Consulting, Research and Speaking on Health and Media Issues

Helping Teens Set and Reach Their Goals


 A video-based curriculum

For much of the last century, the teen years were seen as a time of stress and rebellion. Researchers and parents focused on how to minimize or cope with problems until teens grew out of them. But recent research suggests that severe turmoil is not the norm for adolescents, and that however oddly teens may dress or talk, they generally share their parents’ values. This changing view has been accompanied by a new focus on building on strengths (sometimes called “positive youth development”), and teaching or reinforcing skills and attitudes that lead to adult success.

Research (see citations) suggests that several skills are key to teen thriving:

  •  Selection: Choosing positive goals that lead you to success
  • Optimization: developing the strategies or recruiting financial, physical or social resources needed to achieve those goals
  • Compensation: learning how to change your behavior when your path is blocked or your strategies fail; this may include modifying your goal or choosing a new one based on changed circumstances.

With funding from the Thrive Foundation for Youth, the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University has developed methods for measuring and teaching these S-O-C life skills to middle- and high-school youth. To give the concepts a more meaningful name, S-O-C has been recast as GPS : Goal selection, Pursuit of strategies, and Shifting gears.

The GPS project includes a mentor-guided curriculum designed for flexible use in youth clubs and afterschool programs, over multiple days or weeks—allowing time for youth to understand concepts, and to practice and master skills.

To support this effort, the Institute asked me to create a dozen brief documentary-style videos, featuring stories of real teens and young adults, to connect mentor-guided lessons to real-life examples. (I also helped with curriculum evaluation plans and tools.)


The role of video

Young people care about problems and goals, not about research studies and technical jargon. Video is an excellent medium for engaging emotions and modeling behavior. Short video segments based on the stories of real people bring the purpose and process of GPS to life, and allow youth to see a diverse group of potential role models pursuing their various goals and dreams. In addition to motivating and modeling, the videos provide a shared focus for conversations between mentors and youth.

Video subjects were recommended by youth organizations, then pre-interviewed by phone or in person. This confirmed that their experiences and stories were a good match for the project, and that they could describe those experiences in a lively and detailed way.

The videos illustrate a range of goals, include everyday issues such as bringing up grades, proving yourself on a sports team, or coping with a move. They also deal with goals directly linked to adult success, such as landing a job or internship, finding a mentor, and gaining the courage to test your wings.

We also see young people overcome personal difficulties that block goals or make them harder to achieve, such as coping with a chronic illness, navigating a new culture and language, finding money to pay for college, or disliking (and doing poorly in) a chosen field.

This project posed production challenges due to its tight budget; shoot days and locations were strictly limited. This led us to creative use of subject-provided photos and video, stock photos, and caught-on-the-fly video “B-roll” shot as if from the subject’s point of view.

Watch the two videos produced for pilot testing below:

Namibia: “You can’t give up” from Cheryl K. Olson on Vimeo.

Gabriela: Reaching for college from Cheryl K. Olson on Vimeo.

 When the first two videos were pilot-tested with young adolescents, they found the material engaging, credible and relevant. (The only modification requested was to exchange the black “limbo” set for more of a news-style look.)

Here are several examples of recently produced content for this video series.

Ardeene: Seeing other places from Cheryl K. Olson on Vimeo.

Nitin: Making connections from Cheryl K. Olson on Vimeo.

Niia: “There are no mistakes” from Cheryl K. Olson on Vimeo.

Trevor: Emergency medicine from Cheryl K. Olson on Vimeo.

 The video series and related curriculum are now complete, and undergoing further evaluation.



Freund, A.M. & Baltes, P.B. (2002). Life-management strategies by selection, optimization and compensation: Measurement by self-report and construct validity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 82(4): 642-662.

Zimmerman, S., Phelps, E., & Lerner, R. M. (2008). Positive and negative developmental trajectories in U.S. adolescents: Where the PYD perspective meets the deficit model. Research in Human Development, 5(3),153-165.