The purpose of this study was to conduct a focus group of youth in a juvenile detention facility to determine their opinion of the Developmental Assets Profile (DAP) survey results and what type of programming or interventions they felt would be appropriate for them. The participants expressed their thoughts as to why many youth at this juvenile justice center reported lack of some essential developmental assets. The conclusion was that resistance skills and coping skills needed improvement. The group also recommended programming for avoiding substance abuse and negative influences in order to increase assets of the residents.
There are 40 Developmental Assets (positive influences and characteristics) imperative for the successful development of adolescents. Possession of these assets influences adolescents’ decision-making processes, allowing them to become caring, dependable adults. In order for adolescents to grow up to be healthy, considerate, and responsible, they require many of these positive behaviors and personal qualities. Youth are able to reach personal and professional goals, become well-rounded individuals, and capable of pre-contemplative decision-making through the intentional development of these assets. The more assets youth possess, the less likely they are to engage in unhealthy, risky behaviors (Search Institute, 2007).
The 40 Developmental Assets are divided into two categories: external assets and internal assets. Experiences or outside influences from the world around them that affect the young person positively are considered external assets. The 20 external assets are divided into four categories: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, and constructive use of time. Possession of external assets allows the adolescent to recognize key roles that families and community organizations play in advocating for their healthy development. The second category, internal assets, classifies the characteristics and behaviors that develop from the positive internal growth of the young person. The 20 internal assets are divided into four categories: commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identities. Possession of internal assets provides an internal guide to assist adolescents in making well-thought out, positive decisions in preparation for future situations, such as peer pressure that will test their internal self-confidence and fortitude (Search Institute, 2007).
In order to quantify adolescent perceptions of their number of assets in internal, external, as well as social context areas, the Developmental Asset Profile (DAP) survey instrument can be used to assess groups of at-risk youth between the ages of 11-18 (Search Institute, 2008). The DAP was used to survey a group of 62 at-risk male and female youth housed in a Northeast Missouri residential juvenile justice facility during Fall 2007-Spring 2008 about their perceptions of the personal, social, family, school, and community assets in their lives. Culturally at-risk populations in juvenile detention centers have shifted over the years from mostly those who commit serious crimes to mostly those detained for minor crimes related to behavioral and family problems. Mental disorders, especially suicide risk, are concerns in this population (Sanislow, Chapman, & McGlashan, 2003). Many youth with troubled pasts are assigned to juvenile detention facilities for counseling, education, and treatment services. Juvenile center staff and administration face many challenges including co-occurring needs, improving assessments, and encouraging collaboration among the centers and their communities (Mears, n.d.).
Most DAP survey respondents noted their lack of community involvement, their over-involvement with negative influences, their trouble with substance abuse, and their lack of positive peer and parental support. (Chew, Osseck & Raygor, 2008). Once the assets that are lacking in the youth are determined, interventions to improve situations and to increase support should then be planned and implemented. One way to gain input from the target audience about their opinions or beliefs, as well as to check any assumptions about effective programming, is to conduct focus groups.
The purpose of this study was to conduct a focus group of youth in a juvenile detention facility to determine their opinion of the Developmental Assets Profile (DAP) survey results and what type of programming or interventions they felt would be appropriate for them. The purpose of a focus group is to observe people and gather information while they are interacting in small groups (Bowling, 2002). It allows the observer to better understand how the participants, who are specifically selected based on their relation to the topic of the focus group, feel or think about an issue, product, or service (Cottrell & McKenzie, 2005).
After institutional IRB approval, as well as participant, parental, and juvenile center administration consent, nine males and one female housed at the juvenile justice center during Spring 2008 accepted the invitation to be focus group participants.
A brief, written questionnaire (Appendix 1) was used as a guide for the researchers to follow during the focus group interview. The open-ended questions moved from an opening/introductory question to encourage all to participate, to specific questions concerning why participants felt it difficult to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, deal with frustration, resist bad influences, and become involved in religious activities and community service. In the ending question, participants were asked what type of programming, activities, or interventions the center could implement in order to increase assets in those areas. Experts in the juvenile justice field reviewed and critiqued the questions. The questions were also pre-tested with a group of several adolescents and then revised accordingly.
