Preventing Risky Youth Behavior Is Aim of New U.Va. Center

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian  Anderfuren:

July 28, 2010 — Smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, obesity, gangs, bullying, eating disorders, sex, school dropout, speeding – the prevention of risky adolescent behaviors like these is the goal of a new center at the Curry School of Education, Youth-Nex: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

Established with a $4 million commitment from Philip Morris USA, an Altria Company, the aim of this multidisciplinary center is to become a national beacon on adolescence, both promoting healthy development and preventing major psychological and social problems. As a research and development nexus, the center will bring together faculty and programs from across Grounds to work on these issues.

At the helm of this undertaking is Patrick Tolan, a professor in Curry's Department of Human Services, who joined U.Va. last fall. Tolan brings 25 years of research and practice experience, including 10 years as director of the Institute for Juvenile Research and professor of psychiatry and of public health at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He is an internationally recognized authority on adolescence, families, violence and prevention.

Tolan acknowledged that this is not the first or only effort to address adolescent issues. "A lot of capable people with good hearts and strong minds have developed ideas about and efforts to help youth with these problems," he said. "But in many cases these good ideas and intentions didn't really make a difference or couldn't be scaled up to be useful. We need to do better."

This is one reason the center will focus on scientifically evaluating the effectiveness of existing youth programs locally and nationally, as well as developing innovative efforts for Virginia.

Tolan noted that his initial task has been to explore the considerable capability in the Curry School and across Grounds to identify areas of existing interest and capacity for research related to adolescents. He is also hoping to recruit additional expertise.

The Curry School has a long history of working to address adolescent well-being, with programs such as the Young Women Leaders Program, the Virginia Youth Violence Project, and the M-Cubed (Math, Men, Mission) program. Other research projects addressing in-school learning and community afterschool programs are ongoing, as well.

"I'm trying to understand both the potential of our existing capacity and the problems the center should address, which are rarely simple," Tolan said.

Because the issues of concern to the center are related not only to youth but also to families, communities and school environments, Tolan is meeting with and listening to people in the local and regional areas who work with youth. He is learning about what they perceive to be the most pressing issues, what resources are available or might be promoted, and what the center can do to help.

Tolan noted that four U.Va. projects received seed funding from the center this spring, and added that his own externally funded research programs are ongoing. One of his studies will engage 2,700 three- to five-year-olds and their caregivers to map the complex interplay of individual characteristics, family relationships and community factors influencing development of youth problem behaviors. The goal of the research is to help identify more effective interventions.

— By Lynn Bell      

NOTE: This article first appeared in the Spring 2010 Curry Magazine.