Child & Youth Care Forum

, Volume 39, Issue 6, pp 443–464

What They Think: Attributions Made by Youth Workers About Youth Circumstances and the Implications for Service-Delivery in Out-of-School Time Programs


    • Texas State University—San Marcos, School of Social Work
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10566-010-9114-6

Cite this article as:
Travis, R. Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39: 443. doi:10.1007/s10566-010-9114-6


The current study explored attributions made by youth work professionals (“workers”) in out-of-school time (OST) programs about the social circumstances of and perceived need of program youth. It followed prior research examining impacts of worker-level attributions on decision-making in service delivery. Two types of OST programs were selected as positive developmental settings for youth, support and opportunity programs (SO) and civic participation (CP) programs. Uniquely this study combines the decision-making relevance of attribution theory and research on street level workers with the developmental and lifecourse relevance of the positive youth development perspective and developmental systems theories. This study sought to determine potential variability in attributions made by workers about the determinants of youth circumstances and need. To this end, this qualitative study used participant observation and in depth interview methods with 17 workers from four OST programs serving predominantly African American and Latino/a youth in urban Los Angeles. A majority of attributions were about diminished ecological assets that inhibited positive youth development. For workers in both SO and CP programs, mentorship, youth-friendly spaces and opportunities, or Me-Spots, were critical but absent youth assets. All workers described youth as resilient and positive, but nuanced differences existed among workers in their descriptions of specific asset pathways. Implications for professional development, practice and research are discussed.


Youth developmentAttributionsAssetsOut-of-school time (OST)Youth organizingCivic engagement


Frequently, adolescents choose to spend non-school hours in structured out-of-school time (OST) programs. Efforts to address OST program quality frequently focus on the point-of-service strategies of youth workers and behaviors of youth. But, less attention has been given to preceding youth worker thoughts that may contribute to strategies and behaviors in OST programs. Prior research across varied service settings suggests that the framing, stereotyping, and interpersonal attributions made by adults about youth has the potential to influence practice strategies with youth. It may occur in the formulation of program policy, development of broad program strategies, or through specific client—worker interactions (Bales 2001; Starr 2003; Gilliam and Iyengar 2003; Dagnan and Cairns 2005; Villarruel et al. 2005; Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2003; Deverteuil 2003). To maximize effectiveness of OST youth development programs, it appears necessary to refine our understanding of the above dynamics including youth worker attributions and varied social and environmental influences on youth development.

Proponents of a positive youth development (PYD) perspective purport that strengthening individual characteristics as well as the surrounding ecology of youth maximizes youth’s ability to thrive (Lerner et al. 2002). Recent efforts to refine traditional notions of the positive youth development perspective highlighted how ethnic minority youth, particularly African American and Latino youth, often face unique contextual influences that can affect youth development (Jarrett 2003; Spencer 2001; Swanson et al. 2002; Villarruel et al. 2005). When parents have not been optimal influences, youth have benefited from supportive, caring and prosocial non-family adults that supplement or complement parent(s) or guardian(s) (Eccles and Gootman 2002; Scales et al. 2006a). Similarly, OST programs often supplemented or complemented the family as a positive developmental setting, offering supports and opportunities critical to youth development. A renewed commitment emerged in many OST programs to strengthen individual youth assets and the proximal processes critical to optimal development and well-being (Catalano et al. 2002; Eccles and Gootman 2002; Granger et al. 2007; Lerner et al. 2006; Rozie-Battle 2002; Smith et al. 2006; Wilson-Ahlstrom et al. 2007).

The positive youth development framework describes personal (e.g., social competencies) and environmental (e.g., positive family and adult relationships) characteristics that best promote positive emotional, social, physical and cognitive development (Lerner et al. 2006; Scales et al. 2006a). OST program-driven supports and opportunities are also known as developmental assets (Benson 2002; Lerner et al. 2005; Eccles and Gootman 2002). Programs with more PYD features, or higher quality developmental asset pathways, have demonstrated more favorable outcomes for participating youth including less risky behavior and a higher grade point average (Benson 2002; Scales et al. 2006a, b). But, the impacts of the supports and opportunities conferred by OST programs via youth workers have the potential to be mediated by attributions. Similar to police officers, teachers, social service professionals and other street level workers (Lipsky 1980; Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2003), youth workers have great discretion in decision-making. Social workers, health professionals, and other professional youth workers found in OST programs are non-family adults that have consistently sought to make social environments as responsive as possible to the health and well-being needs of youth. These workers complement the role of parents in the “context” role of person ↔ context relationships. The strength and quality of this bidirectional relationship is considered vital to youth development (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Bronfenbrenner and Ceci 1994; Lerner et al. 2006).

Subjective Help Giving Roles

Whereas the question of whether workers generally support youth and want them to do well is not in question, the extent of variance in perspectives about what youth need and how best to meet their needs has not been measured consistently. Criminal justice (Bridges and Steen 1998), health/medicine (Smedley et al. 2003), and other social science research (Abreu 1999; Dagnan and Cairns 2005; McGuinness and Dagnan 2001; Stratton 2003; Zeldin et al. 2005) suggests that the subjective perspective of professionals impacts their role in working with clients. And, despite a generalized professional ethic toward helping improve client well-being, the degree of agreement among professionals working with youth regarding specific personal values is unclear (Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2003).

Out-of-school time programs, part of the ecological context of many youth, are believed to have within-program homogeneity in orientation toward practice, allowing the basis for measures of program quality (Yohalem et al. 2009). Similarly, Homan (2008) suggested a common presence of an ideological system that reinforces the fundamental beliefs driving an organization. But, the tenuous nature of this system homogeneity is noted by the importance placed on assessing the strength of worker adherence to history and traditions (Homan 2008) as personal values are believed to manifest in professional practice. Specific to OST programs, personal values may cause professional dilemmas, influencing practice strategies that are at odds with program expectations (Walker and Larson 2006). Issues may be broad, such as basic youth engagement preferences: Do professionals value more egalitarian or adult-led relationships between workers and youth? Do workers emphasize youth centered or adult centered goals? Issues may also be more specific: Do workers value the potential for resilience or a more “show-me first” approach from youth? Do workers believe that youth are ultimately responsible for their academic success, regardless of parental reinforcement?

