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50 MARCH 2003
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Motivational factors for positive change: A comparison of research on issues in youth

Yana Maltais

When I first began researching some issues in the lives of youths, I was looking for problems and solutions pertinent to specific behaviours and attitudes. The more I thought about and read on those subjects, the more I became interested in looking at factors that underlie motivation for change, whatever the specific issue. I thought I saw some common threads that could be applied in a broad view of the lives of youths, and was curious to find out if different research projects on different issues were, in their outcomes, pointing to some constant personal, cultural, or environmental factors as being key in motivation for youth to take positive and active charge of a variety of aspects of their lives.

As I had begun my research with some personal beliefs on motivation, based on my values and my life and work experience, including my study of my own children, I wanted to know if I would find some correlating conclusions in the research of others, or if I would need to adjust my own assumptions based on my findings. I had identified two key factors that I thought I saw working for teens, although I do not see these as limited to the teen years. The factors were:

  1. A support system that included both relationships, such as those with family or peers, and supportive institutions, such as school or community involvement.

  2. The experience of success, and the person's belief that she/he could attain success.

Primarily, I looked at findings on two broad issues: sexual risk-taking, and future goal setting and expectations. This paper compares some of the findings in several research projects related to these youth issues, in the context of motivational and change factors, and also attempts to identify those common factors that can be applied to various areas of concern for youth and those who care for or support them.

Further, in the process of identifying issues, I asked the question of what was risky behaviour, and how is it differently defined from a variety of points of view. For example, on issues of sexuality, there can be the point of view that early sexual activity in teens is risky per se. Or, one can view only sexual activity that involves exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs) or pregnancy as the risk. Some of the research directly confronts these discrepancies, and I attempt to identify those, while much of it appears to make broad assumptions of risk without definition. Therefore, I identify the understandings of risks for youth, within each of the broad areas previously stated.

Sexual risk-taking
The concern of service providers to youth, regarding the health risks of early sexual activity in the teen years, is backed up by such statistics as that approximately 40% of young females are pregnant before the age of twenty in the United States, and about one fourth of sexually experienced teenagers contracts an STD every year, reported by Kirby (2002) in his summary of seventy-three studies and their corresponding programs for youth. Another expert stated that “[f]ifty percent of sexually active teens have human papilloma virus which causes 90% of cervical cancer cases" (McIlhaney, quoted in Byfield, 2002). The risks for teen mothers include reduced likelihood of furthering their education, a high risk of living in poverty, and lowered expectations of life satisfaction (Bissell, 2000). Further, a great percentage of teen mothers come from low socio-economic backgrounds (2000), which would argue that there is a cycle of sexual risk and poverty that is perpetuated. Statistical reports also tell us that people living at lower income levels are more at risk for a variety of diseases, injuries, substance abuse, and death, than are those who are not living in poverty (Young, Martin, Young, & Ting, 2001). Four sexual risk factors are identified in another review of programs: that youth today are more sexually active than in previous generations, that youth do not have much parental supervision, that families are increasingly under economic stress, and that sexual abuse increases risk (Monahan, 2002, p. 432).

It would appear that our concern for youth engaging in sexual risk-taking, through a lack of birth control, activity in the early teens and multiple partners, and lack of condom use when active, is justified. The later risks for females who bear children in their teens has been debated as being dependent, to an extent, on cultural attitudes and norms, and may in fact not be risky in the long term as far as educational and career goals for the mother, or the well-being of the children of teen mothers (Bissell, 2000).

As a result of the variety of concerns for the well being of youth, particularly the more vulnerable females experiencing pregnancy and higher rates of STIs than males (Byfield, 2002), service providers continue to struggle with the most effective way to support health-promoting behaviour and attitudes in teens. The risk factors fall into two categories: first, behaviour of the youth such as lack of harm reduction practices such as condom use, and second, environmental factors such as cultural norms and limited educational or economic opportunities. Therefore, to look at motivational factors for youth to change, we must consider both the intrinsic motivation and abilities of the individual, and the extrinsic supports and opportunities that are provided.

