When it Comes to Adversity, New Study Finds that Some Experiences Carry More Weight than Others

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English language learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

How much adversity is too much? Are some worse then others? How does the amount and type of adversity affect young people’s lives?

These are the questions explored in a recent report from the Center for Promise, Barriers to Success: Moving Toward a Deeper Understanding of Adversity’s Effects on Adolescents. Analyzing three existing data sets, researchers assessed a select group of Adverse Life Experiences (ALEs) and the role they play in youth outcomes.

Study 1
Table taken from analysis of the National Survey of Children’s Health

Overall, researchers found that young people who had experienced a high number of adversities were 78 percent less likely to graduate from high school, 78 percent less likely to go to college, and 52 percent less likely to have a stable job than those who experienced no adversity.

While the number of adversity mattered, so did the type. Youth who lost a parent were less likely to flourish than those whose parents experienced mental illness, divorce, substance abuse, or economic hardship. Young people who lost a parent were also 70 percent more likely to have ongoing emotional, developmental, or behavioral conditions than those who had only experienced violence, though both groups reported lower levels of persistence, self-regulation, and curiosity in learning—capabilities research shows help youth thrive.

Disparities in Race, Income, and Mother’s Education Level

Looking at disparities in race and income, Barriers to Success found that 28 percent of youth living in poverty experience three or more reported adversities, a rate nearly six times that of their middle- and upper-class peers. And over half of white youth reported none of the assessed adversities, compared to a little more than one-third of Black youth.

Study 2
Table taken from National Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health)

Researchers also found that a parent experiencing adversity decreased the odds of a young person thriving, as did whether or not their mother had graduated high school.

In fact, young people with mothers who had not finished high school were more likely to experience multiple adversities. Twenty percent of young people whose mother didn’t graduate high school experienced three or more adversities, while only 12 percent of youth with mothers who had gone beyond high school experienced three or more.

When Caring Adults Can Help, When they Can’t, and What to Do about It

Past Center for Promise research explores how supportive relationships with adults can keep teens from dropping out of high school. Barriers to Success adds new details.

For participants who had been abused, experienced family dysfunction, or endured a high number of adversities, for example, having a caring adult in their lives did make them more likely to graduate high school. But for those who had experienced homelessness or physical neglect, help from adults was not enough.

To help buffer the effects of adversity for all young people, the Center for Promise recommends that schools invest in professional development and pre-service training on the impact of ALEs on educational outcomes, career preparation, and emotional well-being, using Turn Around for Children and Building Assets, Reducing Risks as examples.

The researchers also advocate for two-generation approaches, like the ones used by the Ascend program at the Aspen Institute, that include providing economic supports (assistance for food, housing, transportation), social capital supports (career coaching, learning communities), health and wellness supports (accessible healthcare), and educational supports (skills trainings, credentialing programs).

And finally, Barriers to Success recommends increasing and strengthening re-engagement opportunities, such as career pathways programs that equip young people with a work credential, diploma, or GED, provide “holistic supports—like childcare and case managers—and focus on eliminating barriers to success.”

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