Attributions and Perceived Roles in Help Giving

Attribution theories have posited the formulation of causal attributions as an individual level, social cognitive process of sense-making (Stratton 2003; Weiner 1985). Attributions made by individuals have shown to have direct practical influences on help giving. For example, Rudolph et al. (2004) conducted a meta-analysis of 64 studies (n = 12,000), in an effort to more precisely examine interpersonal relationships, causal attributions and help-giving. They concluded that aggression had more immediate (or proximal) attributional determinants, via thinking and emotions (Rudolph et al. 2004). Thus, individuals were often more irritated when (negative) behaviors by others were perceived as irresponsible or internally induced.

A study of probation officers found they more frequently made internal attributions (i.e., behavior is due to an aspect of the individual’s character) for African American youth and external attributions (i.e., behavior is caused by an individual’s context or circumstance) for White youth (Bridges and Steen 1998; Clark-Miller 2004) leading to more punitive recommendations for African American youth. Fortunately however, more recent research in juvenile justice settings has shown less consistent disparity in decision-making regarding ethnicity (Kupchik and Harvey 2007; Leiber and Johnson 2008).

The discretion and subjectivity employed in direct service work also appears critical to many “street level workers.” Recent work by Watkins-Hayes (2009) described similar dynamic sense making by social service case manager’s roles. Her research outlined the primacy of ethnic, class and gender identities in decision-making, speaking to complex decision-making about how “help” is offered. Within organizations of a common mission, worker’s sense of self and perceived roles combined to produce great variability in decision-making (Watkins-Hayes 2009). She found that decisions by African American and Latino/a workers were found to “be paternalistic or collaborative, condescending or supportive, even all at the same time, depending on the orientation of the bureaucrat.” She continued that “they almost always leveraged in-group or pan-minority racial politics in powerful ways to articulate why a client should adopt a certain set of behaviors while using class to at once distance and link themselves to clients” (Watkins-Hayes 2009). Equally important was the distinction made about how workers made case management decisions that were more favorable toward individual growth and development versus decisions for broader structural change. Workers expressed greater perceived impotence for larger-scale macro change and thus often concentrated on maximizing impact at the individual level.

Prior studies have also specifically examined OST program workers’ perspectives about serving the youth in their program (Halpern et al. 2000; McLaughlin et al. 1994; Starr 2003). These studies varied in the extent to which they associated these perspectives to practice. Further, these studies were limited in how much attention was given to the antecedents of these perspectives (e.g., identity and experience of workers), and to the normative criteria by which youth work was judged in those programs.

Uniquely, this study focused on answering key questions through a positive youth development perspective. (a) What attributions are made by workers about the determinants of youth circumstances and need? (b) In what ways do workers explain these determinants? (c) Do worker attributions differ between or within programs? The investigator anticipated that attributions would be complex and not limited to internal attributions, or personality or behavioral determinants. Further, the investigator expected differences between program types, with more environmental attributions made by youth workers in civic participation programs due to their ideological emphasis on social change.

Grounded in a PYD perspective, this study builds on previous research in its examination of worker attributions about youth participating in differing types of OST programs. It adds to prior work by focusing specifically on OST youth development programs, differentiating among youth development program types: (1) skill and opportunity (SO programs) and (2) civic participation (CP programs). The perceived paradigmatic variance in perspective toward youth, as discussed in the literature, suggests that differences in how youth are framed may be measurable at the program level and within a sample of workers. Further, this study looked beyond attributions of responsibility for the provision of services and sought to potentially uncover more dynamic and multifaceted attributions impacting the quality of established ecological assets.

By identifying potential differences in attributions, OST programs may be well-positioned to tailor professional development strategies to improve youth development quality. Additionally, leaders may be able to identify, address and accommodate specific worker perspectives to better align program strategies and goals with a PYD perspective. The result could be improved developmental quality and increased responsiveness to youth needs.



Seventeen workers (n = 17) from each of the participating programs were included in study sample. In program SO2, all the workers participated in the study. In the remaining programs (SO1, CP1, CP2) workers were selected via convenience sampling. The investigator asked the program director/lead in each program for permission to interview approximately five staff members that work actively with participating youth. Registration/sign-up materials were left for potential participants and contact information for the investigator was included. The investigator interviewed the first five volunteers of CP1 and CP2. SO1 had 4 volunteers. The final sample included an average age between 22 and 29 years across programs and an average of 2–4 years experience (see Table 1). Most workers were Latino/a or African American except for one white worker in CP1 and one multiracial worker in SO2. Worker background information was not included in the analyses because the study sought to understand broad themes in relation to study questions as opposed to strict background associations with attributions.
Table 1

Program and youth worker characteristics



(n = 17)



Mean age (years)

Mean experience (years)

Support and Opportunity Program 1


M: 3

F: 1

L: 4

AA: 1



Support and Opportunity Program 2


M: 0

F: 3

L: 1

O: 1



Community Participation Program 1


M: 3

F: 2

AA: 2

L: 2



Community Participation Program 2


M: 3

F: 2

W: 1

L: 5



aM Male, F Female

bL Latino/a, AA African American, W white, O other

Participant Setting

Theory-based purposeful sampling was used to select community youth programs as cases from a pool of potential programs. The pool of potential programs was gathered through the local 2-1-1 directory, the internet and word of mouth. A maximum variation (or heterogeneity) strategy for purposeful sampling was used to capture information across two program types. This contrasted with a design that would have simply examined programs with no hypothesized differences (homogeneity). The a priori program types were labeled: (1) skill and opportunity building (SO) programs and (2) civic participation (CP) programs. Skill and Opportunity Building (SO) programs were selected on the premise that they focused primarily on building skills and providing youth opportunities to grow, learn, and engage in meaningful experiences; consistent with the tenets of traditional youth development programs. Civic Participation (CP) programs were selected on the premise that they primarily focused on building skills and providing youth opportunities to contribute to their broader environment; consistent with the tenets of youth engagement (LISTEN Inc. 2003; Eccles and Gootman 2002). Participants in these programs were predominantly African American and Latino/Chicano youth.

