Barriers to Success



Barriers to Success

How does adversity affect the lives of young people? Examining three different data sets, researchers uncovered the amount and types of adversity that young people face and what practitioners can do to help young people overcome these barriers to success.

Release date:

March 30, 2017

While many young people in America continue to be bombarded by severe adversity, few receive the supports and resources they need to cope and succeed. The Center for Promise is intent on learning more about the effects of ALEs and the kinds of support and resources youth need to thrive in spite of them.


Ten percent of youth – about 4 million young people – in the United States experience three or more adverse life experiences (ALEs) in adolescence. When these adversities – including economic hardship, domestic or neighborhood violence, and parental incarceration – add up, young people are substantially less likely to complete high school, go to college, and have a stable job.

Furthermore, major disparities in adversity level exist by income, race and ethnicity, parental stress, and maternal education. Youth living in poverty are nearly six times more likely than their higher-income peers to experience multiple adversities. Youth who identify as Black or as Multi-racial/Other have the highest rates of experiencing three or more adversities. In addition, when parents experience similar adversity, or a young person’s mother did not graduate from high school, a young person’s opportunity to thrive is diminished further.

While many young people in America continue to be bombarded by severe adversity, few receive the supports and resources they need to cope and succeed. The Center for Promise is intent on learning more about the effects of ALEs and the kinds of support and resources youth need to thrive in spite of them.

This report, a collection of findings from four separate studies with three independent and representative data collections on youth in America and their caregivers, offers insights and recommendations that practitioners and policymakers can use to help mitigate the impact that multiple adversities have on the lives of America’s youth.


For Barriers to Success, Center for Promise researchers examined existing survey data to conduct four separate studies. They examined the National Survey of Children’s Health, National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being.

Researchers used these three existing data sets to examine adversity from four perspectives: constellations of adversity, patterns and buffers, caregivers, and trajectories.

Constellations: The research team examined the National Survey of Children’s Health to understand the level of adversity that youth face in the United States; whether different groups of youth experienced different constellations, or collections, of adversities; and if so, whether these constellations of adversities were differentially associated with measures of flourishing.

Patterns and Buffers: The research team examined the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to discover the unique contribution of experiencing multiple adversities in adolescence to educational and vocational outcomes in early adulthood, and whether social support from a non-parental adult in adolescence could buffer the effect of the adversity.

Caregivers: The researchers revisited the National Survey of Children’s Health to better grasp how adversity affects caregivers; how an effect on caregivers is subsequently related to the flourishing of their child; and whether community support of caregivers or non-parental social support for youth moderates the effects of family adversity.

Trajectories: The researchers examined the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being II to find out whether there are different trajectories of experiencing adversities throughout adolescence, and if so, whether the different trajectories of adversity predict the academic engagement and school enrollment of youth.

Barriers to Success builds on past Center for Promise studies, Don’t Call Them Dropouts and Don’t Quit On Me, which examined the effects of ALEs on young people’s decision to leave high school and how adults with supportive relationships can help buffer the effects of adversity.


Too many young people are experiencing too many adversities, and huge disparities in exposure to adversity exist by income, maternal education, and race and ethnicity.

Young people at the highest risk for multiple adversities are those living below the federal poverty level. For children in poverty, 28 percent experience three or more reported adversities, a rate nearly six times that of their middle- and upper-class peers.

Researchers also found that large racial and ethnic disparities exist. Youth identified as Black or as Multi-racial/Other also had the highest rates of three or more adversities, at 16.6 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively.

Young people with mothers who had not finished high school were also more likely to experience multiple adversities. Of those youth, 20 percent experienced three or more adversities, while only 12 percent of youth with mothers who had gone beyond high school experienced three or more.

Figure 2


The number of adversities matters, but so does the types of adversity experienced.

Researchers found that young people who had experienced the highest amount of adversity 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 in the least severe adversity class, Safe

While the number of adverse experiences impacted youth development, so did the type. For example, youth who had experienced violence or the loss of a parent were at the most disadvantaged. They had lower levels of persistence, self-regulation, and curiosity in learning, capabilities that help youth thrive.

In addition, youth who had lost a parent were 70 percent more likely to have ongoing emotional, developmental, or behavioral conditions than those who had experienced violence.

“I had a good life when I was around under eight ‘til my father passed away.  Then my mother became depressed.  Me and my brother went to the system.  My mother got us back after like five years or so.  I think right there was the deep journey where I disconnected myself, like I fell down… You know my mother was struggling so I couldn’t really focus at school.”

The findings suggest that adolescents who had lost a parent had the lowest average number of adversities but were significantly less likely to flourish than those whose parents experienced mental illness, divorce, substance abuse, or economic hardship.

Adolescents whose parents had experienced mental illness had the highest reported flourishing scores. Those who had experienced physical neglect were two times more likely than participants who had been homeless to graduate high school, although the number of adversities each group experienced was similar.

Figure 3


Relationships – within and outside of families – can buffer the effects of multiple adversities for young people.

Participants who had been abused, experienced family dysfunction, or endured a high number of adversities were more likely to graduate high school if they had the presence of a supportive adult.

But for some young people, particularly for those who had experienced homelessness or physical neglect, help from adults was not sufficient to overcome the effects of adversity. Researchers also found the presence of a supportive non-parental adult did not buffer the effects of adversity on college attendance or job stability.

Social support was a significant moderator of parenting stress. For each additional adverse family experience, neighborhood support buffered negative effects. The existence of a mentor to support youth also lessened the link between adversity and parenting stress.


The ability of young people to persevere through adversities and still achieve a variety of successes is not only possible, but astonishingly ordinary. Still, this ability doesn’t materialize in a vacuum or by magic.

Resilience and thriving are possible when the needs and strengths of the youth are aligned with and supported by the assets of the world around them. Parents, other adults in a youth’s life, and community supports are examples of the assets that were found to boost a young person’s chances at academic success and social and emotional well-being.

The following recommendations emerge from this report’s findings and aim to help others identify youth and families in need of support and provide them with the level of support that they need.

Engage schools as a first line of support.

Schools, and the people within them, can be pivotal in supporting young people experiencing adversity. To strengthen the school environment and the capabilities of the adults working with adolescents in schools, 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. Turn Around for Children and Building Assets, Reducing Risks are examples of programs that work with schools to identify youth experiencing multiple adversities and provide options for supporting them.

Adopt two-generation approaches to support caregivers and youth in high-adversity situations.

In addition to the need for increased availability of school-based services, the Center for Promise recommends expanded development of two-generation programs that support families dealing with adversity.

For example, two-generation approaches include providing economic supports (assistance for food, housing, transportation, etc.), social capital supports (career coaching, learning communities, etc.), health and wellness supports (accessible healthcare), and educational supports (skills trainings, credentialing programs, etc.). The Ascend program at the Aspen Institute has multiple examples of two-generation best practices.

Increase and strengthen opportunities for re-engagement for young people knocked off positive pathways.

Previous Center for Promise research highlights re-engagement programs and career pathways programs that focus on equipping young people with a diploma, GED, and/or post-secondary credential. Despite serving diverse populations in different geographic regions of the country with different models, these programs share one fundamental characteristic: They provide holistic supports – like childcare and case managers – and focus on eliminating barriers to success.


Please join the conversation by using the hashtag #Barriers2Success and download the Partner and Community Social Media Guide.

Help spread the word about Barriers to Success (just click to launch and edit the tweet below in Twitter): 

NEW REPORT: #Barriers2Success: Understanding of Adversity's Effects on Adolescents via @Center4Promise


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