A fresh view of youth and adversity

What if adults worked with the strengths, not the perceived weaknesses, of young people from adverse environments?

Scroll to read
young woman in foreground
young people in classroom chatting

It’s time to rethink and restructure schools to recognize and serve the needs of young people from adverse environments, says Carlson School of Management Professor Vlad Griskevicius, who with colleagues studies the behavior of young people.

Vlad Griskevicious
Vlad Griskevicius, Professor, Carlson School of Management.

“Schools have been built for kids from stable environments,” he says. “When kids from adverse environments come to these schools, they are told that they are broken and must be fixed—that is, they must change themselves to fit the ‘mold’ and behave like the kids from stable environments.”

The vast majority of past research has taken this “deficit” approach, says Griskevicius. Instead, he and his colleagues take a strength approach, which recognizes, and advocates building on, the good things these youth have to offer.

“It should not be the kids who need to completely change to fit the ‘mold.’ It should be the school that adapts to work with the kids from adverse environments, working with their strengths to enable them to shine,” says Griskevicius.

Adverse environments shape special skills

Children and adolescents growing up in adverse environments face challenges that enable them to develop different skill sets from those who hail from more stable environments.

composite of three images of youths listening to music, playing basketball, and being outside

“My research states that people who grew up in adverse backgrounds have strengths in cognitive skills like attention-shifting and certain types of memory,” Griskevicius says.

“My research also highlights how these strengths are especially likely to come out in times of stress and uncertainty.”

For instance, a military human resources manager told Griskevicius that the military needs people who may not excel in the classroom, but excel in the field, where they often must switch quickly from task to task under stress.

How to bring out the best

One step toward bringing out the skills of stress-adapted youth is to realize that testing them through traditional exams may disadvantage them by not allowing them to show their abilities in context, Griskevicius says.

Also, alternative curricular content, computer-assisted instruction to assess students’ performance levels and tailor exercises accordingly, and programs to enhance teaching practices and classroom management strategies can help.

Older Black youth mentoring younger student
Students playing instruments in classroom

So can tutoring, regular contact among students in different age groups, and school activities that draw on and reward the talents of different students.

In short, says Griskevicius, “The school should be designed in a way that harnesses the strengths of all students, including those from adverse environments.”

Dig deeper

Vlad Griskevicius is a professor in the Carlson School of Management.