The Changing Lives Program

The objective of the Youth Development Project is to foster positive youth development by developing, refining, and implementing programs for promoting positive development. The program currently under development, the Changing Lives Program (CLP), is a school-based intervention for promoting positive development in troubled youth.

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About the Changing Lives Program (CLP)

The Changing Lives Program is a school-based positive development program that aims to empower troubled adolescents to change their lives in positive directions. Our goal is to create context in which troubled young people can transform their sense of control and responsibility and change their “negative” life trajectories into positive ones. Our intervention goal is changing lives and we use intervention strategies that are participatory and transformative to achieve this goal. A transformative approach seeks to create an intervention context in which students take an active role in the intervention process and the interventionist (facilitator, teacher, etc.) works with the students to co-construct alternatives to negative life pathways.


In CLP, the learning process is co-participatory. In the process of identifying effective methods for overcoming obstacles to changing negative life pathways and engaging in transformative activities to bring about change, participants become empowered as they experience the possibility of creating and constructing (rather than enduring) the circumstances of their lives. In CLP, participants not only talk about their problems; they do something about them. In the context of such mastery experiences, they become empowered to transform themselves, their lives, and their communities.

CLP thus seeks to do more than treat behavior problems or prevent negative developmental outcomes; it also seeks to promote positive psychosocial development as a means for providing youth with the opportunity to be in control of their lives and take responsibility for the direction of their life course. That is, like other treatment and prevention programs, CLP targets reducing or eliminating the behavior problems and risk factors that troubled adolescents bring into intervention programs, but it also seeks to go one step further. CLP also seeks to promote positive change in young people that will serve as a catalyst for future change.

CLP is an approach that considers positive change that takes place as part of youth development intervention to serve as a catalyst for future change. More specifically, it holds that what is important about future change is that it will be under the control (and responsibility) of the young people who have changed during the intervention. CLP further holds that it is change that is youth-selected and youth-directed that will be most likely to persist past the end of the intervention. What is unique about CLP’s approach to promoting positive development is that the focus is not on providing youth with guidance and direction but on creating context in young people themselves make the choices that give their lives direction and purpose.


In our work, CLP is implemented in alternative high schools as part of the school’s ongoing program of services. Because the schools are alternative high schools, students participate in program services either through self or counselor referral. The types of program services available to them include psycho educational services, individual counseling, and counseling groups (the groups include anger management, relationship, substance use/abuse, alternative lifestyles, etc.).


The Longitudinal Life Course Change (LLC) Project parallels the Changing Lives  (intervention) Program (CLP), but it does not involve an intervention. The project is an ongoing longitudinal study of quantitative and qualitative changes in the life course or life pathways of multi-problem adolescents in alternative school programs who do not receive psychosocial intervention. Because they receive systemic evaluations, we currently know more about the changes that take place in multi-problem troubled youth in psychosocial interventions than we do about the life course change that occurs in the lives of multi-problem youth in alternative programs who do not experience a psychosocial intervention.



Theoretical Framework


In seeking to promote positive development by creating contexts in which these troubled young people can change their lives, the CLP draws its developmental framework from both psychosocial developmental theory (Erikson, 1968) and life course theory (Elder, 1998) which we refer to as a “psychosocial developmental life course” approach. From psychosocial developmental theory, this approach adopts the view of adolescence as the developmental stage at which the individual is first confronted with, systematically and seriously, addressing the complex and difficult challenge (and responsibility) of choosing the goals, roles, and beliefs about the world that give the individual's life direction and purpose as well as coherence and integration. From life course theory, it adopts an emphasis on how individuals construct their own life course through the choices and actions they make within the constraints and opportunities of history and social circumstances. 

In line with Eriksonian theory, the CLP not only targets (and seeks to resolve) identity issues of the developmental moment but also is aimed at fostering domains of functioning that are foundational to successfully meeting other developmental challenges across the life span. The psychosocial developmental life course approach of CLP, however, draws on life course theory to extend Eriksonian theory to include the view that intraindividual change after childhood is less developmentally predictable than has usually been described in Erikson's approach. Rather, in adapting the view of identity as a “steering mechanism” for life course change, a life course approach emphasizes the self-directed nature of change in adolescence and adulthood consistent with life course theory (Elder, 1998) and the emerging view of individuals as producers of their development (Brandtstaedter & Lerner, 1999; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981).


Intervention Goals: Promoting Positive Development

There has been a growing interest in developing intervention programs designed to affect the lives of young people, with the goal of moving their life trajectories in more adaptive directions (Rutter, 1990). More recently, there has also been a growing recognition that interventions need to do more than ”treat” problem behaviors (i.e., symptoms) or “prevent” negative developmental outcomes (Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000; Lerner, 2005). As a result, a growing literature focusing on interventions that seek to promote positive development. CLP is a positive development program.

Positive development programs differ from both intervention and prevention programs. Treatment intervention programs, for example, specifically target identified problem behaviors. Prevention intervention programs similarly specifically target risk and protective factors identified as probable antecedents of negative developmental outcomes. In contrast to treatment and prevention programs that target specific types of behavior problems (conduct disorders, AOD use/abuse, etc.) or risk factors, however, CLP does not target specific behavior problems or risk factors; rather, the focus of CLP is on promoting positive development. CLP provides (as needed and available) selected interventions that target specific behavior problems and risk factors and reducing behavior problems (conduct disorders, AOD use/abuse, etc.) and risk factors are an important goal of our intervention work but it is not our only goal. Nor is it in the long-run even our primary goal. From the perspective of a psychosocial developmental life course approach, important addressing the pressing problems of the here and now, but in the end they are not more important than being capable of addressing all of the pressing problems that will inevitably arise in the future. Changing lives in ways that will move the lives of young people’s in positive direction is a central aim of CLP.


