Youth at-risk typically refers to young individuals who face a higher probability of experiencing negative outcomes in various aspects of their lives due to factors such as poverty, family instability, involvement in the juvenile justice system, substance abuse, mental health issues, or lack of access to education and supportive resources.

In turn, these young people become more at risk of dropping out of school, engaging in troublesome behavior, experiencing homelessness, or encountering other challenges that may hinder their overall wellbeing and collective future. 

At The SPARK Initiative, we know on a fundamental level that a temporary adjective used to describe someone does not define them. In this case, “at-risk” does not define youth, but merely describes a temporary condition being experienced. As with all populations that we work with, we emphasize what is permanent and underlying – the humanity of the human. Hence, we prefer to say “youth at risk”, rather than “at-risk youth.” 

Why is it important that we address the issues youth at-risk may encounter? 

Every young person deserves the opportunity to lead a healthy, safe, and fulfilling life. Addressing issues that may hinder safety and opportunity ensures that youth will receive the support and resources they need to overcome challenges and thrive. Additionally, early intervention can prevent negative outcomes later in life. By addressing issues at early stages, the likelihood of these individuals facing more severe problems later is reduced, and the health and safety of these individuals is prioritized from adolescence to adulthood. 

Addressing these issues can lead to numerous positive outcomes for communities. While specific data may vary depending on the program and community context, we’ve provided some common trends and statistics associated with community improvement when these issues are addressed:

  • Reduction in Crime Rates: By providing support, intervention, and opportunities for positive development, community programs can contribute to a reduction in juvenile crime rates, making communities safer for all residents. 
  • Improved Academic Achievement: Effective community programs provide academic support, tutoring, and resources to help youth succeed in school, leading to higher graduation rates and increased educational performance. 
  • Decrease in Substance Abuse: Programs that address substance abuse 

prevention, provide education, and offer counseling and treatment services can 

lead to a decrease in substance abuse rates among youth, reducing associated health and social problems. 

  • Increased Employment and Economic Stability: By equipping youth at-risk with job skills, work experience, and support for further education and training, community programs can help them secure employment and achieve economic stability. 
  • Stronger Social Cohesion and Community Engagement: Engaging youth in positive activities, volunteerism, and community service projects fosters a sense of belonging, connection, and social responsibility. 
  • Improved Mental Health and Wellbeing: Access to counseling, support services, and positive relationships can promote resilience and coping skills, leading to better overall mental health outcomes for individuals and communities. 

At SPARK, we’ve seen the impact of our evidence-based mentoring programs on our local community and beyond. We have supported hundreds of thousands of kids in 40 US states and 36 countries around the world. Research has proven that these kids now experience: 

  • A higher level of mental well-being 
  • Less difficulty in regulating emotions 
  • Increased resilience in the face of challenging circumstances 
  • Increased compassion for others 
  • Enhanced life skills, including decision-making, problem-solving, and
Statistics for at risk youth regarding mentoring positive benefits

What Does At-Risk Mean? 

“At-risk” typically refers to a condition or situation where there is an increased likelihood of experiencing negative outcomes or facing challenges. For youth, being “at-risk” often implies that young individuals have certain characteristics, circumstances, or behaviors 

that make them more vulnerable to adverse outcomes such as dropping out of school, engaging in delinquent behavior, experiencing substance abuse, or facing mental health issues. 

Identifying Youth At-Risk 

The most common indicators of youth at-risk may fluctuate depending on individual circumstances as well as the specific challenges they face. However, some generalized identifiers include:

