Summer 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA7

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Barriers to Youth-at-Risk Programming

Expanding the ability of Extension to deal more effectively with critical youth needs will involve significant individual, institutional, and organizational change. Success in expanding this capability will depend on how well Extension identifies and then overcomes both real and perceived barriers to planning and implementing effective programs for at-risk youth.

Roger A. Rennekamp
Extension Specialist in Program and Staff Development
University of Kentucky-Lexington

Gary W. Gerhard
Program Leader, 4-H/Youth Development
College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Over the past several years, disturbing statistics about American youth have led to continuing criticism of the social institutions charged with helping young people lead productive and contributing adult lives. As a result, the National Initiative Task Force on Youth-at-Risk suggested Extension, too, rethink the way it does business and take the steps necessary to address the needs of today's young people.1 Expanding the ability of Extension to deal more effectively with critical youth needs will involve significant individual, institutional, and organizational change. Success in expanding this capa-bility will depend on how well Extension identifies and then overcomes both real and perceived barriers to planning and implementing effective programs for at-risk youth.

Framework for Understanding

A framework for understanding barriers to youth-at-risk programming can be found in organizational development theory, related research in education, and studies of Extension program development. Organizational development is a planned, systematic process for organizational change based on behavioral science technology, research, and theory. It rests on a systems approach in which four interacting variables-task, structure, people, and technology-are involved in the accomplishment of planned change.2 Any of these variables can either enable or act as barriers to accomplishing change.

Barriers to change can also be categorized as either individual or organizational.3 Some significant individual barriers include selective adoption of change, habit, dependence, fear of the unknown, economic factors, security, and regression. Organizational barriers include threats to power and influence, structure, resource limitations, fixed investments, and interorganizational agreements. Such barriers could be expected to occur in any organizational change, including those undertaken in Extension youth programs.

More specifically, lack of knowledge or skills in working with at-risk youth is an important barrier to conducting effective programs in the schools. For example, the Phi Delta Kappa study of Youth-at-Risk found that many teachers didn't use effective teaching methods for dealing with at-risk youth. The study also revealed teachers believed individualized approaches were best for working with at-risk youth, but they were limited by a lack of information about students' family situations and other aspects of their lives. Some teachers believed they could do little for at-risk youth. Sixty percent felt they couldn't help with family discord or instability, crime, or alcohol abuse. More than 90% thought parents or students, rather than teachers, should be most responsible for helping youth deal with those problems.4

Within the Extension System, little has been done to analyze potential barriers to at-risk programming. Unwillingness to cross programmatic and disciplinary barriers and to part with tradition have been identified as significant barriers to issues programming,5 which includes at-risk efforts. A survey of Texas Extension staff also identified difficulty in managing complex issues, time management concerns, need for inservice education, and inadequate resources as barriers to issues programming generally.6 In the most specific discussion, Sauer argued that the greatest barrier to effective youth-at-risk programming is the failure of Extension to allocate appropriate human and fiscal resources to address the problem.7

Identifying Barriers

In the fall of 1990, we conducted a study to identify the barriers to effective Extension youth-at-risk programming. A modified Delphi technique was used for the study because it encouraged individual thinking, forced participants to move toward consensus, and could be done with a smaller number of respondents than typical methods of survey research. The Delphi technique uses a series of individual "ballots" on which respondents indicate items they feel to be of greatest importance or highest priority. Multiple rounds of ballots are sent to the response group with each subsequent ballot containing only the items rated highest in the previous round.8

The panel consisted of five state 4-H leaders, five state 4- H specialists, four county 4-H agents, a regional 4-H agent, and a county Extension director. Three were from the Northeast Region, three from the North Central, five from the South, and five from the West. The first questionnaire contained 40 potential barriers taken from the organizational development, public education, and Extension literature as well as those submitted by a panel of experts in 4-H and youth development. Panel members were instructed to review the list, add other items they identified, and indicate the 10 barriers they felt were most critical. The second and third questionnaires contained only barriers identified as most critical by at least one-fourth of the panel in the preceding round. Panelists marked five barriers in the second round and three barriers in the third.

The three items marked by the greatest number of respondents on the final questionnaire were determined to be the most significant barriers to youth-at-risk programming and were termed barriers of "highest importance." The remaining items from the third round survey were referred to as "highly important." Items appearing on the second round questionnaire, but not receiving enough "votes" to appear on the third round questionnaire, were referred to as "important" barriers. Items that appeared on the initial questionnaire, but not advancing to the second round, received the designation "low importance."


The three-round Delphi procedure yielded three barriers of highest importance, six highly important, 12 important barriers, and 23 of low importance. Below are listed the barriers falling into each of the three top categories.

Highest Importance

  • Demands of traditional clientele limit time and resources for initiating youth-at-risk programs.
  • Lack of knowledge, experience, or skills for working with at-risk youth.
  • Management of current programs occupies all available time.

Highly Important

  • Lack of access to university departments with relevant expertise.
  • Locating volunteers to work with at-risk youth.
  • Lack of Extension board/council support for involvement with youth-at-risk issues.
  • Lack of multicultural experiences by faculty, staff, or agents.
  • Lack of parental support in families with at-risk youth.
  • Lack of leadership at state levels for embarking on youth-at-risk programming.


