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Luke Russell

Mentor Department



Daniel Lannin

Co-Mentor Department



Long-term planning may be beneficial for vulnerable youth, as goal-setting in therapy has been shown to be effective in helping prevent psychological distress and improve retention in therapy (Cairns., Kavanagh, Dark, & McPhail, 2019). In adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, and adolescents’ decision-making capabilities are more susceptible to stress than adults (Tottenham, & Galván, 2016). This finding may be particularly important for low income youth who may experience more stressful life events than adolescents from higher income homes (Reynolds, O'Koon, Papademetriou, Szczygiel, & Grant, 2001). Therefore, in an effort to better inform intervention services and supports, the current study sought to evaluate the long-term goals of at-risk youth and the current strategies they are engaging in to achieve those goals. Methods Data were collected from 187 high school students from predominantly low-income households in Champaign County participating in a school-based relationship education and job readiness training program. Students reported their goals for the next year and the current strategies they were utilizing to achieve them by completing the “possible selves task”. Goals were categorized using codes developed by the original authors of the “possible selves task” (Oyserman, 2004). Subsequently, following guidelines from Corbin and Strauss (2015), an inductive constant comparative method was used to categorize adolescents’ strategies.Preliminary Results Goals were categorized as relating to achievement, personality traits, health, and lifestyle. Strategies to reach these goals were categorized as relating to self-improvement, work and finance, school, staying out of trouble, and relationships. Goals and strategies reported by students demonstrated the diversity of experiences at-risk youth have in their schools, families, and neighborhoods. For example, many students reported goals related to improving their school performance through studying more, increasing school attendance, and completing their homework. Other students, however, reported goals and strategies strongly influenced by other stressors in their environments such as avoiding violence, gang membership, or jail time which they hoped to achieve by cutting off toxic relationships and avoiding the police.Conclusion Understanding how youth plan for their future and hope to achieve their goals can assist mental health and school professionals in targeting interventions to best support them. Some adolescents’ goals and strategies to achieve them may be unrealistic or maladaptive, suggesting a need for additional services or intervention.


Authors: Keeley Hynes, Luke Russell, Leandra Parris, Jeremy Kanter, Daniel Lannin, Ani Yazedjian

Strategies for At-Risk Youth Achieving and Avoiding Distal Goals

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