Risk and Protective Factor Model Background

Prevention is a science. The Risk and Protective Factor Model of Prevention is a proven way of reducing substance misuse and its related consequences.

This model is based on the simple premise that to prevent a problem from happening, we need to identify the factors that increase the risk of that problem developing and then find ways to reduce the risks. Just as medical researchers have found risk factors for heart disease such as diets high in fat, lack of exercise, and smoking, a team of researchers at the University of Washington have defined a set of risk factors for youth problem behaviors.

Known to predict increased likelihood of drug use, delinquency, school dropout, and violent behaviors among youth, risk factors are characteristics of community, family, and school environments, and of students and their peer groups. For example, children who live in families with high levels of conflict are more likely to become involved in delinquency and drug use than children who live in families characterized by lower levels of conflict.

Protective factors exert a positive influence and buffer against the negative influence of risk, thus reducing the likelihood that adolescents will engage in problem behaviors. Bonding confers a protective influence only when there is a positive climate in the bonded community. Peers and adults in these neighborhoods, families, and schools must communicate healthy values and set clear standards for behavior in order to ensure a protective effect. For example, strong bonds to antisocial peers would not be likely to reinforce positive behavior.

Protective factors identified through research include strong bonding to community, family, school, and peers, and healthy beliefs and clear standards for behavior. Protective bonding depends on three conditions: opportunities for young people to actively contribute; skills to be able to successfully contribute; and consistent recognition or reinforcement for their efforts and accomplishments.

Research on risk and protective factors has important implications for children’s academic success, positive youth development, and prevention of health and behavior problems. In order to promote academic success and positive youth development and prevent problem behaviors, it is necessary to address the factors that predict these outcomes. By measuring risk and protective factors in a population, specific risk factors that are elevated and widespread can be identified and targeted by policies, programs, and actions shown to reduce those risk factors and to promote protective factors.

Each risk and protective factor can be linked to specific types of interventions that have been shown to be effective in either reducing risk(s) or enhancing protection(s). The steps outlined here will help counties to make key decisions regarding allocation of resources, how and when to address specific needs, and which strategies are most effective and known to produce results.

In addition to helping assess current conditions and prioritize areas of greatest need, data from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey can be a powerful tool in applying for and complying with several federal programs, such as Drug Free Communities grants. The survey also gathers valuable data which allows state and local agencies to address other prevention issues related to academic achievement, mental health, and gang involvement.

Understanding Cut-Points

It is important that the reader gain an understanding of the cut-points that are used to create the risk and protective factor scale scores presented in this section, and to understand how to interpret and analyze these results.

What are Cut-Points?

A cut-point helps to define the level of responses that are at or above a standard/normal level of risk, or conversely at or below a standard/normal level of protection. Rather than randomly determining whether a youth may be at risk or protected, a statistical analysis is completed that helps to determine at what point on any particular scale that the risk or protective factor is outside the normal range. In this way, when you are provided a percentage for a particular scale, you will know that this percentage represents the population of your youth that are either at greater risk or lower protection than the national cut-point level. Cut points also provide a standard for comparisons of risk and protection over time.

The PAYS questionnaire was designed to assess adolescent substance use, antisocial behavior, and the risk and protective factors that predict these adolescent problem behaviors. However, before the percentage of youth at risk or with protection on a given scale could be calculated, a scale value or cut-point needed to be determined that would separate the at-risk group from the group that was not at-risk. Because surveys measuring the risk and protective factors had been given to thousands of youth across the United States through federally funded research projects, it was possible to select two groups of youth, one that was more at-risk for problem behaviors and another group that was less at-risk. A cut-point score was then determined for each risk and protective factor scale that best divided the youth into their appropriate group, more at-risk or less at-risk. The criteria for selecting the more at-risk and the less at-risk groups included academic grades (the more at-risk group received “D” and “F” grades, the less at-risk group received “A” and “B” grades); alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use (the more at-risk group had more regular use, the less at-risk group had no drug use and use of alcohol or tobacco on only a few occasions); and antisocial behavior (the more at-risk group had two or more serious delinquent acts in the past year, the less at-risk group had no serious delinquent acts).

As was stated earlier in this tool, in an effort to keep the cut-points current, researchers at Bach Harrison, LLC recalculated the risk and protective factor cut-points using data from 11 statewide surveys across the nation. The surveys were conducted in 2010-11, contained completed questionnaires from approximately 657,000 students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12. These cut-points were used to calculate the percentages of youth at-risk and youth with-protection presented in this report.

How to use Cut-Points

The scale cut-points that were recently updated by Bach Harrison researchers to classify youth into more at-risk and less at-risk groups were used to produce the profiles in this report and will remain constant for future PAYS. Because the cut-points for each scale will remain fixed, the percentage of youth above the cut-point on each of the risk and protec­tive factor scales provides a method for eval­uating the progress of prevention programs over time. For example, if the percentage of youth at risk for family conflict in a community prior to implementing a community-wide family/parenting program was 60% and then decreased to 50% one year after the program was implemented, the program could be viewed as helping to reduce family conflict.

How does using Cut-Points affect my data?

Percentage of youth at-risk and with protection are presented in this web tool. For example:

If your Community Laws and Norms Favorable toward Drug Use, Firearms, and Crime risk factor scale for 8th graders is at 35%, this means that 35% of 8th graders are at risk for engaging in problem behaviors due to Community Laws and Norms Favorable toward Drug Use, Firearms, and Crime.

If your School Opportunities for Prosocial Involvement protective factor scale is at 60% for your 10th graders, the interpretation of this is that 60% of your 10th graders are protected against engaging in problem behaviors due to School Opportunities for Prosocial Involvement.