  • Specialists lack expertise in youth-at-risk programming.
  • Unwillingness to change.
  • Lack of knowledge about appropriate methods for teaching hard-to-reach youth.
  • Discomfort in working with youth at risk.
  • Failure to reallocate financial resources for at-risk programming.
  • Lack of grant writing skills.
  • 4-H isn't viewed as "expert" in dealing with at-risk youth.
  • Lack of clientele support for youth-at-risk issues involvement.
  • Precursors to at-risk behaviors are established before 4-H age.
  • Lack of available resources to fund programs for at-risk youth.
  • Fear of working in dangerous neighborhoods by agents and volunteers.
  • Large enrollment numbers can't be achieved through youth-at-risk programming.


The panel of respondents overwhelmingly felt the "people barrier," in the form of demands made by traditional clientele, limits the time and resources to initiate youth-at-risk programming. Although Extension in most states has endorsed the concept of programming with at-risk youth, little has been said about how to best do this programming in light of demands for core programs popular with clientele. Two options for dealing with this barrier are to either generate new resources for programming with at-risk youth or reallocate existing resources away from ongoing programs.

Additional financial resources for programming with at-risk youth can be obtained through either public or private sources. Increased proposal writing and grantsmanship will be necessary if funds of either type are to be obtained. Reallocation of present resources can only be effective if lay advisory groups support a redirection of funds away from ongoing programs toward at-risk youth programs. Yet, the composition of these groups makes it difficult to engage in meaningful assessments of community needs and priorities. Advisory group members tend to be involved in core Extension programs, while advocates of programming for at- risk youth are often not represented. Most advisory group members will acknowledge the existence of youth problems, but are reluctant to deemphasize ongoing programs to strengthen programs targeted for at-risk youth. Thus, for any redirection to occur, Extension must actively make advisory group membership more representative of, or advocates for, the at-risk population.

Another critically important concern is the individual barrier of lack of knowledge, experience, and skills needed to develop programs for at-risk youth. With a majority of Extension's field staff possessing academic degrees in agriculture or home economics, and some states still requiring such degrees for employment, it's logical to assume many agents don't have the "tools" needed to embark on youth-at-risk programming. This barrier may be overcome by "retooling" Extension staff through traditional inservice education, graduate work, and self-study. Some personnel may lack the desire or predisposition to embark on youth-at-risk programming. Retooling for a job that's incongruent with career goals may be unsuccessful. In such cases, reassignment or counseling out of the organization may be a more desirable option than asking the person to conduct at-risk youth programs.

A second option is to hire Extension staff with backgrounds appropriate for the job. For Extension positions requiring significant work in the area of youth development or youth-at- risk, a background in counseling, education, child development, social work, and psychology may be most appropriate.

The Extension System seems to be sending a mixed message about whether at-risk youth programming is indeed appropriate, expected, and ultimately rewarded. In some states, Extension administration needs to delineate expectations for agents with regard to at-risk programming. In other states, agents have been encouraged to work in at-risk programming, but the current evaluation system doesn't assess their work with this audience. Rather, the agents' performance appraisal is based more on generating membership in organized 4-H Clubs and participation in traditional 4-H activities and events. These task and structure barriers must be addressed.


The need for effective programs for at-risk youth is apparent. Extension has made a sizable investment of time and resources in "gearing up" for programming with at-risk youth. However, several key barriers to embarking on a comprehensive, systemwide attack on the youth-at-risk issue remain. To succeed in expanding its capability to deal with at-risk youth, the system must:

  1. Aggressively seek to make program advisory groups more representative of the at-risk population.
  2. Involve program advisory groups in making decisions about program priorities and resource allocations.
  3. Adjust hiring policies and inservice education programs to reflect an emphasis on youth-at-risk programming.
  4. Clearly define expectations of staff for involvement in youth-at-risk programming.
  5. Restructure performance appraisal systems to reward work with at-risk programs.


1. National Initiative Task Force on Youth-at-Risk, Youth: The American Agenda (Washington, D.C.: ES-USDA, 1989).

2. H. Leavitt, "Applied Organizational Change in Industry: Structural, Technological, and Humanistic Approaches," in Handbook of Organizations, J. March, ed. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965).

3. D. Hellriegel, J. Slocum, and R. W. Woodman, Organizational Behavior, 4th ed. (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Company, 1986).

4. J. Frymier and B. Gandsneder, "The Phi Delta Kappa Study of Youth at Risk," Phi Delta Kappan, LXXI (October 1989), 142-46.

5. E. J. Boone, "Crossing Lines," Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Fall 1990), 3-5 and B. K. Webb, "Beyond Tradition," Journal of Extension, XXVII (Summer 1989), 5-6.

6. E. Taylor-Powell and B. Richardson, "Issues Programming Changes Extension," Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Summer 1990), 16-18.

7. R. J. Sauer, "Youth at Risk: Extension's Hard Decisions," Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Spring 1990), 4-6.

8. A. L. Delbecq, A. H. Van DeVen, and D. H. Gustafson, Group Techniques for Program Planning: A Guide to Nominal Group and Delphi Processes (Glenview, Illinois: Scott Foresman and Company, 1975).