Tag Archives: adolescence


Reyna Lab

Reyna Lab 2011

Students from Valerie Reyna’s Laboratory for Rational Decision Making have been working in collaboration with New Roots Charter School in Ithaca as well as Cooperative Extension offices in New York City and Broome County to offer innovative curricula to teens.

The goal of the project is to reduce adolescent risk taking by providing effective interventions in the areas of sexual health as well as nutrition and fitness, while also gathering research data to improve the interventions. By working with Cornell Cooperative Extension, the team is assessing how best to move this program beyond the laboratory team and into the community.

The project is proving rewarding, not only for the youth who are taking the classes, but for the Cornell students involved in the research and teaching.

“Teaching health education to teenagers has also helped cement my interest in pursuing adolescent medicine as a career,” said Claire Lyons, ’12. Graduate student Anna Kharmats added, “the students [at New Roots] inspired me to apply to the New York City Teaching fellowship program to which I have been accepted."

Read more in this newsletter the students created about their activities at New Roots.

See a poster the students created about the Reducing the Risk intervention and work with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

New York families will soon have more access to evidence-based programs that prevent substance abuse among middle school students and their families.

The PROSPER partnerships - which stands for PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience  - are a model for implementing substance abuse prevention programming based on real evidence. The program links Cooperative Extension, public schools, and local communities to choose proven programs that serve the needs of individual communities.

Last month, New York was chosen as one of five states in that will continue the process of forming a PROSPER Partnership, with Cornell serving as the university partner. Read more

Last fall, when an 18-year-old Rutgers student killed himself after a live video showing him having intimate relations with another young man was transmitted on the Internet, public attention once again focused on the risk of suicide among gay teenagers.

But Ritch Savin-Williams,  professor of developmental psychology, argues in this January 2011 New York Times article that the evidence for normal gay youth is less well-known because studies that don't find group differences between gay and straight youth are more difficulty to get published. Read more

Savin-Williams is also quoted in a March 2011 New York Times article on controversey over gay-friendly curricula in schools. Read more

reprinted with permission from Cornell Chronicle, Feb 2, 2011 
Gary Evans


Growing up poor increases a person's chances of health problems as an adult, but a new Cornell study shows that being raised in a tight-knit community can help offset this disadvantage of poverty.

Poor adolescents who live in communities with more social cohesiveness are less likely to smoke and be obese, reports the study, published in January's Psychological Science journal.

Environmental psychologist Gary W. Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, recruited 326 rural upstate New York children when they were about 9 years old and their mothers. About half of the children lived in or near poverty; the rest were from middle-income families. Periodically, Evans and co-author Rachel Kutcher '08 visited the participants to measure their health and exposure to various risk factors.

When the participants were about 17 years old, they and their mothers filled out surveys that assessed how connected their communities were and how much social control they felt they had. For example, mothers were asked to say how much they agreed that "one of my neighbors would do something if they saw someone trying to sell drugs to a child or youth in plain sight"; the teenagers were asked whether they had adults whom they could ask for advice. The teens also completed surveys on behavior, including smoking, and had their height and weight measured.

"Youth from low-income backgrounds smoked more than those who grew up in more affluent homes," the study concludes. However, if they lived in connected communities, "the effects of early childhood poverty on adolescent smoking were minimal."

Evans found similar results when assessing the teens' body-mass index, a standard measure of obesity.

"You may be able to loosen those connections between early childhood poverty and negative health outcomes if you live in a community with good social resources," Evans said (see sidebar for more on childhood poverty and obesity).

Evans and Kutcher believe adolescents in communities with more so-called social capital may have better role models or mentors; or perhaps in a more empowered community, where people feel comfortable stopping someone else's bad behavior, the young people feel less helpless as individuals. They might believe that "you have some control over what's going to happen to you," they suggested.

Still, the authors warned, social capital can help poor youths, but it is not a remedy for the health problems associated with impoverished living in childhood. Poor adolescents, even those in communities with more social capital, are still less healthy than their middle-income peers.