Below are brief profiles that highlight descriptive information about the programs assessed in this study:
  • Program SO1. SO1 was an arts-based youth program with youth and young adult participants in Central Los Angeles (a very poor, densely populated area). The immediate community was a dense and bustling area. The program was geared around Hip-Hop culture as an art form. Although each youth worker was knowledgeable of all Hip-Hop forms, generally one youth worker focused on the mural art component, one for b-boying (or breakdancing), and one that fluctuated between b-boying and deejaying (or turntablism). There were four sections of activities that youth could “choose” from. Generally when a young person “picked” an art form, they continued to focus on that during their subsequent trips to the program. Youth largely came to the program after their initial few visits to participate in what they knew and liked. Participating youth came in cliques more than individually. The average youth came to the program to learn, but also to watch, to enjoy, to grow and to release energy.

  • Program SO2. SO2 was a youth program run primarily by three individuals with the assistance of a dedicated but loosely assembled core of volunteers and community partners. The program was part of the Workforce Investment Act, falling in the tradition of a long line of steadily evolving youth employment initiatives to assist with the preparation of youth for a successful adulthood. It was locally administered by the City of Los Angeles and had several sites throughout the city, each operating semi-autonomously and relying on the City for trainings, information, and other resources. The average youth came for help in some capacity. They came to learn for school, to try and get a job, but some came to use the computer, interact with program staff or to relax.

  • Program CP1. CP1, a youth organizing program, was the most longstanding of the four programs. It was both a resource and force in the local community for over a decade. The program was housed in a building on a quiet street in a mixed income community. The program was the most complex among programs because of its attention to varied ecological levels of youth. SO2 offered many opportunities for personal development including academic support and case management, and CP2 (below) was innovative in its potential to foster development through its work toward community change, but CP1 had explicit goals supporting academic support, case management, and community change. The structure allowed the program to nurture youth organizing goals and meet substantive service needs of youth. Youth enjoyed substantial responsibilities and leadership roles in the program.

  • Program CP2. CP2 was a youth organizing program based heavily on principles of community organizing to improve in social conditions, particularly as they related to criminal justice policy and practice. The program was housed in a storefront property in a densely populated part of town. Program activities and campaigns focused on addressing inequalities perceived as institutionalized and perpetuated by the criminal justice system. It appeared that the average youth was there to learn, help plan and carry out campaign activities, but many were also present to enjoy the collective atmosphere and non-campaign activities of the space. Membership was egalitarian and leadership decisions were collective. The program was similar to CP1 as youth had tremendous responsibility.

Participant Location

The programs examined in this study were located within four communities in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles offers a rich and dynamic environment for examining OST programming due to significant ethnic diversity, a unique sociopolitical history and a fragile economic climate. Each of the programs targeted communities of color that have experienced a variety of social and economic challenges. As such, many communities in the region, coping with socioeconomic vulnerabilities, have been highly politicized with active community involvement in efforts to address perceived inequalities (Gambone et al. 2006; Hosang 2003). The communities from which the current research originates reflected a history of ethnic and residential segregation impacted by educational and law enforcement policies (Gottlieb 2005; Davis 2006).

Socioeconomic and health trends over the last 40 years suggest the residual impact of inequities present in these policies. Within Los Angeles, the economic infrastructure has transformed from one rich in opportunity for the moderately educated to a region with concentrated pockets of significant unemployment and limited opportunity (Ong and Blumenberg 1996; Gottlieb 2005; Davis 2006). The region once offered abundant employment opportunities within the agriculture, auto, defense and aerospace industries. Each employment sector downsized significantly or completely disappeared during the last 20 years (Davis 2006). The most recent exodus of jobs in aerospace created one of the largest regional recessions since the depression (Davis 2006). Spatial mismatch theories suggest that during this period many urban cores lost blue-collar jobs, remaining wages declined, and that dramatic declines in labor force participation followed (Foster-Bey 2006). The distribution of income within Los Angeles in 2004 reflected the impact of this market transformation. Incomes were polarized, creating areas of extreme wealth and areas of extreme poverty. Fifteen percent of households in 2004 accounted for only 2% of total household income in Los Angeles, receiving less than $15,000 (Flaming 2006). In contrast, 7% of households accounted for over a quarter (27%) of LA’s total household income receiving over $150,000 in 2004. Noticeably absent from an appreciable portion of LA’s income was the middle class. Proportional representation was at the extremes of income (Flaming 2006). These polarities also existed along ethnic lines with the most poor being ethnic minorities (Gottlieb 2005; Flaming 2006), and further manifested spatially through significant residential segregation that is a legacy of formalized residential policy (Davis 2006).

Many poor, urban communities in Los Angeles were also more than 25 years into a period of massively increased rates of incarceration and recidivism; they were in the midst of a massive demographic shift with predominantly African American communities now largely Latino; and were served by some of the least resourced schools. The schools serving 3 of the four programs in this study had some of the lowest promotion statistics in the city. For example, in several of these schools, less than 30 qualified graduates emerged at graduation from every 100 students enrolled in the 9th grade (UCLA Institute for Democracy Education and Access 2006).

Above conditions engendered significant politicization among some residents and youth (Hosang 2003; Pintado-Vertner 2004). A byproduct of concerns about social conditions in similar communities nationally has been the resurgence of youth organizing programs (LISTEN Inc. 2003; Pintado-Vertner 2004). Many organizing groups continued to be galvanized by state legislation and propositions believed to unfairly target poor communities of color. Any attempts at understanding worker attributions must be done with an appreciation of the unique history (Hosang 2006; Jarrett 2003; Villarruel et al. 2005) and sociopolitical climate present for youth in Los Angeles (Pintado-Vertner 2004).

