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The ERIC/OSEP Special Project

OSEP, Ideas that Work

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Development funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs


Services Help Improve Resilience in Formerly Incarcerated Youth

Why do some adolescents who were incarcerated make successful transitions back to the community and adult lives while others repeat destructive patterns of behavior and negative consequences? More briefly put, why are some young people resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds? A recent OSEP-funded study directed by Bonnie Todis at Western Oregon University sought to answer this question by investigating possible environmental effects on resilience, at home, in school, and in transition services.

The 15 individuals who participated in the five-year project varied widely in terms of cultural background, criminal activity, disability, drug and alcohol history, and urban vs. rural living situation. The researchers interviewed them about their lives in their homes, neighborhoods, or places of work. Respondents were permitted to bring up topics of interest to them during interviews throughout the course of the study.

In analyzing the life histories of the respondents, the study found that "none of the families ...had well-established lines of communication between parents and children or even between parents." The researchers also analyzed the factors that positively influenced respondents' lives: Active family involvement and communication, successful return to school, engagement in school and work activities, association with peers who were not engaged in illegal activity, abstinence from drug use, and consistent involvement with one or more adults other than parents.

The researchers caution that these offenders are still adolescents, and many have delayed emotional and cognitive development due to early drug use. Many do not have problem- solving skills, and many face continued battles with drug addiction. Many also still have no adults in their lives to help them learn the skills they need to deal with life.

According to the respondents, adults can make a critical difference to youth who are attempting to lead a crime-free life by

  • showing interest in what they are doing;
  • having consistent behavioral expectations;
  • monitoring compliance with rules and responsibilities;
  • engaging them in conversations about their activities and confronting them about mistakes and unmet responsibilities;
  • giving them lots of chances to recover when they do make mistakes;
  • offering guidance, encouragement, and regard;
  • modeling responsibility and integrity; and
  • establishing a personal, caring connection with them.

Successful respondents are characterized by determination, a positive outlook and approach to life, and a strong future orientation. These young people have set goals at work and in their personal lives, and they take on responsibilities in both arenas. As the researchers note, "They made a conscious choice to change their lives."

Findings from the study indicate a great need for strong transition supports, including assistance with employment, housing, counseling, and, most important, interaction with at least one committed, competent adult who can offer consistency, consequence, and caring. Schools can help by providing structure, positive adult influence, skills, and problem-solving experiences. Providing parents with information on communications strategies, monitoring youth behavior, setting and enforcing limits, and following through with consequences can help to prepare them for the challenges of raising an adolescent.

This research was supported by a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, (Grant #H023C950150), directed by Bonnie Todis). For more information, see Todis, B., Bullis, M., Waintrup, M., Schultz, R., D'Ambrosio, R. (2001, Fall). Overcoming the Odds: Qualitative examination of resilience among formerly incarcerated adolescents. Exceptional Children 68(1), pp. 123-44.


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Last updated: December 17, 2001

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