"It's not correct to conclude that, if you just improve social capital, then it would be okay to be poor," Evans says.

The work was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomics Status and Health.

Poorer children are heavier -- in part because of their environments

Nancy Wells


Poor diet and lack of exercise aren't the only risk factors for childhood obesity, report Cornell researchers. So too are low-income environments, which are fraught with more family turmoil, violence, noise, crowding and lower housing quality.

The researchers found that poor children gained weight more rapidly during childhood into early adulthood than children from middle-income families. In further examining the link between childhood poverty and body mass index, they found that it was risk exposure that accounted for the increased weight gain by the youth in poverty.

Researchers have long been aware of a link between poverty and obesity -- the poor suffer from higher levels of obesity and early childhood poverty is more strongly linked to adult obesity than current income.

But, "Our research shows that exposure to multiple risks, which are common in low-income environments, plays a critical role in setting children on a life course trajectory for obesity," said Nancy Wells, professor of design and environmental analysis and lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Public Health (100:12).

The researchers -- who also included Anna Beavis '07 and assistant professor Anthony Ong -- analyzed the relationships between obesity, childhood poverty and cumulative risk exposure in 326 children in rural upstate New York; the youngsters and their mothers were interviewed when the youths were 9, 13 and 17 years old. About half the group lived at or below the federal poverty line at initial recruitment. Poverty level, height and weight, and exposure to risk were measured.

"Poorer children become overweight adults, at least in part, because they face a greater array of risk factors over the course of their childhood," says co-author Professor Gary Evans. "The next step is to look more closely at how and why multiple risk exposure leads to obesity and when we better understand this, what can we do about it."

-- Karene Booker, extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development

By Karene Booker

youth from Cali, Colombia

Youth engage in restorative justice activities at Casas Francisco Esperanza in Cali, Colombia.

Key features of community programs to help marginalized youth and young adults successfully transition to adulthood include mentoring and opportunities for work and leadership roles, according to a Cornell study in Latin America.

The 18-month "action research" project, "Opening Pathways: Youth in Latin America" ("Abriendo Caminos: Jóvenes en América Latina"), engaged four organizations in Argentina, Mexico and Colombia in a process to better understand ways that community programs can make their community a better place for youth and young adults.

"Institutional innovation is needed to support the transition to adulthood," said Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. "The ingredients for success have changed. The institutions that have traditionally fostered the transition to adulthood no longer function well for all or even a majority of youth."

mother's group in Bariloche, Argentina

A mother's group from the Por un Manaña program meets in Bariloche, Argentina.

In a global perspective, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico are developed and prosperous. However they have very large income inequality and large populations in poverty. While education levels have been rising, they still have low levels of secondary and postsecondary education, high youth unemployment and underemployment, and early childbirth for women.

In prior research, Hamilton and Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program, identified three assets critical for youth to advance in society: a sense of purpose and agency, including having both a life plan and the confidence to enact it; the competence needed to work productively; and connections to others (social capital) to formulate and achieve their goals.

They have identified six common structural features among successful youth-oriented programs that help nurture these assets. They are:

  • public-private partnerships that combine learning and earning;
  • opportunities for youths to take responsible social roles;
  • opportunities for youths to take leadership roles
  • opportunities for youths to take responsible civic engagement roles;
  • exposure to a wide variety of pathways to the future; and
  • mentoring.

"Our project was designed to test and refine this conceptual framework of developmental assets and structural features," said Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program. The project provided insights into how these elements are created and manifested, she added.

In addition to initial site visits and frequent communication with the partner organizations, the research team organized three conferences during the course of the project to bring the partner organizations together to catalyze learning and exchange.

At the first, teams from each program, including youth, identified critical issues and began to plan action research to explore them. At the second, the teams shared what they had done and learned and planned their next action steps. At the third, they were joined by representatives of foundations, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to discuss themes cutting across the different programs and considered joint actions. Participants agreed that they could benefit from continued expert assistance and networking as they built on what they had learned to improve their programs.