Intervention Strategies

For its intervention strategies, CLP draws on Freire’s (1983/1970) approach to empowering marginalized people by enhancing their critical consciousness about their exclusion from the mainstream. Freire offered an alternative: a “problem posing” and co-constructive learning model. Freire referred to such a transformative pedagogy as a pedagogy of dialogue rather than instruction. Transformative pedagogy is participatory; it identifies and seeks to solve problems. While intentionally identifying problems and following through by engaging in transformative activities to solve these problems, students become the “experts” and, in the process, develop a greater sense of control and responsibility over their lives. They become empowered as they experience the possibility of creating (rather than enduring) the circumstances of their lives. Because of such mastery experiences, youth learn to see a closer correspondence between their goals and a sense of how to achieve them, gain greater access to and control over resources and gain mastery over their lives (Zimmerman, 1995).
In our work with young people, the learning process is co-participatory. In the process of intentionally engaging in critically posing problems and in following through by engaging in transformative activities to solve these problems, participants acquire a greater critical understanding, transform their sense of control and responsibility, and increase their proactive participation in defining who they are and what they believe in. Within the context of the program these young people become empowered to transform themselves and, as a result, the context of their communities.



Intervention Domains

CLP seeks to promote positive development by empowering young people in ways that enable them to change their lives in positive directions. In doing so, CLP targets four developmental domains: 

  • Skills and Knowledge (the focus is on Critical Understanding)

  • Attitudes and Orientations (the focus is on Control and Responsibility)

  • Self Understanding and Insight (the focus is on Knowledge of Self)

  • Personal empowerment (the focus is on proactive participation in self and community)

that enable young people to:

  • think critically about making the choices that shape their life course

  • take personal responsibility for these decisions

  • live up to their fullest potentials

  • to change the negative trajectory of their lives to positive direction


Implementation Strategy

CLP is designed to be implemented by intervention teams with some background and/or training in working in both individual and group formats. In our work with multicultural populations we have also found it useful if the intervention team members have had experience in working with at-risk, urban, and minority youth.  In implementing CLP with our population, all members of the intervention team (counselors, group facilitators, co-facilitators, group assistants and intern trainees) participate in an ongoing program of training and supervision conducted as part of the implementation of CLP. The training and supervision is designed to familiarize intervention team members with the target population and CLP's intervention goals and procedures as well as address specific intervention issues that arise in the context of implementing the program.

CLP is implemented at a variety of levels, from psycho educational services and individual counseling  to counseling groups that range in size 2 to 8. That is, in addition to individual counseling, we also implement CLP in dyads, triads, and larger groups, with the type of format used for specific presenting problems selected on the basis of the best mix of student needs/presenting issues, school needs/resources, and counselor skills/resources.

All of the program services are provided by an intervention team comprised of:

  • intervention team leader who is a graduate student in psychology, education, or social work undergoing counseling and/or mental health training,

  • a co-leader,  

  • a group assistant, and

  • one or more intern trainees


The problem and the Population


Although adolescent stress and storm is not a universal phenomena, for an increasing number of youth the transition to adulthood poses a formidable challenge. This is particularly so for disadvantaged youth. Such youth begin life outside the mainstream social institutions (e.g., economic, political, educational, etc.) that have traditionally provided young people value references and normative support.  For such socially marginalized youth, the development of a personal and moral sense of identity (i.e., who they are and the values they believe in) has become increasingly problematic.


The cost to society is high. Because of the experience of increasing marginalization, these young people put little (if any) investment in most normative social institutions. The cost to the youth themselves is also high. These marginalized youth have withdrawn from proactive participation in their personal lives, tending not to take control and responsibility for the direction of their lives, instead searching for daily adventure that too frequently includes antisocial activities and problem behaviors. As a result, the number of youth at risk for problem behaviors is extraordinary high, particularly among disadvantaged youth.


A large proportion of marginalized young people in the United States come from inner city, low-income minority families that exist within a community context of disempowerment, limited access to resources, and pervasive violence, crime, and substance abuse. Such youth tend to be disadvantaged by socioeconomic status, ethnicity, minority status, or in other ways socially marginalized. They are, for example, often subject to diverse forms of oppression, the deleterious effects of poverty, and various forms of institutional and individual racism. The psychological consequences are profound. Many young people respond to the experience of marginalization in ways (e.g., impulsiveness/ immediatism, pretending not to care, keeping their pain inside themselves, acting out against others, or escaping through drug use) that result in further marginalization and disengagement. 



Working with Disadvantaged Adolescents


Adolescence represents an opportune time for intervening to prevent risky behaviors that compromise healthy development and assisting with the normative course of development into adulthood. Adolescence is a time of experimentation, in­creased risks, and heightened vulnerability as well as openness to change. Thus, for some developmental domains, adolescence provides a maximally effective point of focus for programs that promote youth development.


However, the challenge of developing interventions for promoting positive development in disadvantaged youth in the context of limited resources is formidable. The development of effective interventions requires approaches that are readily adaptable to local and particular contexts, culturally responsive, and practical. Our experience in using this approach with the young people drawn from a diverse array of cultural contexts and traditions has shown it to be useful for providing them the opportunity to increase their proactive participation in defining who they are and what they believe in. That is, to acquire a greater critical understanding, transform their sense of control and responsibility, and to live up to their fullest potentials.