The study by Young et al (2001) was based on data from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), which first collected data from youth in grade eight in 1988. Teens who later became pregnant were compared with those who did not (as teens), and variations in two factors were examined: locus of control (the individual’s perceived control over her own life) and personal efficacy (the individual’s belief in her ability to be effective). This study found that the youth who became pregnant scored lower than those who did not in both internal locus of control (versus external) and self-efficacy.

Bissel’s (2000) review of Canadian and U.S. studies on the socio-economic results of pregnancy in teens, reports that disadvantaged teens may not see any economic or educational motivation for avoiding pregnancy, and that the importance of social and economic policies to address those factors must be considered along with attempts to lower the rate of teen pregnancies. This article appears to directly link the function of specific sex education informing children and youth, with the importance of systemic changes in society to increase supports and options.

Kirby’s (2002) report indicates that specific HIV education has shown to have a greater success with increasing the use of condoms by male youth than does comprehensive sex education, and that in five out of nineteen studies it also reduced the frequency of intercourse. Similarly, nine out of twenty-eight programs postponed the beginning of sexual activity by the youth involved. In his conclusion, Kirby notes that,

'some youth may have all the needed knowledge and skills regarding contraception but may simply lack the motivation to avoid pregnancy, while others may lack the knowledge, attitudes, or skills but have connections with adults, a belief in the future, and the motivation to avoid pregnancy. Thus, for different groups of youth, it is important to determine the reasons for their sexual risk-taking, and to then select the proper program.' (2002)

Future goal setting and expectations
It is encouraging to read that recent research on the attitudes of Canadian teens indicates that most of them expect to achieve post-secondary education, a desired career, a life partnership, and extensive travel opportunities (Bibby, 2001, 136). At the same time, and in some contrast to those statistics, we are told that 37% of females and 21% of males are not self-confident (p. 40). In another study with mixed results, the NELS showed that “[a]lthough teens who later became pregnant had lower expectation in regard to educational attainment and finishing high school than did those who did not become pregnant, they did not have lower expectations in regard to level of career" (Young et al, 2002).

In an innovative project working with street youth in Toronto, the “project hired six street-involved youth on a part-time basis for eight months to conduct research among their peers to develop harm reduction materials for other street-involved youth" (Poland, Tupker, & Breland, 2002, p. 344). Even more innovative was the research team’s approach in that their “stated purpose in conducting the evaluation was to assess [via the youth] the ability of the various teams of professionals involved in this project to create the optimal conditions for youth empowerment and successful completion of the set tasks" (p. 346). These youth, who were primarily concerned with homelessness and drug use, became committed to the project (which included a harm reduction video and interviews of their peers), and the researchers reported that the youth “felt it was important to complete the project to prove to themselves and others that “street youth” can succeed ... Being taken seriously – and being counted on to do their best and follow through – were in themselves seen as important to these youth" (p. 346).

In a project in the United States, information was obtained from youth through a variety of means, including public and peer discussions, and a report was published on teen pregnancy from a male point of view ("D.C. targets", 2001). “Boys and young men respond better to an adult world that values them, listens to them, teaches them, builds on their strengths and supports them in planning how to achieve their dream" (p. 9).

A British Columbia study was based on reviews by the Children's Commission of suicides of children and youth since 1996. According to that study, suicide is the second most common cause of death for youth aged 15-24 (Mitic, Rimer, & Seale, 2002, p. 13). By examining the factors in the cases represented in the reviews, the authors were able to create a picture of factors relating to suicide. These were grouped into predisposing factors, contributing factors, precipitating factors, and protective factors (p. 16). Protective factors included personality traits such as “experience with self-mastery" (p. 16), warm family relationships and positive modelling, peer acceptance, and opportunity for community relationships. As approximately one half of the children and youth reports showed no protective factors (p. 19), and overall protective factors were minimal (p. 24)a picture is shown of the imbalance between influences toward suicide, and the protective factors. The most consistent supportive element in those people’s lives was shown to be school (19), which has been built on since the initial reports through implementation of suicide prevention programs (p. 30).

What is needed by youth to provide them with their best opportunities to be self-motivating and to develop with maximum health?

Some common factors have been found throughout the research literature.

The individual’s personality and self-identity. Traits such as resilience and creativity provide protective factors, and self-esteem and psychological development are basic to the person's ability to make conscious decisions, plan and take action.

