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Adolescence / Blog

 Frederic Reamer Ph.D.

Frederic Reamer Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Reamer is a professor in the Graduate Social Work Program at Rhode Island College.

The Effectiveness of Programs for Struggling Teens


The most reputable programs and schools for struggling teens are those that base their services on research that has been published in peer-reviewed professional journals. The peer review process offers some assurance that the research satisfies widely accepted scientific standards. Although that research knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, in recent years we have learned a great deal about what distinguishes helpful, constructive programs and schools from those that are ineffective and, at times, harmful and unethical.  Programs that ignore this evidence imperil their adolescent charges. In addition to depriving teens of the most effective services and interventions, and sometimes endangering the youngster, the programs expose themselves to malpractice and negligence claims. While using research-based interventions does not guarantee effectiveness, failure to use these approaches may increase the risk of harm.

Those who provide services to struggling teens and their families have a responsibility to use the best available research-based knowledge.  Basing programs and practices on belief systems and charismatic personalities can endanger teens emotionally and physically, particularly when these belief systems and practices fly in the face of what methodologically rigorous research data suggest help and hurt teens and their families.  Delivering evidence-based services to struggling teens and their families means that providers:

  • Rely on the findings of published research from multiple studies
  • Draw on a continuum of empirical and nonempirical databases (for example, systematic reviews of research) to guide interventions
  • Implement interventions for which research evidence is sufficiently persuasive to support their effectiveness in attaining desired outcomes
  • Review the literature on what works, with whom, and under what conditions, and individualize intervention approaches accordingly
  • Use clinical interventions that have been (1) evaluated by well-designed clinical research studies, (2) published in peer-reviewed journals, and (3) consistently found to be effective or efficacious for a specific problem upon consensus review
  • Blend the best researched evidence and clinical expertise with the values of the client and the professional

Evidence-based practice includes several core processes that inform and shape the efforts of professionals to intervene with struggling teens and their families:

  • A comprehensive, organized, purposeful assessment of the teen and family, completed and continuously revised, so that interventions target relevant issues and challenges
  • Selection of the most appropriate intervention from information from multiple sources (for example, systematic reviews of research and published practice guidelines derived from a consensus of experts)
  • Systematic review of the professional literature for cutting-edge developments and practice-based articles when no empirically-based guideline is available for a particular issue or challenge

Ideally, parents who are eager to find the most appropriate program or school for their child will ask program and school administrators to describe the ways in which their educational model and intervention framework are based deliberately on the best available research evidence.  Parents should be concerned if they receive only vague answers or if administrators dismiss or minimize the relevance of pertinent research.  This may be an indication – a big red flag – that the school or program is shaped more by ideology and doctrine than the best available knowledge regarding “what works.”