Measures and Procedures

Qualitative methods were used over 6 months during 2006–2007. Data were gathered by the investigator via in-depth semi-structured interviews. Participation observation was also used to collect contextual information about program activities and person-context dynamics.

Semi-Structured Interviews

Semi-structured interviews with workers were conducted by the investigator and lasted between 1 and 2 h. Interviews were conducted on site in spaces with privacy allowing for a comfortable and discreet interview. When combining interview time across workers, a total of 33 h of direct face-to-face time occurred for all interview data. Interviews were digitally recorded and notes were jotted down during interviews as necessary. Additional notes were recorded immediately after interviews to capture relevant insights. Each person that completed an interview received a $25 Gift Card to a national department store for participation.

An interview guide approach was used (Patton 2002) allowing structure with key concepts and probing instructions, but flexibility to allow the interviewee to change topics as needed. Further, the method allowed comparability because of the consistency of topics. After an introduction to the study, all potential interviewees were informed that their interviews would be kept confidential. Enrollment in the current study was conferred based on participants’ signature on the informed consent form.

Five interview themes were chosen for this study based on the conceptual model and will be discussed below. Weiss (1994) suggested that four to six themes/areas could be appropriately discussed in an approximately 2 h interview (Weiss 1994). The interview themes and lines of inquiry were outlined by the investigator in advance: (1) program history and change; (2) perception of the community; (3) perceptions of youth need; (4) youth need, race and ethnicity; and (5) the program’s use of information. The collection of attribution data did not require explicit questioning, but instead relied on stylized ways of asking interview questions that encouraged attributional responses. For example, after asking the broad exploratory question, a more direct probe was used. Exploratory question: What is your impression of the kind of world youth in this program are growing up in? Probe: What do you think is the main cause of difficulty for the most struggling youth in this program?

Observer as Participant

The investigator visited programs during peak and off-peak attendance times to gather information about program processes. The investigator/observer participated in a limited capacity. The observer offered time to assist programs as a chaperone for events, to help facilitate activities, or to simply be an additional “set of eyes” for youth workers.

Observations assessed the dynamics between participating youth, youth workers, and program strategies. For example, to determine what extent the program focus was to prevent the occurrence of problems for our youth, an initial observation was made pertaining to this strategy. This following entry shows that despite language suggesting a problem-focus of the program, the interactions that occurred on that day were not centered on this problem orientation, but rather a youth development orientation.

The sign outside clearly says no violence, no drugs, and respect. Program materials also say “to keep kids off the street”—however none of these messages have been reflected in the observed activities or exchanges between workers and youth. At no time today have I observed that any staff member instructed, suggested, or hinted that a youth must do anything differently, think a certain way, or avoid certain things in order to remain off the street or stay away from some negative behavior.

The investigator also attended special community events sponsored by or attended by programs as a whole, such as a community-wide project addressing potential solutions to disparities in criminal justice. The observer role in this study was not secret, thus program workers and program youth were aware of the presence of an observing researcher. Mental notes were taken along with jotted notes (e.g., key phrases and longer quotes) as inconspicuously as possible while in the field. These notes were expanded when possible for more detailed field narratives. This method was chosen to minimize potential disruptions of program activities due to taking notes. In addition to descriptions of what was heard, seen, and felt based on physical proximity to the observed circumstances, the observer was also attentive to personal feelings and perceptions (Patton 2002). The observer jotted down these feelings and insights as needed.


Data Analysis

Data from the interviews were analyzed via qualitative methods to determine attribution patterns by workers. Patterns helped determine whether workers held favorable views of youth, whether attributions about the cause of youth conditions were generally internal or external, whether they were stable or unstable, whether they were controllable or uncontrollable. The nature of these dimensions will be described further in this section.

Inductive analytic strategies were used to elicit fresh undiscovered patterns in the recorded text from participants. A brief review of the parts of this initial multi-step and iterative thematic analysis is covered below. This is followed by methods of the attribution analysis.

Inductive Thematic Analysis

The narratives described in this section resulted from a multi-step iterative process of coding and synthesis (Patton 2002) using HyperRESEARCH (ResearchWare 2005). The steps in this iterative process were: (1) open coding of the original transcribed material based on repeating ideas expressed by the respondents; (2) grouping of repeating ideas into themes based on conceptual coherence (e.g., support, community issues) and sensitizing themes based on the literature and conceptual model; (3) sorting and reorganization of grouped themes based on preliminary analysis of the content. A second round of coding added codes relevant to this stage’s groupings; (4) developing a Code Map that mapped out grouped themes and codes for frequency counts and analyses; (5) frequency counting based on the grouped and sorted themes; (6) identifying correlations and measures of central tendency; conducting mean comparisons and other analyses based on quantified themes, via coding; (7) refinement of themes based on final counts and analyses.

Attribution Analysis

The steps of attributional analysis followed a modified version of the Leeds Attributional Coding System or LACS: (1) extraction of attributions, (2) agent-target coding, and (3) coding of dimensions (Munton 1999). The modification was that only three of the five dimensions were used in analyses: (a) stable/unstable (i.e., how permanent the impact of the causal agent), (b) internal/external (i.e., whether the cause is initiated by the person or it is situational), and (c) controllability (i.e., how much the cause is due to the person without regard to responsibility or accountability). These three dimensions were considered sufficient to answer research questions for the study. Prior research on attributions and help-giving generally discuss internality versus externality and controllability. Since OST programs are in the business of change, stability was considered very relevant to the aims of this study. Attributions were culled from the text, and coded along the above three dimensions. Agent target coding was simply to identify “agents”, because all interview discussions centered on determinants of youth, or target, circumstances. The investigator was the single coder used therefore there is no available inter-rater reliability data for coding. However, the investigator referred extensively to the literature (Munton 1999) to ensure consistency with coding strategies regarding externality, controllability and stability.