  • Academic Struggles: Consistent poor academic performance, chronic absenteeism, and dropping out of school can be indicators of underlying issues such as learning difficulties, lack of engagement, or family problems. 
  • Behavioral Problems: Aggressive behavior, defiance, or involvement in fights may signal underlying emotional or social difficulties. 
  • Substance Abuse: Experimentation with drugs or alcohol, frequent substance use, and signs of addiction are common indicators of underlying mental health issues and at-risk behavior. 
  • Mental Health Issues: Symptoms of depression, anxiety, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts may indicate underlying mental health challenges. 
  • Family Dysfunction: Exposure to domestic violence, parental substance abuse, neglect, or unstable living situations can significantly impact a young person’s wellbeing. 
  • Involvement in the Juvenile Justice System: Involvement in criminal activity, frequent encounters with law enforcement, or placement in juvenile detention facilities may indicate underlying behavioral challenges. 
  • Lack of Supportive Relationships: Lack of social support, strained relationships with family members or peers, or feelings of isolation may increase the likelihood of negative feelings and outcomes. 

At SPARK, we understand the need to recognize that these identifiers are not all-inclusive indicators of youth at-risk. Many young individuals may showcase one or some of these behaviors without facing challenges; however, we know that paying attention to these indicators and providing early intervention can help reduce risks and promote positive outcomes for young people facing adversity. 

Risk Factors and Challenges Faced by Youth At-Risk 

Youth can face a wide range of risk factors and challenges that can significantly impact their wellbeing and development. Many of these risk factors and challenges also show up as indicators. While these lists are not mutually-exclusive, other risk factors and potential challenges may include: 

  • Socioeconomic Disadvantage: Growing up in poverty or experiencing financial instability can limit access to fundamental resources such as safe housing, education, ample nutrition, and healthcare.
  • Educational Barriers: Factors such as academic struggles, learning disabilities, inadequate school resources, bullying, or lack of support from teachers or peers can hinder educational attainment and future opportunities. 
  • Peer Influence: Peer pressure, social isolation, or involvement in negative peer groups can influence youth behavior and decision-making. 
  • Community Violence: Exposure to community violence, gang activity, or neighborhood crime can contribute to feelings of insecurity, trauma, and stress among young people. 
  • Lack of Supportive Networks: Limited access to positive role models, supportive adults, or mentors can leave youth feeling isolated and without the direction and support they need. 
  • Identity and Cultural Challenges: Youth may struggle with issues related to their identity, ethnicity, sexuality, or cultural background, while potentially facing discrimination, prejudice, or a lack of acceptance from society or their own communities. 

SPARK Mentoring Programs help youth uncover their own internal protective factors such as self-sufficiency, optimism, internal locus-of-control, and self-esteem which can help combat the risk factors that so many young people face. At SPARK, we have used our Mentoring Programs to speak to the potential inside of youth rather than speaking to the challenges or outlying factors in their lives. 

Age and Developmental Stages 

Youth, defined by the United Nations as ages 15-24, is a stage of life characterized by transition, growth, and development between childhood and adulthood. It’s a period marked by significant physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes as individuals navigate their way towards independence and maturity.

While youth is often seen as a period of opportunity and potential, it can also be a time of vulnerability and risk as many young people face challenges during this stage of life such as peer pressure, academic stress, mental health issues and more. 

Comparative to youth, a teenager typically refers to an individual who is in the stage of adolescence, specifically between the ages of 13 and 19. While the term “teenager” typically refers to individuals between the ages of 13 and 19, it’s important to recognize that adolescence is a dynamic and diverse stage of development, and individuals may mature at different rates and exhibit varying behaviors and characteristics during this time.

Programs and Interventions 

Effective youth at-risk programs provide comprehensive support and intervention tailored to address the specific needs and challenges of young people facing adversity. At The Spark Initiative, some of the guiding components of our Mentoring Programs come from our beliefs. We believe no one is broken. Together, we honor diversity, see potential in everyone, respect with compassion, and value transparency. With love, possibilities are infinite. 

With these beliefs in mind, we also know that working with youth at-risk requires a thoughtful and comprehensive approach that addresses unique needs, challenges, and strengths. It requires building trust and rapport by taking the time to listen to concerns, validate experiences, and show genuine care and empathy. This rapport takes time and requires a safe and supportive environment with individualized support and interventions. 