"Rather than being a time simply to tell others what they had done, the conferences proved to be a continuation of action research," said the Hamiltons, who hope to help create a larger network to further address mentoring and employment in particular.

Other members of their action research team included Davydd Greenwood, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology, and six bilingual student research assistants.

The project was supported by Jacobs Foundation in Switzerland.

For More Information:  See the full report.

Ritch Savin WilliamsDespite the media's dangerous -- and false -- suggestion that a suicide epidemic is striking young gay men who have been bullied, a Cornell sexuality expert believes there has never been a better time to grow up as a sexual minority.

Ritch Savin-Williams, professor of developmental psychology in human development, director of Cornell's Sex and Gender Lab and author of "The New Gay Teenager," spoke with reporters Nov. 9 at an Inside Cornell media luncheon at the ILR Conference Center in Manhattan.

Savin-Williams studies the similarities among sexual-minority youth and all teens, as well as the ways in which sexual-minority adolescents vary among themselves and the sexual development of heterosexual youth.

"All of these young men dying in a short period of time led a lot of people to believe there was a suicide epidemic among gay youth. We don't know that all these youths were gay or that they died because of the bullying. What bothers me most is that these young lives were being portrayed as being extremely problematic, and almost as if all gay youth were about trying to kill themselves or were an unhappy, fragile group of kids." Read the full story

Kim KopkoCornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) is preparing communities across New York for an innovative system to more effectively deliver research-based programs to prevent substance abuse and risky behavior in young teens.


With a two-year, $60,000 Greater Opportunities (GO) grant from the National Institutes of Health, CCE will adapt the PROSPER (PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience) Partnership Model, which pairs CCE systems with public schools to provide a range of interventions for at-risk youth. PROSPER offers proven prevention strategies backed by more than 20 years of NIH-funded research.

"The initial PROSPER/GO funding is a great opportunity to build capacity for community- and school-based family and youth programs that have a track record of success," said Kimberly Kopko, New York state liaison for PROSPER and extension associate in policy analysis and management. "PROSPER/GO aligns closely with the missions of CCE and Human Ecology and will also bring resources for our faculty researchers looking at designing interventions to engage youth."

By Karene Booker


This summer a high energy team of Extension Educators and student researchers touched the lives of nearly 100 high school students in New York City and Ithaca.

The project integrates laboratory and field research conducted by Dr. Valerie Reyna, Professor of Human Development and Outreach Extension Leader, Cornell University with extension programming. It is not only Dr. Reyna’s research, but also her vision for engaging community partners in it that drives the project. The research examines factors associated with adolescent risky decision making. The translation of the research into programming aims to promote adolescent health.  Collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension and community agencies is bringing this project to young people in New York City, Ithaca, and this fall to Broome County.

With greater freedom and independence, adolescents face new risks. We know poor choices can have long-lasting consequences for individuals, families, and society.  The project offers two interventions, which serve as control groups for each other. One, Gist-Enhanced Reducing the Risk (RTR+) is targeted at reducing teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and the other, EatFit, is targeted at promoting healthy eating and fitness. The project combines empirical research with practical knowledge gained through implementation of the two curricula to inform and facilitate future replications of the programs.

The RTR+ project arm has already proven effective at promoting sexual health. Continued research and enhancement of the program will strengthen the intervention and add to scientific knowledge. Although supported by the research literature, the obesity reduction curriculum is less highly researched. There is a dearth of research on interventions to reduce obesity in adolescents even though obesity is a major health problem in America. The healthy lifestyles and obesity reduction arm of the research is thus groundbreaking and will serve as a basis for future work. Both curricula incorporate hands-on skill building and experiential activities.

Here’s a look at the team members and what they are doing.

The NYC Cooperative Extension team is ably led by Family and Youth Development Program Leader, Jackie Davis Manigaulte. Extension Educators Michele Luc and Eduardo Gonzalez Jr. recruited community partners, recruited students, completed consents from parents and students for the research, taught the curricula, administered surveys, and much more. The Cooperative Extension team was joined for the summer in NYC by graduate student Chrissie Chick and undergrad Claire Lyons. The students assisted with the research and co-facilitated the curricula with the NYC staff at the four partner sites: Central Queens Y; Groundwork, Inc.; Child Center NY; and NYC Mission Society.