Personal relationships that are supportive and meaningful: family, peers, and other adults in the community. Specific support from parents is, of course, key. However, other familial relationships are also significant, and the important elements seem to be acceptance and a sense of belonging, more than particular parenting style. It is in relationships that youth are grounded.

Schools that provide stability, acceptance, and access to personal relationships. Schools are most youths' community, whether as a positive influence, or as a contributing negative factor. They are the most significant conduit to adult society for youth, and can provide both opportunities to develop personal resources, and a contact point for supportive interactions with both adults and peers.

Socio-economic opportunities. A belief in the possibility of security, safety, and opportunities to make life choices is essential in order to be motivated to plan or create change.

Community resources. As well as offering specific support to deal with individual needs, the presence of community support in the form of resources is, itself, a strong message to youth that they are a part of society, and are valued. When youth further take on involvement in their community through service work of any kind, there is reinforcement for them of their value to their community, which builds self-esteem and promotes personal development. Youth who are not in school require the community resources even more strongly to facilitate personal support and develop connections with others.

At the beginning of this research I identified two broad factors that I saw as being critical for developing motivation in youth: first, a support system of personal relationships, along with school and community resources; and second, the experience of success and a belief in one’s ability to attain it. In comparing the list of five factors from the research with my two, I see some strong similarities. Throughout my research, the significance of family, peer and community relationships was highlighted as being important to youth in motivating them. What I found, as well, was that relationships with adults other than family are very important, and with “at risk" youth, those relationships could be critical. Clearly, we should be providing a broad range of relationship structures for children and youth.

An assessment of the research for this paper supports my second premise regarding the experience of success, and a belief in its possibility, being necessary to promote motivation in youth, as issues of self-esteem, belief in the future, and opportunities to practice success have been highlighted by many researchers and programs that support youth. My idea is expanded with the perspective of starting with the individual’s identity and personality, assessing the needs for that individual, and targeting supports best suited for that person. In other words, different individuals, different communities, and different cultures should be matched to appropriate supports, rather than attempting to define programs or solutions that can fit everyone, everywhere. This topic could itself be an extensive study, covering as it does a range from very specific individual learning patterns in school, to very broad systemic issues such as public funding for health care.

In conclusion, it is through the provision of a foundation based on the five identified common factors, including my two premises, that we can support in youth the development of intrinsic motivation and extrinsic supports for determining long-term goals, and for building skills, knowledge base, and attitudes that will maximize opportunities and satisfaction for youth.


Bibby, R. (2001). Canada’s teens: today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing.

Bissell, M. (2000). Socio-economic outcomes of teen pregnancy and parenthood: A review of the literature. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 9, 3, 191-204. Retrieved October 22, 2002, from Electronic Library Network (Academic Search Elite) on the World Wide Web:

Byfield, J. (2002). Actually, none of it works. Report/Newsmagazine (Alberta Edition), 29, 15, 64-65. Retrieved October 22, 2002, from Electronic Library Network (Academic Search Elite) on the World Wide Web:

D.C. targets boys, young men to prevent teen pregnancy. (2001, October). Nation's Health, 31, 9, 9. Retrieved October 22, 2002, from Electronic Library Network (Academic Search Elite) on the World Wide Web:

Kirby, D. (2002). Effective approaches to reducing adolescent unprotected sex, pregnancy, and childbearing. Journal of Sex Research, 30, 1, 51-57. Retrieved October 22, 2002, from Electronic Library Network (Academic Search Elite) on the World Wide Web:

Mitic, W., Rimer, M., & Seale, T. (2002). Youth suicide investigations: Risk and protective factors and recommendations for policy changes. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 15, 11, 3-32.

Monahan, D. J. (2002). Teen pregnancy prevention outcomes: Implications for social work practice. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 83, 4, 431-439.

Poland, B. D., Tupker, E., Breland, K. (2002). Involving street youth in peer harm reduction education. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 93, 5, 344-347.

Young, T. M., Martin, S. S., Young, & M. E., Ting, L. (2001, Summer). Internal poverty and teen pregnancy. Adolescence, 36, 142, 289-304. Retrieved October 22, 2002, from Electronic Library Network (Academic Search Elite) on the World Wide Web:

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