The SPARK Mentoring Programs Speak to the Potential, Ability and Resilience inside every Kid. Our highly interactive, asset-based programs guide young people to discover their unbreakable SPARK inside through a better understanding of themselves and others. This knowledge has been proven to increase outcomes in the following competencies: mental well-being, resilience, emotional regulation, communication, problem-solving, economic and decision-making skills. 

With teens, shifting the conversation to focus on strengths and resilience will help them identify their positive qualities and achievements to in turn build confidence. In this conversation, it’s important to recognize and address underlying systemic factors and social determinants that contribute to the challenges faced by teens at-risk. Promotion of the understanding that their circumstances do not define them can lead to a more hopeful conversation. 

It’s pertinent to offer connections to essential resources and support services, while encouraging positive relationship building and peer support. Finally, remember to continuously find ways to foster a sense of hope and optimism in at-risk teens by emphasizing their potential for growth, change, and resilience. 

At SPARK, we empathize with the transitions and obstacles teens may face, and we address these in our Teen Curriculum. The SPARK Teen Curriculum is designed for students, ages 13-22 years old, and covers relatable topics that help youth navigate the trials and celebrate the accomplishments of their high school years.

Through this program participants will uncover their natural resilience, gain a better understanding of themselves and others, develop vital social and emotional skills, access their creative intelligence and cultivate their personal potential. 

Resources and Support 

There are many books that address the experiences, challenges, and resilience of youth at-risk. Here are some of our favorites: 

  • Okay Forever: A Book of Hope by Helen Neal-Ali 
  • The Serenity Principle: Finding Inner Peace in Recovery by Joseph Bailey
  • The Speed Trap: How to Avoid the Frenzy of the Fast Lane by Joseph Bailey 
  • Fearproof Your Life: How to Thrive in a World Addicted to Fear by Joseph Bailey 
  • Recovery from Within: A mother and daughter’s journey through anorexia by Rebecca Perkins & Beatrice Arscott 
  • What Is Thought? by Jack Pransky
  • Inside Out Izzy by Angela Mastwik 
  • The Spark Inside: A Special Book for Youth by Ami Chen Mills-Naim 

In addition to books, there are various community and educational support systems available for youth at-risk to help them overcome challenges and thrive. Here are some examples: 

  • Community Centers: Community centers often provide a range of support services and programs for youth, including academic tutoring, recreational activities, life skills training, mentorship, and counseling. 
  • Mentoring Programs: Mentoring programs pair youth at-risk with caring and supportive adult mentors who provide guidance, encouragement, and positive role modeling. These programs offer one-on-one support, academic and career mentoring, and opportunities for personal growth and development. The SPARK Mentoring Programs provide evidence-based K -12th grade programs and professional development opportunities that increase emotional well-being, resilience, and emotional regulation while developing executive functioning skills needed to navigate life with greater ease.
  • School-Based Support Services: Schools are where youth spend a great portion of their time so the role they play in supporting at-risk youth is critical. Schools can provide a wide range of services, including counseling, academic support, special education programs, and extracurricular activities. These support systems may also include influential adults such as social workers, counselors, and psychologists. 
  • Alternative Education Programs: Alternative education programs offer more flexible and individualized learning opportunities for youth at-risk who struggle in traditional school settings. These programs may provide smaller class sizes, personalized instruction, and wraparound services. 


Understanding and supporting youth at-risk is a comprehensive task that cannot go untouched. The young people of the world will grow up to be the adults of the world, and in turn will inevitably touch society in some way. These young minds deserve our empathy regarding their circumstances, as well as the support to excel them beyond those circumstances. Recognizing the diverse challenges they may face is the first step in the process; however, empowering, mentoring, and restoring resilience and hope within them takes time and commitment. 

Join us in making a difference in the lives of youth at-risk in your community! Every young person deserves the opportunity to thrive, but many face significant challenges that may hinder their potential. At The SPARK Initiative, we work together to provide the support, resources, and opportunities needed to uncover resilience, unleash potential, and empower these youth by igniting their SPARK.