First, almost 60% of SO workers and 80% of CP workers made at least one internal youth attribution about youth circumstances and need. But, these internal attributions of behavior, discipline or lack of empowerment were discussed in fewer numbers than external attributions. Overall, the frequency and magnitude of worker attributions were higher for externality and uncontrollability, suggesting that workers believed youth were less to blame for circumstances.

External Attributions and Ecological Assets

Analyses revealed that external attributions were about diminished ecological assets for youth. Sorted themes were clear and relevant to research questions and associated hypotheses. Aside from internal youth-focused attributions, three broad types of ecological assets were found, mentorship and modeling, youth friendly spaces and opportunities for growth. These asset groupings may be integrated for heuristic ease as Me-Spots. Each asset is discussed in detail below with specific attribution pathways. Again, the specific attribution pathways were organized into three ecological assets considered to be absent or of insufficient quality based on thematic analysis.

Mentorship and modeling referred to the belief that youth did not have the types or quantity of mentorship or role-modeling needed to support and guide them toward optimal health and success. Attributions were of poor adult support, negative societal narratives. The lack of youth-friendly spaces referred to the many ways youth are judged, harassed or involved in unsafe situations. Attributions were of a range of neighborhood stressors. The opportunities domain reflected the lack of growth opportunities available to youth. Attributions were of poor preparation for adulthood, with few high-quality and structured opportunities for youth to mature, build academic and non-academic skills, or prepare for a career.

Attributions: Externality, Controllability and Stability

The attributions made by workers are presented in Table 2. The magnitude of support for each attribution pathway according to each program type is listed, including proportional percentages within each ecological asset. A selection of quotes from workers is included below. Workers blamed a system of inequity in ecological assets. Further, 65% of workers felt this system was deliberately unfair; 70% among CP programs. These attributions were also believed to be largely universal to the community, suggesting these issues weren’t unique to individual program participants, but rather to most youth in the area. For SO program workers these influences were largely stable. However, youth workers in CP programs felt these influences were unstable and thus more amenable to change. The roles of ecological assets were identified: parents/family, the home environment, schools and the broader community/neighborhood. Despite these inhibited ecological assets, acknowledgment of individual and community resilience avoided total characterization of individuals as failures or complete demonization of parents, home and community:

A lot of people like might think the problems in South LA are due to the people living in South LA. But having a progressive outlook allows you to see that there are certain systemic issues and economic [issues]; understanding the history of what led South LA to look like it looks like today. I mean understanding the policies that were in place and economic changes that happened that led to its current conditions. So you don’t end up blaming the people who live here; if anything, you end up admiring their strength for being able to persevere through it. And then, having an understanding of what would create real tangible changes in people’s lives.

Table 2

Youth worker attributions by frequency and as a percentage of the program sample

Youth worker attributions

SO workers frequency (n = 7)

CP workers frequency (n = 10)

Mentorship and modeling

Poor adult support

7 (100%)

10 (100%)

 No positive role models

4 (57%)

9 (90%)

 Parents unavailable

3 (43%)

6 (60%)

 Unstable home environment

1 (14%)

4 (40%)

 Teacher-student dynamics

3 (43%)

4 (40%)

Negative societal narratives

7 (100%)

10 (100%)

 Ethnic minorities as criminal

3 (43%)

5 (50%)

 Low expectations/failure

2 (29%)

2 (20%)

 Lower social status

2 (29%)

5 (50%)

Youth friendly spaces

Neighborhood stressors

7 (100%)

10 (100%)

 Resource/economic-based stressors

3 (43%)

6 (60%)

 African-American/Latino conflict

2 (29%)

7 (70%)

 (Male) pressure to assert self aggressively

5 (71%)

6 (60%)

  (Male) pressure to join gang activity

1 (14%)

5 (50%)

 (Female) relationship/gender role stress

3 (43%)

3 (30%)

 Tolerance and Judgment

3 (43%)

7 (70%)

Belief that conditions are deliberately unfair

4 (57%)

7 (70%)

Opportunities for growth

Poor preparation for adulthood (i.e., education and employment)

7 (100%)

10 (100%)

 Schools: inability to capture talents

4 (57%)

1 (10%)

 Schools: few non-academic options

6 (86%)

2 (20%)

 Schools: quality

2 (29%)

9 (90%)

  Depth/accuracy of socio-historical education


7 (70%)

 Employment: few jobs and career options

5 (71%)

7 (70%)

Youth attributes

Poor behavior and discipline

4 (57%)

8 (80%)

Lack of empowerment

3 (43%)

3 (30%)

 Internalized narratives/feel incapable

2 (29%)

3 (30%)

 Don’t believe conditions can be better

1 (14%)

2 (20%)

 Low future orientation

2 (29%)

2 (20%)

Unfair and Deliberate

Workers made causal attributions about characteristics of the school system and the perils of street life if youth are without sufficient guidance. The causal agents, as mentioned above, were parents, schools, neighborhood stressors, and larger political forces. When discussing perceived influences on youth, one CP worker described conditions as disgusting, disheartening, depressing, and enraging, but also motivating. When workers were asked whether the perceived contextual influences of inhibited ecological assets gave the impression that something unfair was occurring, most youth workers answered affirmatively, and emphatically, yes. Further, when statements were examined more closely, 65% of workers answered with statements that conveyed a belief that these unfair conditions were deliberate or purposeful. Youth workers in CP programs were especially supportive of this notion:

I mean you drive by schools and there are wood panels in place of windows. Students talk about not being able to use the restrooms of their school all day long. You have young men being trained already that they are going to be harassed by the police. They are 13, 14 years old being asked for their ID. There is such a system in place to take away and strip, like, the humanity of these kids in the schools, and then in the neighborhood on the street. In the community, the options that are being provided—accessible ones—are not for a healthy quality of life.