A focus group script was also designed for the facilitators to ensure that the group was conducted in a structured fashion for more reliable results. The script included an opening and introductory time, followed by question time, and then a closing time for explanation of the final processes.
Before the focus group was conducted, two facilitators were trained in group dynamics and group facilitation skills by an experienced Certified Health Education Specialist and then practiced their script using a mock focus group. The conference tables in the open lounge of the juvenile center were chosen as the setting for the focus groups. The location was inviting, casual, and the large round table encouraged conversation. The focus group was conducted by both facilitators following the script, setting an informal tone with attention paid to full participation by all, and keeping the interview on track. Responses were recorded on audiotape as well as by one of the facilitators taking notes as backup.
Focus group session recordings were transcribed, trends as well as surprises were analyzed, and main themes were described.
“When I went to school, I did not fit in with the kids I should have been hanging out with. So, instead, I hung out with kids that were a bad influence. But if you keep reflecting on it and bring up those bad experiences again, it will just be bad for you” (Focus group participant)
The focus group allowed the participants to express their thoughts as to why many youth at this juvenile justice center who responded to the recent DAP reported lacking some essential Developmental Assets (avoiding substance abuse, positively dealing with frustration, resisting bad influences, lacking of involvement in religious groups or activities, and lacking involvement in community service). The group also provided some insight as to what programming they would recommend to improve the juvenile center’s curriculum and activities in order to increase assets in the youth who reside there.
After an opening question to encourage all to be involved in the focus group process, the participants were asked what it meant when many youth at the center seemed to find it difficult to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drug abuse. The most common answer reported was to relieve stress and to escape from the problems in their lives. One participant, though, was adamant about never having had a problem with substance abuse and stated that witnessing the negative effects of substance abuse on friends was enough to stop [him/her] from ever trying alcohol or drugs. Some participants responded that they did not know why juvenile center youth had problems avoiding substance abuse, but peer pressure was mentioned as a probable, but not primary cause. Another stated: “I haven’t smoked for about three months now because we haven’t been exposed to it being here.” The participants were then asked if they could think of any ways that the juvenile center staff could better encourage them to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Reflecting on their own experiences at the center, they reported being positively impacted by a visiting sheriff’s deputy who demonstrated the harmful effects of substance abuse on organs in the human body. While it appeared that the participants knew the negative health effects of tobacco, many still admitted to continuing to use or wanting to use tobacco. Many participants also stated that being overexposed to harmful substances, such as being forced to smoke pack after pack of cigarettes, would remove this temptation.
When participants were asked what it meant when many youth at the center seemed to have problems dealing with frustration in a positive manner, the common response was that they needed an outlet for their negative feelings. One participant stated that frustration is a continual feeling, and that [he/she] took frustrations out on others. Another participant mentioned that it might be a result of parents or role models exhibiting negative coping behaviors in front of them. All other participants appeared to agree with these statements. When asked if they could think of any ways that the juvenile center staff could better assist them in dealing with frustrating situations in a more positive manner, answers centered on finding substitute activities to take their minds off the situation and providing them with alternative outlets for their anger and frustration. One participant stated: “There are a couple staff [members] I can talk to. It’s calming, and I can share my thoughts without being judged.”
Participants were then asked what it meant when many youth at the center seemed to find it difficult to resist negative influences. Overwhelmingly, participants described the influence of peer pressure and the respect given to many peers with negative behaviors. The fear of what others may think of them was expressed as a main factor in the participants’ decision making. A personal story was contributed by one of the participants to explain why [he/she] was drawn to the “rough crew.” As a child, [his/her] family moved frequently, forcing [him/her] to make new friends each time. Peer group acceptance was easier in the “rough crew.” When asked if they could think of ways that the juvenile center staff could better assist them in resisting peer pressure and negative influences, responses were few. The participants seemed to be at a loss for suggestions. Walking away from the problem was mentioned, but not with much confidence.
