolsControversy surrounds any discu ssion of what m otivates youth risk-taking and what todo about it. Indeed, controversy arises as soon as the term is used. There is a tendency to apply the term primarily to a subgroup of self-initiated behaviors thatsociety views as problems. From a developmental perspective, however, it is a reality thatmany facets of learning and development inherently are risky enterprises, with learningtaking place even when an experience does not lead to “success.” Thus, some risk takingclearly is appropriate and, indeed, essential to promoting learning and development.Concerns arise when risk taking significantly endangers the person taking the risk and/orothers. Even then, some potentially dangerous risk taking behavior is sanctioned widely bythe society (e.g., contact sports, skate-boarding, taking prescription medication despitesignificant side effects, high stakes testing) or will be once the youngster is no longer a legalminor (e.g., enlisting in the armed forces, gambling, consuming alcoholic beverages, sexualintercourse, smoking). Thus, risk taking is perceived as necessary in some arenas (e.g., manylearning situations), under some conditions (e.g., when safety precautions and protectionsare in place), and during some stages of life (e.g., post adolescence). Harmful risk taking often is defined in terms of probable negative outcomes (e.g., Howprobable is it that pursuing a given behavior will lead to an unwanted outcome? severeconsequences?). In this context, it is well to remember that the probabilities assigned bythose taking risks often differ from those who are observing them , and in both instances,probabilities may be underestimated or overestimated.Porter and Lindberg’s (2000) analysis of the 1995 National Longitudinal Surveyof Adolescent Health found that 28% of all students in grades 7 through 12participate in two or more of the ten health risk behaviors under study. These arereferred to as “multiple risk students” Controversy increases when the question arises: Why do so many young people take risksthat endanger themselves and/or others? Some developmental


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