More Similar Than Different

In general, a larger proportion of CP workers offered mentorship and space attributions than SO workers. SO and CP workers were proportionally similar for opportunity and youth attributions. Larger differences were found between workers in SO and CP programs for attributions of poor preparation for adulthood. Specifically, SO workers were more likely to make attributions about the lack of non-academic alternatives for youth that have not or are not doing well in school. On the other hand, CP workers were significantly more likely attribute current youth conditions to poor school quality including the perceived lack of depth and accuracy about social, cultural and historical information. Variability was found within programs across specific attribution pathways.

Mentorship and Modeling

Mentorship and modeling attributions stemmed from the perception that the traditional developmental assets of the family, home and school were absent or substantially weakened. Poor adult support and negative societal narratives were the specific pathways to youth circumstances. Workers described how for many youth, parents were simply absent:

This generation… it’s like “You don’t want to know my dad,” It’s a joke between the students. They are very aware that their father is not around and yet they have a huge support because a lot of the kids don’t have their dads around. So, it’s like “I don’t know my daddy.”

But, parental absence wasn’t the only explanation. Parents and intact families alike were seen to have their own host of challenges due to economic and structural circumstances:

It’s also the parent. The parent—it’s not really their fault either because they are busy working all the time. They’re busy struggling to survive or in some cases there is only one parent or no parents, depending on other kinds of situations happening, you know. And so the parents aren’t really there to really like get involved in the kid’s life and like talk to the kids, be friends with the kids go hang out with the kids, [and] spend time with the kids.

Another worker continued:

So whether it is a family being totally restructured due to job loss; or whatever, that has an impact on the family. Whether it is the school system being broken; I just think that, those are the major reasons why our youth are struggling.

Youth-Friendly Spaces

Neighborhood stressors including limited socioeconomic resources, racial and ethnic tensions and gender-specific developmental stressors were cited as specific pathways to youth circumstances. Youth were thought to have insufficient psychological and physical safety, insufficient youth-oriented engagement and not enough space to be youth. Workers also made the connection between some of these challenges and problematic mentorship and role modeling, described above. For example, some determinants were socio-economic, but they were relational in their manifestation:

I think the community has enough people power, I just think it’s distracted. People’s energies are diluted by all the different things that they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. So it’s limited how you spend your energy. If an individual is having to deal with trash not getting picked up every week in front of their house and their kid walking to school every day and somebody getting shot and the neighbor losing their job and beating his wife… it just makes it harder.

The high frequency of opportunities for youth to be judged, harassed or involved in unsafe situations was also considered a major problem by workers. Judgments made about ethnicity, gender identity, dress, language or perceived talents were considered major life obstacles. Worker attention to gender roles is described:

But there is less opportunity for young men, they’re pigeonholed, with the negative images and what they can do the professions and the careers they can go after… stuck in blue-collar labor. Everybody in the community teaches you the same way. The girl is going to be the one that’s going to have more of a chance. The boys are going to be one to go out and do the negative things. I’ll say for the most part a lot of our young males are buying into that from the media. Because they’re told they ain’t shit. You’re going to be just like your dad or you’re just like any other young person that walks through that door or you’re a number, I’ll see you in two weeks—I’ll hold your spot. “I just got released”—yeah you’re a number I’ll see you in 2 weeks. You are job security for me. You’re job insurance, you’ll be back. That coming from a probation officer who is releasing you from juvenile home, or the sheriff releasing you from county jail or the California Youth Authority. If you don’t have the proper support group, you’re going to believe all that.

Continuing gender specific demands is coping with community pressures. Young men must often negotiate the lure and ubiquitous presence of gang affiliation:

The gang is the—what is, you know, how young men have to navigate through the whole issue… of not joining gangs. I mean, that’s been a big, I mean, that’s been a huge [issue]. From what I’ve seen for the young men that have come through… You know, that’s on a whole other level. Not that young girls don’t have their own challenges and issues to deal with but for young men that’s always been sort of ever present thinking on for a while.

Workers were attuned to issues specific to young women as well. One worker talked about many young women with poor self-images that subjected themselves to inappropriate relationship norms, “I see girls doing all the wrong things in relationships.” Another worker emphasized the perceived problem of girls having to adjust to getting “all the wrong attention from men.” She used the example of walking down the street with a young girl under 16 and much older men regularly soliciting her and making comments at her out of car windows.

Opportunity for Growth

The opportunities domain reflected the lack of structured, coherent non-academic skill-building, or growth opportunities available to youth. From a developmental perspective, workers believed youth talent was insufficiently cultivated at home, in school and outside of school:

The idea that you have leaders out there that may be involved in negative things in the community; whether be in gangs or selling drugs; whatever the case, entrepreneurs… there wasn’t enough spaces for them to have a positive outlet to demonstrate their leadership.

Opportunities for growth were described as youth with poor preparation for adulthood. Workers highlighted missed opportunities for maturation, skill building or well-being. Schools were viewed as a developmental system failure inhibiting opportunities for growth. Concerns were that overlooking youth talents, poor educational quality in schools, limited substantive alternatives to schools, and too few employment opportunities led to poor academic, social and professional preparation for adulthood. Workers described how youth had little direction:

Kids in this community specifically I see a lot of them need focus. They have nothing; they have nothing to focus their lives on. They’re just like, you know, empty souls, just like wandering around with nothing to do.

Another worker continued, touting the potential impacts that growth opportunities can have:

One youth in particular that is at [college] right now said very explicitly “if it wasn’t for [the program] I’d have been in a gang as well, just like my brother.” Or, other youth who say, “This is my second home.” Some youth say “this is my first home.” I don’t know if they necessarily impacted how I thought about the work, but they definitely made it very clear to me how important and how serious it is what we are doing.

Thus results offered evidence that individual youth worker level attributions existed, were complex, were context-based and were youth development oriented. Further, some variation existed across program type.