When participants were asked what it meant when youth at the center seemed to lack involvement in religious activities, they responded immediately with emotion and strong opinion. Many participants strongly expressed their wish to not be forced to participate in any type of religious activity or believe in anything that cannot be proven. One participant did express [his/her] love for religious faith and remarked that [he/she] would enjoy more religious activities, especially a church service. All participants stated agreement that religious choice should be an individual decision. When asked if they could think of any ways that the juvenile center staff could better assist them in becoming more involved in religious groups or activities, most reported that providing more optional religious activities such as religious music group or Sunday church service would be helpful for those who value religion. For those who did not wish to participate in religious activities, most stated they would like to see an alternative activity provided for them.
Lastly, participants were asked what it meant when youth at the center seemed to lack experience in service to their community. This question resulted in mixed feelings from the group. A main theme of the responses was not wishing to help a community that they felt looked down on them and did not appear to want to help them. Since the participants had been court-ordered to complete community service hours, most described community service negatively and viewed it as punishment. The majority expressed the feeling of already having done enough community service hours. One participant, though, declared the need to improve the environment to make up for the harm done to it by the participant’s parents. Another proudly disclosed [his/her] previous community service conducted at a nursing home and told of the immense gratitude expressed by the residents. This statement appeared to change many of the participants’ views of community service, and participants brainstormed ideas about service activities that they would enjoy doing. When asked if they could think of any ways that the juvenile center staff could better assist them in becoming more involved in serving the community, participants listed the following as possibilities for service: walking dogs, a fundraising car wash, visiting the elderly, Adopt-a-Highway, Big Brother/Big Sister Program, and doing yard work at local senior citizen housing. A participant stated: “It’s good [to volunteer] because it is teaching us to be more giving and patient. I would like to do more projects because I enjoy them.” The question of whether or not the community would trust them with such events arose among the group, and participants stated the wish to prove their worthiness. Possibilities were stated with enthusiasm and regarded as a way to get out and have fun as well as to help others.
In the closing section, participants were asked to identify the most important Developmental Asset (avoiding substance abuse, positively dealing with frustration, resisting bad influences, involvement in religious groups or activities, and involvement in community service) in need of action. Avoiding substance abuse and negative influences was most commonly listed first, with increasing community service a close second. Many replied that working on just one would be helpful but working on all of them would be most important.
R esponses of each focus group participant are not independent of one another and a strong group member can influence the opinions and responses of the entire group, thus, limiting the research. Since a few dominant focus group members can slant the session, the moderator must be very conscious of conducting the session in a non-biased manner (Kitzinger, 1995). For this group, the moderators attempted to ensure that all participants were involved and contributed equally. No one participant ever dominated the conversation, however, two individuals did not always respond. Even following proper procedure and gathering responses of all participants, the results may be inaccurate because participants’ responses can express what the participant says he or she would do in a given situation, not what they would actually do. After the results are collected, the correct and thorough analysis of the results also depends on the experience and skill of the moderator (Kitzinger, 1995). Thus, a skilled moderator is vital for accurate results. The moderators for this group were novices.
Of the Developmental Assets found lacking in juvenile center residents according to results of the recent DAP (avoiding substance abuse, positively dealing with frustration, resisting bad influences, involvement in religious groups or activities, and involvement in community service), focus group participants rated avoidance of substance abuse and negative influences along with involvement in community service as most in need of attention from the center’s staff. The law enforcement program already provided by the center seemed to be well received and effective and should possibly be continued. From participants’ responses, it seems that smoking cessation classes taught by certified instructors as well as drug resistance and negative peer pressure resistance skill training would be advised as supplements to the center’s programming. It appeared that participants knew the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, but did not know what to realistically do in order to refrain from use. Possibly because of pressure from those who were respected because of their negative influence, many juvenile center residents gave in to that negative peer pressure. Some possible topics for group sessions or health classes could include skill-building workshops on “how-to” choose more positive friends, resist negative peer pressure, and increase assertiveness skills to become more self-reliant. Team-building and outdoor adventure courses can also build confidence, trust, and leadership skills, boosting self-esteem in the process. Improving life skills in these targeted areas may increase the internal assets of positive values and positive identity, as well as the external assets of empowerment, hopefully leading to improved social competency and decision-making in the future by the youth (Search Institute, 2007).
