Methods: Data was collected over a two-year period through both surveys and in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 14 adolescents on probation. Participants ranged in age from 14 – 20 years old. The sample was comprised of nine boys and five girls. Data analysis used a grounded theory approach involving three stages of coding, Stage 1: initial/open coding, Stage 2: focused and axial coding, and Stage 3: selective, advanced and theoretical coding, using NVivo 11 software to aid in the process. The analysis process began following the first interview and proceeded in an iterative process of alternating data collection with coding. The initial interview guide was adapted over time based on emerging codes and theoretical sampling. Memos were created following interviews and during analysis to record and develop thoughts related to observations and interactions, methodological choices, analysis, and theoretical ideas.
Findings: Analysis of the data suggests a process involving four phases of action: initial goal development, creation of identity-driven goals, planned action, and sustained progress. During Phase 1, initial goal development occurs as future-oriented thinking emerges following social interactions about the future. During Phase 2, goals integrate with identities to create motivational synergy, helping youth move toward taking action. During Phase 3, goals translate into planned actions through a specific skill set that involves understanding the pathway and steps needed to achieve the goal. During Phase 4, youth engage in sustained pursuit of progress by accessing resources for support, including help to negotiate short-term versus long-term desires, encouragement that bolstered efficacy beliefs, and accountability that communicated that the youth and their goal mattered. Throughout the process, the presence of role models with whom youth identify were important to the development of goals, plans, and perseverance.
Conclusions and Implications: An array of theories exist to explain how thoughts about the future intersect with the intentional control of one’s behavior. The model that emerged from our data suggests that for youth on probation intentional behavioral changes arose through complex transactional processes between an adolescent’s social environment, internalized self-theories and self-perceptions, and experiences over time. While data indicated that several skills involved in the process of developing goals and creating action plans are learned rather than automatic, few of the youth on probation had acquired these skills. These deficits, in combination with the process identified by this study, suggest specific lessons for social workers responsible for shepherding adolescents to adulthood, particularly those working with adolescents in vulnerable and high-risk contexts.