Findings showed that although there was “big picture” consistency among workers, variability existed among workers when looking more closely at specific pathways to current circumstances. Prior to data collection, there were several possibilities regarding youth worker attributions. First, workers may not have made explicit references to youth need, instead focusing solely on strategies. Second, attributions could have been unidimensional or internally focused only. Lastly, attributions could have been the same across program types. Research findings outlined attributions that were complex, need-based, resiliency focused and variable across workers and programs. Mentorship and modeling, youth-friendly space, and opportunities for growth, or Me-Spots, as ecological assets, were the amalgamation of the attributions made for youth in this study. These substantive domains of person ↔ context dynamics were believed to determine youth circumstances. Youth were considered to have poor quality Me-Spots, which is analogous to having few developmental assets across ecological domains (Scales and Leffert 1999; Benson 2002) or weak person ↔ context relations (Lerner et al. 2006; Theokas and Lerner 2006; Urban et al. 2009).

Attribution Consistency with Developmental Systems Theories and PYD

Attributions made by workers in this study were closely aligned with developmental systems and person ↔ context conceptualizations of youth development (Lerner et al. 2006). Personal attributes were discussed as contributing to circumstances, but these were largely within the context of broader environmental characteristics. These environmental critiques have been a part of youth development, risk and resilience, and other literatures especially regarding the state of ethnic minority youth (Jarrett 2003; Spencer et al. 1997; Villarruel et al. 2005; Western 2006; Wilson 1996). But, study findings also described the specific attitudinal and behavioral manifestations of how youth interact with these environmental factors. For example, it was not simply that communities with gang involvement were problematic for youth, which is a common complaint in criminology literature (Block 2000; Kakar 2005). Instead, it was that young men had to negotiate their own sense of masculinity as well as navigate their after-school environments to avoid daily hassles by gang members. In other instances, when talking about home instability, the inability to concentrate in school was linked to youth preoccupation with worry about getting evicted, being able to eat and even whether or not their parent would be around.

Nothing expressed by youth workers suggested that they perpetuated theories of declining values, low self esteem and low aspirations by youth; as suggested by prior research (Starr 2003). However, negative stereotyping and internal attributions did exist among workers. This suggests that workers were not blindly attuned to external forces without regard to individual youth roles in their own development. Youth were described as inherently positive young men and women. Workers described them as talented and gifted, but also abandoned. Youth were seen as inhibited without the supports and opportunities to be self-sufficient (i.e., schools and employment) or to realize their potential.

Context-based attributions (external) outnumbered personal attributions (internal). Even when workers made internal attributions, they were generally about the relationship between external conditions and youth development. An example of this was discussion of how neighborhood stressors reinforced the need for male youth to assert themselves aggressively for self-defense, with subsequent assertiveness then potentially reinforcing aggregate levels of neighborhood interpersonal aggression. Thus, a bidirectional relationship was highlighted, further supporting the presence of a nested and interrelated ecology. These beliefs were consistent with evidence of the importance of social contexts (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997; Sampson et al. 1997; Sampson 2001; Wilson 1996) and the influence of ecological assets on youth development (Kretzmann and McKnight 1993; Scales and Leffert 1999; Scales et al. 2006b; Urban et al. 2009).

Me-Spot domains, as outlined in this study, were also consistent with themes of high quality support and opportunity as outlined by High Scope’s Center for Youth Program Quality: safe environment, supportive environment, interaction and engagement (Table 3; Smith et al. 2006; Wilson-Ahlstrom et al. 2007). A safe environment aligns well with youth-friendly spaces due to great attention to both psychological and physical safety, including issues of gender and ethnicity. Characteristics of a supportive environment, interaction and engagement also align well with the three Me-Spot domains.
Table 3

Comparison of framework dimensions based on study results

YPQA dimensions


Me-Spot dimensions


Opportunity for growth


Mentorship and modeling

Opportunity for growth

Supportive environment

Mentorship and modeling

Opportunity for growth

Youth-friendly space

Safe environment

Youth-friendly space

High Scope’s Youth Program Quality Assessment Dimensions are compared to this study’s Me-Spot Ecological Assets (Mentorship, Space & Opportunity). The Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) is a measurement tool developed by High Scope’s Center for Youth Program Quality. Adapted from Smith et al. (2006). Me-Spot dimensions are aggregate constructs derived from study results of youth worker attributions

Attribution Consistency with PYD Themes: Strengths, Assets and Resilience

Workers talked and acted from the perspective that youth had the capacity for resilience despite multiple and layered ecological risks. Within most youth worker attributions youth were given agency regarding their growth and development. Despite the excess burden often present in their lives, youth were believed to have the ability and willingness to be successful (Cicchetti et al. 1993; Luthar et al. 2000; Masten 2001). Implicit was an asset or strengths based perspective (Cohen et al. 2007). Without this positive assumption of ability and capacity, there would be little to work with or build upon with participating youth.

Contextual features were similarly discussed within a frame of resilience. Youth were described as existing within a rich web of relationships and conditions that could be supportive and inspiring, but generally were not. Some workers cited toxic adult presence and home instability. But, workers did not cite improper values or an absent work ethic, which are common stereotypes conveyed in discussions of marginalized communities (Wilson 1996). An emphasis was placed on the strained positive supports in place, not inherently negative supports. For example, school environments were described as of poor quality, with workers in CP programs much more likely to cite this attribution along with poor career preparation. It did not appear that youth workers supported a culture of poverty perspective (Jones and Luo 1999). Potential nested negative stereotyping by youth workers of both teen status and ethnic minority status was not at play. Workers did not adopt the perspective that youth were irresponsible and the primary cause for circumstances. Workers were careful not to demonize youth or their families (Armaline 2005).


OST program leadership has the potential to be diligent in their preparation of workers regarding professional practice. OST program leadership can reinforce messages of looking beyond the individual when assessing need. Program leadership can also reinforce worker perspectives with research and training. It is unclear if workers did not believe other attributions pathways existed, weren’t aware of them or if they just didn’t discuss them.