Possibly allowing the center residents to hold a meeting to decide on what type of community service the group or individuals would like to participate in may help to improve the internal asset of positive identity and the external asset of empowerment (Search Institute, 2007). Community involvement with religious groups or activities spurred a heated debate, as many participants did not wish to be forced to attend religious programs. This option could be made more available to those who choose to attend a religious service or religious youth group, while alternative activities could be provided for those who are not interested
Before juvenile center residents participate in more community service activities, however, it is recommended that education or intervention programs on anger management or dealing effectively with emotions be conducted first. Participants did not appear to know how to properly cope with their emotions and reported taking their frustrations out on others. Once they have the skills to deal with their emotions and communicate clearly with others, community service activities as part of a service-learning program are suggested. If the community service activity matches with a curricular objective, juvenile center residents feel needed and wanted, and the service also is fun for them, then the community service programming may be more successful for all parties. Building the external assets of support and constructive use of time in the juvenile center residents may help them recognize how the community contributes to their healthy development and that community members really do care about them (Search Institute, 2007).
Bowling, A. (2002). Research methods in health: Investigating health and health services. Philadelphia, PA: McGraw-Hill House.
Chew, W., Osseck, J., & Raygor, D. (2008). Developmental assets profile of youth in a juvenile justice facility. Unpublished research.
Cottrell, R., & McKenzie, J. (2005). Health Promotion & Education Research Methods: Using the Five-Chapter Thesis/Dissertation Model. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Kitzinger, J. (1995). Qualitative Research: Introducing focus groups. British Medical Journal, 311, 299-302.
Mears, D. Critical challenges in addressing the mental health needs of juvenile offenders. Retrieved June 17, 2008 from: http://www.childrensprogram.org/media/word/the_justice_policy_journal.doc
Sanislow, C., Chapman, J., & McGlashan, T. (2003). Crisis intervention services in juvenile detention centers. Psychiatric Services, 54, 107.
Search Institute. (2007). The 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from: http://www.search-institute.org/assets/
Search Institute. (2008). Developmental Assets Profile. Retrieved May 10, 2008, from: http://www.search-institute.org/surveys/dap.html
Focus group interview guide
- Opening/Introductory question: Think about the time that you have been here at the center. Please discuss one time that the staff or other students helped you out.
- It seems from the DAP results that many at the center find it difficult to stay away from alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Can you tell me what they mean when they say that?
- Can you think of any ways that the juvenile center staff can assist you with avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs through the center’s curriculum or programming?
- It seems from the DAP results that many at the center seem to have a difficult time dealing in positive ways with frustration. Can you tell me what they mean when they say that?
- Can you think of any ways that the juvenile center staff can assist you in positively dealing with frustration through the center’s curriculum or programming?
- It seems from the DAP results that many at the center report having difficulties resisting bad influences. Can you tell me what they mean when they say that?
- Can you think of any ways that that the juvenile center staff can assist you in resisting bad influences through the center’s curriculum or programming?
- It seems from the DAP results many at the center state lack of involvement in a religious group or activity. Can you tell me what they mean when they say that?
- Can you think of any ways that the juvenile center staff can assist with more involvement in religious activities through the center’s curriculum or programming?
- It seems from the DAP results that many at the center reported not serving others in the community. Can you tell me what they mean when they say that?
- Can you think of any ways that we the juvenile center staff can assist with more involvement in community service through the center’s curriculum or programming?
- Ending question: Would you please now identify the most important Developmental Asset area in need of action?