Spring 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA7

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Research-Based Youth Programming

As we in Extension work to implement our new Youth-at-Risk Initiative, we often look for tools that can give us direction and help us focus our efforts. The Teen Assessment Project, also known as TAP, is one such tool. It was developed to help communities identify, prevent, and begin to solve youth problems.

Stephen A. Small
Assistant Professor of Child & Family Studies and
Extension Human Development & Family Relations Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension

Barbara Hug
Extension Home Economist, Juneau County
University of Wisconsin-Extension

As we in Extension work to implement our new Youth-at-Risk Initiative, we often look for tools that can give us direction and help us focus our efforts. The Teen Assessment Project, also known as TAP, is one such tool. It was developed to help communities identify, prevent, and begin to solve youth problems. It involves administering a questionnaire to local teens about their concerns, behaviors, and perceptions and then making this information available to the community several ways, including localized newsletters and press releases. In other words, the TAP program is a vehicle for "tapping in" to the concerns and needs of local teens. The TAP program has four primary objectives:

  • Identify the needs and concerns of local youth to help schools, social service agencies, and youth-serving organizations improve and develop programs about adolescent health, recreation, and education.
  • Help communities develop community coalitions that can work together to address the issues most salient to the well-being of local youth.
  • Increase parent and professional awareness of teen concerns and educate these audiences about adolescent development and how to best meet the needs of local youth.
  • Generate research-based information to further our understanding of adolescent development and help identify appropriate prevention and intervention strategies that promote adolescent development and well-being.

The TAP Method

To accomplish these objectives, TAP uses a combination of needs assessment, local coalition building, parent education, and constituency-based research. The foundation of the program is a questionnaire administered to local youth that assesses their mental health, concerns and worries, perceptions of the community, school and family, and self-reports of various positive and problematic behaviors. The core survey instrument was developed at the University of Wisconsin. However, local communities are given the option of adding questions they feel are relevant to their community.

One section of the survey asks teens about their use of alcohol and other drugs and the reasons behind their use or nonuse. Another section includes questions about teen sexuality, such as whether they engage in sexual intercourse and how frequently they discuss sex-related issues with their parents. Other sections of the survey include questions assessing teen depression and suicide, self-esteem, parent-teen relationships, perceptions of school, and aspirations for the future. Demographic information is also obtained so student responses can be examined on how they vary by such factors as grade or age, sex, gradepoint average, and family type.

In the first step of the TAP process, county Extension faculty identify key local leaders and school district officials concerned with youth and bring them together in an advisory role. This steering committee develops appropriate procedures for conducting the survey in area schools, suggests questions to be addressed in the survey instrument, provides advice on how to disseminate the survey's findings, and provides leadership for community action in light of the findings.

Next, working with local school districts, the survey is administered in participating schools to a random sample of junior and senior high school students. The data are then sent back to the university where they're analyzed. Based on the survey's findings, county Extension faculty draft a final report on the needs and concerns of local youth and make it available to interested agencies and individuals in the community. Radio and press releases featuring highlights of the report are prepared for local and state dissemination.

Finally, a series of five newsletters is sent to parents of teens and other local adults concerned about youth. The newsletters feature data from the local survey, discuss current research-based knowledge about youth, and provide suggestions for how parents and other concerned adults can more effectively promote the development of young people. Current newsletter issues address the following topics: teen depression and suicide; alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; parent-teen relations; teen sexuality; and parent-teen communication.

Program Costs

The costs of the TAP program are relatively low because they're shared by state, county, and local partners. The county Extension office has typically covered the printing costs of the survey and the newsletter. The school systems are usually responsible for the costs of data entry, analysis, and mailing of the newsletter. However, given the current widespread concern about youth at risk, most communities have been able to obtain special state or county funds to cover most of the costs. Other communities have solicited funding from local service organizations like the Lion's Club or Optimists. Not only does local sponsorship defray the costs of TAP, but it helps give the local community a sense of ownership in the program.

Program Benefits

The TAP program has been initiated in over 60 communities in 20 counties across Wisconsin. The benefits of the program have been diverse, spanning a variety of levels. In one county, a major problem identified by the TAP survey was depression and thoughts of suicide among ninth and 10th grade adolescent girls. As a result, the community brought in a national expert on suicide and depression to lead a series of workshop for parents, teachers, and professionals. It also led members of the community coalition sponsoring TAP to further examine why depression was so common in the group of girls identified.

In another community, the TAP survey led to establishing a parent network aimed at improving communication and interaction among parents, clarifying community norms about acceptable behavior, and facilitating better adult monitoring and supervision of teens.

In over a dozen communities, the TAP findings on teen use of alcohol and other drugs have served as the cornerstone of grant proposals aimed at obtaining state and federal money for drug prevention programming. In several schools, the TAP findings have led administrators to implement new curricula that address some of the major issues identified in the survey.

Another important result of the TAP program is that the local steering committee brought together to direct the project often remains in place long after the survey is completed, transforming itself into a youth-at-risk or prevention task force. Perhaps most importantly, in every community where the TAP survey has been conducted, parents, educators, community leaders, and teens themselves are more aware of the concerns facing local young people and are more willing to do something about them.

Extension's Role

TAP can also strengthen the role of Extension agents, expand their support base, and increase cross-program collaboration. County agents have indicated that the data obtained from the TAP survey have enhanced their leadership role in the community by enabling them to identify local concerns and program needs while providing a valuable source of information sought by local and state leaders. Since agents are directly involved in the research process, they've been able to ask questions important to their wok and constituents, thus giving new meaning to the Extension mission of "providing research-based information."

The TAP program has also enabled agents to expand their audience from individuals and families to professionals, government, and community leaders, thereby strengthening their support base. Finally, in Wisconsin, county leadership for TAP has almost always been a team effort involving both the Extension home economist and the 4-H youth agent. In some counties, the community resource development agent has also been an active player.

At the state level, TAP provides a way to involve land-grant universities in applied research with direct benefits to the people of the state. In Wisconsin, it has helped to identify statewide concerns, provide research opportunities to university researchers who are often removed from the people of the state, and contribute to a statewide database on youth. As the TAP database grows, it has become increasingly sought after as a source of information by state legislators and media professionals. For instance, TAP data were recently included as part of one state senator's testimony on new teen pregnancy prevention legislation. In addition, a score of county newspapers and several state newspapers and national magazines have cited some of the findings in their articles.

Finally, the TAP program provides a new model for the execution of the land-grant/Extension mission. Given TAP's use of the existing land-grant/Extension System, its relatively low cost, its focus on important, current issues, and its potential for community-wide impact, TAP has the potential to be a new prototype for how Extension and land-grant schools can meet the needs of the people of the state.