Jackie Davis-Manigaulte“CUCE-NYC’s Family & Youth Development program area is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Dr. Reyna and her staff to pilot new and modified evidence-based educational resources on topics of such importance to the health and well-being of adolescents in New York City and throughout the state and country,” said Jackie.

Michele Luc"The RTR+ curriculum provided the participants with so many opportunities go beyond the traditional messages they've received in typical sex education classes by teaching them how to put refusal skills into action, said Michele. "As one student at the Forest Hills site put it: 'I wish we learned this stuff earlier because no one ever teaches us how to say no effectively and mean it.'"

Eduardo Gonzalez Jr."We worked with diverse populations of youth in East New York, Harlem, Jamaica and Forest Hills neighborhoods," added Eduardo."In each of the sites, project participants spoke favorably of their overall experiences and highlighted how the hands-on activities made the sessions both informative and engaging."


Christina ChickThe team was quick to troubleshoot and find solutions to the challenges encountered in this first replication at multiple sites throughout New York City," said Chrissie. "It's been a pleasure working with and learning from Eduardo and Michele. Their dedication is striking."

Claire Lyons

“Through my involvement on this project, I have observed the synergy of theory, research, and extension efforts in the community,” said Claire.  “It has helped me see how all of the individuals and groups involved in a community-research partnership can work together to achieve a mutual goal.”

Seth PardoHuman Development graduate student Seth Pardo is laboratory manager and project supervisor. He works closely with Dr. Reyna and the research team to develop additional enhancements to curricula based on evidence gathered on the nearly 900 youth in Reyna’s earlier National Institutes of Health funded study of the curriculum. He also implements the project in Ithaca, recruiting partner sites and participants, training personnel, delivering the curriculum, and analyzing data.

“Over the past 2 years on this project, I have learned a great deal about how judgment and decision making change over the life course,” noted Seth. “Adolescents are at a crucial juncture in their behavioral and cognitive development; this evidence-based intervention can  have an incredibly positive influence on their future.”

Gabrielle Tan

“I learned a lot about people and teaching and got a lot of practice perfecting such skills as perseverance, proactive behavior and teamwork” added undergraduate student Gabrielle Tan who assisted Seth with the Ithaca implementation.

Travis GetzkePartner sites in Ithaca included Ithaca High School and TST-BOCES. The two courses were taught to students enrolled in the regional summer school health education class. Travis Getzke and Nikki Fish, experienced Health Educators for TST-BOCES Summer School and enthusiastic accomplices, helped teach the curriculum. This coming school year, Travis will be teaching RTRgist and the EatFit curriculum for the TST BOCES Community School.

Nikki Fish“I loved the EatFit curriculum!” said Nikki who taught that component of the project.  “It was goal oriented, incorporated both nutrition and fitness, and involved the students in a lot of hands on activities. During class, I overheard one of my students comment to another student about half way through the curriculum: 'This was the best Health class ever.' When I asked her why, she responded: 'because in our regular Health class we never got the chance to do any activities like this!'"

Behind the scenes but still essential to the project, many dedicated staff handle human resources, finances, technology issues, and administration. Chief among them is Extension Support Specialist Karene Booker who adds her own brand of project management glue to keep the fast-paced operation on track.

The project has been beneficial to everyone involved. The theory and research behind the intervention allows communities to provide their youth with a highly effective intervention to reduce risk taking and improve health. By participating in the research project, youth gain the benefits of the intervention and also provide valuable information that can enhance both scientific knowledge and future interventions targeted to protect youth. Simultaneously, the project is a learning ground for the next generation of researchers and practitioners.

Thanks to all of the people and partner organizations who are making this initiative possible through their daily efforts and ongoing commitment to improving the health of young people.

For more information, please visit our website.