Penn State’s PROSPER Program Inspires Healthy Youth | The heart of the farm is the family


Are you looking after a young person between the ages of 10 and 14? If you are, or have ever been, then you know that this can be a challenging developmental period for adolescents, filled with fluctuating emotions and behaviors.

This adolescence phase is a phase of brain development. The area of ​​the brain that provides responses, including fear and aggression, develops before the area of ​​the brain that provides more coordinated thinking, action, and behavior. Based on what we know about brain development and found in a 2016 article “Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making” from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, teens are more likely to act impulsively, get into accidents and engage in dangerous or risky behavior before stopping to consider the consequences of their actions.

An example of risky behavior is the use of illegal drugs. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics’ latest report, “Drug Use Among Adolescents: Facts and Statistics,” national data for 2020 shows a 61% increase in illicit drug use among eighth-grade students across the country. In the same report, data from Pennsylvania reported 66,000 12- to 17-year-olds who had used drugs in the previous month.

As our society shifted toward home learning and work environments at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it gave families the opportunity to spend more time together. However, this extended time together did not guarantee that caregivers felt their family communication and bonding improved. According to Rachel Sheffield data from the 2020 Congressional Joint Committee on Economic Affairs report, “Marital Health, Parental Well-Being, and Family Bonds During the Pandemic: Findings from the 2020 American Family Survey,” 25% of respondents reported failing have had one parent since the pandemic began.

Now that youth’s engagement with technology has greatly increased, convincing your youth to take some time to connect with the rest of the family while turning off the screen can feel like a major hurdle .

The bottom line is that being a parent these days can be tough.

Penn State Extension offers evidence-based family development programs that have been shown to reduce substance abuse among youth while encouraging family involvement. This program is called “PROSPER” or “Promoting School, Community and University Partnerships to Improve Resilience”. It fosters community partnerships with individuals and organizations dedicated to improving families, building the capacity of young people, and reducing youth drug use across the state.

The PROSPER program has two components: Life Skills Training and the Family Strengthening Program for parents and youth ages 10-14.

Life Skills Training is a classroom-based curriculum designed to align with health education and middle school instructional needs. The 10-14 Family Strengthening Program is a community-based program that engages caregivers and youth in interactive activities to learn how to communicate and spend time together effectively.

For 20 years, the PROSPER program has reached 22,744 youth participants through the life skills curriculum delivered in school districts and has impacted 2,264 families in 20 counties in Pennsylvania. According to data from the Penn State College of Health and Human Development website, Reducing Youth Opioid Use, a longitudinal study followed 11,000 sixth graders for 10 years after participating in PROSPER and found promising results. These participants waited longer to start substance use and showed a significant decrease in substance use severity over the course of their adolescence. When these individuals reached high school, there was also a significantly lower use of opiates and prescription drugs when PROSPER communities were compared to non-PROSPER communities.

The data clearly shows that PROSPER works and can be used statewide as communities and individuals work with educators to not only maintain these programs, but expand them to other counties, communities and school districts.

One of the key components that our 10-14 Family Strengthening Program staff teaches and helps families practice is how to facilitate an effective family reunion. According to the 1993 PROSPER curriculum developed by Iowa State Human Sciences and Extension Outreach in the Family Meeting Ground Rules document, the purpose of a family reunion is to address specific concerns. For example, meetings may address leaving home on time for school, transportation and/or scheduling conflicts, or correcting misconduct) and brainstorming solutions to the problem as a family where everyone’s views are heard and validated. Once solutions have been suggested, it’s important to keep track of agreements and decisions so the next time the family meets, they can come back to see if the issue is working. If the problem is not resolved or the solution does not work, another possible solution can be implemented for a specified period of time with another family follow-up meeting.

Here are some ground rules for a successful family reunion in your household:

  • Start the meeting with compliments.
  • Respect everyone’s opinion without lectures or insults.
  • Stay focused.
  • Keep a list of decisions made.
  • summarize agreements.
  • Keep the meeting short.
  • Check back at the next meeting to see if the arrangements are working.
  • Keep trying.

It is important to remember that strong families can communicate and solve problems together. And to know that it can take several attempts to find a solution that works for everyone.

If you want to learn more about PROSPER programming in Pennsylvania, go to


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