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Safe and Drug-Free Schools: Promising Prevention Practices

Strength-Based Approaches to Prevention

Over the past several decades, researchers have addressed the question, "What factors influence youth and help them grow to be healthy, contributing members of a community?"

The research points to two connected--but very different--approaches to prevention. Traditionally, efforts were focused on preventing high-risk behaviors among youth, such as substance abuse (e.g. underage drinking, drug abuse, binge drinking), early sexual activity, dropping out of school, and violence by youth (e.g. inappropriate aggressiveness, bullying).

In recent years, prevention efforts have also focused on identifying the factors that help to protect young people from engaging in behaviors that can sidetrack their development into healthy, safe, thriving members of society. (View a chart of the risk and protective factors.)

Strengthening the protective factors in the lives of young people can lessen the impact the risk factors will have on them. In other words, the more protective factors young people have, the greater strengths they will have to resist, or mitigate, the affect of the risk factors they face. And the fewer risk factors they face, the greater the chances are that students will come to school ready to learn.

In the school setting, building healthy relationships with students and staff, possessing the life skills, talents, and abilities necessary for everyday life, and having opportunities to participate ensure a sound basis for academic success. That is the picture of a student prepared to learn.

Following are several different models, or frameworks, that have been developed to identify and describe these risk and protective factors. While the language and descriptions may vary, they all contribute to the understanding of what is commonly referred to as strength-based approaches to healthy youth development.

Social Development Model

Researchers J. David Hawkins and Richard F. Catalano began to develop the Social Development Strategy in 1979. It provides the theoretical basis for risk- and protective-focused prevention. Through their research they have identified protective factors and protective processes that prevent people who are exposed to risk from developing health and behavior problems.

Three key protective factors that have a significant influence on healthy youth development include:

  • developing meaningful relationships with family and friends,

  • possessing the life skills necessary to succeed in life, both personally and professionally, and

  • having opportunities for meaningful participation in the family, school, and community.

Additional resources

The report Positive Youth Development in the United States: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development Programs is available at

Developmental Assets™

Search Institute of Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a non-profit organization that works to promote the health and well-being of children and youth. Their work centers on the model of 40 Developmental Assets™, which are the positive experiences and personal qualities they have identified as necessary to help young people grow up to be healthy, caring, responsible adults.

These 40 Developmental Assets are concrete, common sense, positive experiences and qualities essential to raising successful young people. These assets can protect adolescents from high-risk behaviors and help promote their development into caring, responsible adults.

The Developmental Assets framework is divided into two groups: external and internal assets. The external assets are the positive interactions young people experience from the world around them. These include supporting and empowering young people, setting boundaries and expectations, and encouraging the positive and constructive use of young people's time. The internal assets identify the positive values, identities, and social competencies, as well as the commitment to learning that make it possible for young people to thrive. These assets help young people make the positive choices that will help them face life with inner strength and confidence.

More information is available on the Search Institute web site at


Everyone faces hardships and disappointments in life. While pain and adversity can be devastating, resiliency research points out the fact that more people respond to life's problems with strength and courage than with mental and physical devastation.

Resiliency has been defined as as "the capacity to bounce back, to withstand hardship, and to repair yourself" (Wolin, 1993). Higgins (1994) describes resiliency as "the process of self-righting and growth". Rirkin and Hoopman's (1991) definition has been adapted for resiliency building in the school setting: "Resilience can be defined as the capacity to spring back, rebound, successfully adapt in the face of adversity, and develop social, academic, and vocational competence despite exposure to severe stress or simply to the stress that is inherent in today's world." 1

Below are links to several well-respected leaders in the research of resiliency.

Bonnie Benard

Bonnie Benard authored Fostering Resiliency in Kids: Protective Factors in the Family, School, and Community in 1991, introducing the prevention and education professions to the theory of resiliency. Her work began to move the prevention field from viewing youth as problems (a "deficit" model), to youth as resources, a "strength-based" approach that has become known as "youth development." 2

Benard's work has also affected national policy. Title IV (Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities) of the federal No Child Left Behind Act now requires that school districts consider resilience factors (e.g., caring adults in their school) along with risk factors (e.g., bullying and harassment at school) in their school assessments. As a result of her work, schools can now monitor whether they are providing the critical developmental supports and opportunities that promote healthy development and learning. 3

Nan Henderson

Nan Henderson and Mike M. Milstein's book Resiliency in Schools: Making It Happen for Students and Educators, offers a framework for schools to use in developing "resiliency" in their students and staff. This framework can assist schools in achieving their goal of ensuring success for all students.

Henderson has included a compilation of internal and environmental protective factors that foster resiliency. Some of these internal characteristics that foster resiliency include:

  • Giving of self in service to others and/or a cause

  • Using life skills, including good decision-making, assertiveness, impulse control, and problem solving

  • Being sociable; including the ability to be a friend and form positive relationships

  • Having self-motivation

  • Adopting a positive view of a personal future and

  • Displaying personal competence, or "being good at something"

She includes the following environmental protective factors as characteristices of families, peers, schools, and communities that foster resiliency:

  • Promotes close bonds

  • Values and encourages education

  • Sets and enforces clear boundaries (rules, norms, and laws)

  • Encourages supportive relationships

  • Expresses high and realistic expectations for success

  • Encourages goal setting and mastery

  • Provides leadership, decision making, and other opportunities for meaningful participation

  • Encourages prosocial development of values and life skills 4

Sybil Wolin, Ph.D. and Steve Wolin, M.D.

Project Resilience

The Wolin's define resilience as "persistence in the face of adversity."

"Defining resilience as behavioral (that is, something one can learn) and paradoxical (something that includes both pain and pride) allows you to focus on young people's struggles while still honoring their victories. Think of these resiliences as a kind of mental map to help you know where to look for strengths in the young people you work with."

"The seven resiliences, defined as behaviors, are:

  • Insight — asking tough questions

  • Independence — being your own person

  • Relationships — connecting with people who matter

  • Initiative — taking charge

  • Creativity — using imagination

  • Humor — finding what's funny

  • Morality — doing the right thing.

Sometimes success is obvious, even dramatic — some teens graduate from high school despite great obstacles, give up a drug or alcohol habit, or read their poetry to an audience for the first time. But for others, success is less clear-cut: to succeed means to maintain hope, courage, and the determination to persevere." 5

Examples of organizations that are involved in strength-based approaches to prevention


1. Henderson, N. and Milstein, M. Resiliency in Schools: Making It Happen for Students and Educators. Corwin Press, Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA. ©1996. p 7.

2. Benard, Bonnie. Fostering Resiliency in Kids: Protective Factors in the Family, School, and Community, August, 1991. 

3. WestEd website.

4. Henderson, N. and Milstein, M. Resiliency in Schools: Making It Happen for Students and Educators. Corwin Press, Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA. ©1996. p 9.

5. Wolin, S., Desetta. A., Kefner, K. A Leader's Guide to The Struggle To Be Strong: How to Foster Resilience In Teens, Free Spirit Publishing, Minneapolis, MN. © 2000.