In professional development efforts, a realistic appraisal of both assets and obstacles should occur for youth environments/ecology and for youth personal attributes. Workers unaware of ecological challenges/assets can be informed, to avoid focusing solely on individual attributes. Workers that are aware can be prepared for targeted practice strategies focusing on specific pathways to positive youth development. In general, the current study suggested that workers could benefit from inter-program professional development as well, seeing where their perspectives existed in relation to other models of youth work, child development models, youth organizing models, education models, and in relation to other local programs. One national initiative, by AED works to standardize youth worker comprehension of key developmental issues with a curriculum on youth development principles (National Training Institute for Community Youth Work 2010).

OST worker decisions transcend a specific allocation of resources like other street level workers. Rather, these decisions are often about facilitating developmental transactions. Reiterating worker potential as a non-family adult, OST leadership can ensure that workers are aware of their potential to successfully position oneself as a developmental asset to youth. As described by workers, parents’ valuable role as the primary developmental resource may be compromised, leaving non-family adults as a key developmental resource. Research has shown direct relationships between increased developmental assets and lower health risk behaviors, and between increased developmental assets and increased grade point average (Scales et al. 2006a, b). During adolescence, neurological and physical development are refined, cognitive abilities are refined, and youth decision-making takes on added significance because of potential lifecourse implications. Selecting peers and deciding what groups to join/belong to; educational and occupational plans and related training choices/options; and experimentation with risky health behaviors like substance use and unprotected sex, have the potential for profound long-term impacts (Eccles and Gootman 2002).

The described risks and the penalties for poor decision-making in the above areas also have the potential to be substantially higher for youth of color and young women. To offset some of these potential challenges, during program planning, staff training or other professional development efforts, intentionality in addressing the unique contextual realities of gender and ethnicity should be considered. Cultural specificity across ethnicity, gender and other diverse populations is important in an increasingly multicultural society, but the increased risk for negative health and well-being outcomes specific to gender and ethnicity is of greater significance. Workers recognized that differences existed for young men and young women in the programs; differences that were social, personal, and structural. It suggests an expanded view of common youth development concepts by gender and ethnicity is critical.

Future research in OST programming can better investigate how workers actually respond to these attributions. The research can determine the ways attributions link to subsequent practice behaviors with youth participants. Does the fact that workers in these programs identify gaps between youth need and available supports mean that their subsequent practice strategies aligned with meeting each of those perceived needs? Will narrow views limited to individual responsibility be followed by weak youth developmental quality or deficit-focused strategies? Will more contextually based attributions be associated with visions to maximize youth potential through higher quality youth—context transactions, or “developmental intentionality” (Walker et al. 2005)? Additional studies can also look more closely at the relationship between worker characteristics and the roles they choose to enact in service delivery. Following research by Watkins-Hayes (2009), it will be possible to identify how workers negotiate their identity and experiences as influences on how they respond to perceived youth need.

Several limitations exist to consider in conjunction with findings. The small, convenience sample local to Southern California is non-generalizable to all regions and all OST program workers. However, the research design was theory-based and purposive, affording relevance to practitioners concerned with youth development strategies and youth worker perspectives.

With increased numbers, greater program level variability would have allowed comparisons across geographic location, program type, and length of existence. Controlling for these characteristics would have allowed the ability to discount the influences of these characteristics on outcomes. It would also have helped further elucidate nuanced differences in findings. For example, among civic participation programs it would have been possible to include programs that were more traditionally leadership development programs. These programs would have offered youth voice but different degrees of agency. Programs that are theoretically distinct from skill and opportunity building and youth organizing programs could have also added to the differentiation between characteristics of programs.

An increase in the number of youth workers would have allowed more comparisons across gender, ethnicity, tenure in the program, and program role. For example, in one program it was apparent that a recently hired youth worker held slightly more unique perspectives than colleagues. It was unclear if these perspectives would have persisted or if they would eventually align more closely to program colleagues. If consistent variability in tenure existed across programs then systematic comparisons of tenure and attributions could occur.

More nuanced measures about youth and their environments could have also been employed. For example, in addition to interviews or in lieu of interviews a battery of measures could have been employed so that (in sufficient numbers) more rigorous parametric analyses could be conducted. Watts and Guessous (2006) used a cluster of measures to assess sociopolitical development that suggests a direction for more complex understanding of this array of youth worker perspectives (Bridges and Steen 1998; Watts and Guessous 2006). Further, more robust measures of ecological assets could have been employed similar to recent work by Urban et al. (2009).

The study was done against the backdrop of precarious living for urban minority youth in the study region. In the observed Southern California communities, disparate conditions for ethnic minority youth existed in the wake of socioeconomic policies and actions that appeared to disproportionately impact ethnic minority communities. The impacts of poverty, family instability, perceived discrimination, low expectations, inferior educational opportunities, inhibited talents and skills, and minimal employment opportunities have been theorized about, analyzed and written about by researchers. But, workers in this study described these impacts first-hand along with the past and current conditions that fostered weak mentorship and modeling, few youth-friendly spaces and inhibited opportunities to learn, express and grow.

For workers, whether a young person had past transgressions, was an honor student or was simply an “average” teenager, it did not matter. Gang-bangers, “at-risk” youth, and drop-outs participated in these programs. But, so did the academically gifted. At the simplest level, youth could be categorized along the lines of Anderson’s street versus decent youth, but youth were much more complex as were their contexts. Youth were not absolved for behavior and discipline problems but they were located firmly within contextual realities. Workers were very clear about these socio-political realities for youth and the added significance of ethnicity and gender. How they respond remains to be seen. Further research is needed to determine how youth workers use their attributions to inform their perceived role in meeting the needs of youth.


This research was supported by grants and administrative support from the National Consortium on Violence Research, the Association of Schools of Public Health, the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities, and the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion. Further appreciation goes to the participating youth development and youth organizing programs and their tireless commitment to positively transforming the lives of southern California youth.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010