Michigan Minds – Understanding How Social Programs Improve the Lives of Young People

September 7, 2021

ANN ARBOR – How can social programs improve the lives of young people? Robin Jacob, PhD, research associate professor at the Survey Research Center at ISR and the School of Education, and faculty co-director of the Youth Policy Lab (YPL), joined this episode of Michigan Minds to explain her research evaluating programs and interventions to better understand the variety of factors that affect young people. She also discusses the Youth Policy Lab and the work that is done there to impact positive change.

“We wanted to come up with a way to have our research have a bigger impact on the lives of young people, so we cooked up the idea of the lab and decided that we would focus on partnerships,” Jacob says.

Youth Policy Lab work is varied and wide-ranging, and includes general data analysis about who is being served by state and local programs, what barriers to access exist, and what the different outcomes for different populations are. Researchers at the lab also evaluate the efficacy of the programs and determine whether they are benefiting the individuals they were intended to serve. The YPL partners with state and local agencies in this work, leveraging their research and expertise.

“Young people are clearly our future, and the earlier we can start to intervene in their lives, the more likely we are to set them up for lifelong success,” says Jacob. “But young people do not exist in isolation. They interact with institutions and with families. So our goal is to help strengthen both those institutions and the families that they are a part of to help kids start off on the right track and set them up to be successful adults and engaged citizens, and have the quality of life that we all hope for our children.”

Jacob also talks about the findings from a survey in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which showed that a significant number of students in the district had symptoms of anxiety or depression within the past year. She explains that the survey was conducted in collaboration with the TRAILS program at U-M to understand the level of need so they could tailor programming to those needs. They talked with students, teachers, administrators, mental health professionals, police officers, and families in the district to get a clear picture.

“We did find that the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among Detroit students are quite high, higher than national averages,” she says. “We also found that teachers and school staff are very much in need of support themselves.”

She explains that the plans for fall, based on those findings, will include the traditional programming including social and emotional learning, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy support.

Jacob also reviews the findings from a policy brief that identified barriers preventing Detroit high school students from enrolling and succeeding in college, and another study that looked at career and technical education for students with disabilities in Michigan. She says it’s important to consider the entire scope of a child’s needs, and determine how they can have a positive experience across all those dimensions and throughout their academic career.

She emphasizes the necessity of collaboration between communities, agencies, and institutions to ensure the most positive outcome for children.

“To really make a difference in the lives of people, I think we really need to partner with the people who are on the ground and doing that work, and provide them with useful information they can use to make changes to their policies and programs, to help families and young people be successful,” Jacob says.

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