The Problem with “Disadvantaged Teens”

The most jarring practices in the field of social services surround the way we describe or talk about the young people we serve. Disadvantaged? Poor? Socioeconomically depressed? Though utilizing sensitive language to describe the factual state of communities from which our teens originate is important, one must take caution when transferring those labels directly to individual teens.

One of Wyman’s own teens said it best, “Just because I’m poor, doesn’t mean I’m lacking. Just because my family does not have much money, doesn’t mean that I’m ‘disadvantaged’. I may be ‘disadvantaged’ monetarily, but I am ‘advantaged’ in so many other ways.” Most teens would agree that though they may live in a tough community, they do not want to be pigeonholed into broad categories for charity.

As those who work with youth, we must accentuate the positive. The framework for this type of strategy is based on the ‘strengths perspective,’ a theoretical approach that emphasizes an individual’s talents, competencies, possibilities and hopes. Key concepts include empowerment, resilience and membership to a viable group or community (Saleeby, 1996). In a strengths-based approach, our choice of wording and concepts are very important. In order to utilize this effectively, one must acknowledge the factual state of a teen’s situation, alongside an individual strength that you see can help them mitigate the difficulty. (i.e., “It must be hard having a parent who works long hours, but your hard work ethic is definitely paying off in school.”)

Similarly, the concept of the ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy is one that can work against our efforts, if not deliberately addressed. On the flipside, one strategy that can work to our advantage is the Pygmalion effect. It refers to the phenomenon where the higher the expectation that is placed upon people causes them to perform better. Rosenthal, the researcher who discovered this effect said it best, “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985). This demonstrates that perhaps it is not only for teens that we should expect high performance, but as practitioners, we are more likely to help them and assist them in reaching those high standards as well.

Though labels like ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘poor’ may be indicative of the factual state of the places where they young people we serve reside, we must take care to not use those labels to describe the people themselves. Forecast realistic success for teens, no matter their circumstances – they will surely meet your realistic expectations.

Practical Tips:

  1. Never talk poorly about your students. As those who work on the frontline with teens, it’s natural to get upset and disappointed with your group, especially if they did not do as you expected. Though participating in gripe-sessions with fellow staff can seem like a stress-reliever for you, it may intrinsically change your expectation for your teens which can then, according to the Pygmalion effect, change your interactions with them in a negative way.
  2. Set the bar high. Establishing realistic and high expectations for your teens and helping them to achieve these standards sets teens up for positive self-esteem and the internal belief that they in fact, can, meet your expectations.
  3. Work with each teen, individually, to understand their abilities and strengths. Send them notes of encouragement that highlight their abilities and your support.

Have any other thoughts or strategies that might help? Feel free to comment below!



Rosenthal, R., and E. Y. Babad. 1985. Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educational Leadership 43 (1): 36–39.

Saleeby, D. (1996). The strengths perspective in social work practice: Extensions and cautions. Social Work, 41, 296-305.

The Pygmalion Effect. (2012). Duquesne University. Retrieved on April 30, 2012 from:

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