Reducing barriers to learning with Communities That Care

J. David Hawkins, Margaret Kuklinski, and Abigail Fagan describe an effective approach for preventing some of the problems that can stand in the way of achievement and engagement in school

EDUCATORS WANT STUDENTS TO COME TO school ready and motivated to learn, yet they are all too familiar with barriers to engagement and achievement. Many risks threaten today’s youth and can lead to other problems, like substance abuse and delinquency, which themselves jeopardize students’ ability to succeed. Communities That Care (CTC) is a community-based prevention system designed to reduce risks affecting students and increase positive influences, with the overall aim of fostering healthy development.

What we know
● Problem behaviors, like substance abuse and delinquent behavior, are barriers to learning.
● They increase risk for school disengagement and failure.
● Communities That Care (CTC) provides educators and other stakeholders with tools and skills for reducing barriers to learning.
● Communities using CTC select evidence-based school and community prevention programs to reduce community-specific risks and problem behaviors.
● CTC effectively prevents alcohol and tobacco use and delinquent behavior in young people.

Implemented in more than 500 communities in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe, CTC has been shown, in well-designed research, to improve outcomes for young people. It also provides an effective process for increasing community ownership and shared responsibility for addressing concerns. The burden of change does not fall on schools alone. At the heart of CTC is a broad coalition of stakeholders invested in young people, including school personnel, who work in concert to achieve better youth outcomes. Success is contingent on the coalition assessing needs, understanding the extent of young people’s problem behaviors, using evidence-based strategies to prevent these behaviors, and monitoring progress towards goals. Goals often include reducing learning barriers, like drug use and criminal behavior, in the schools and larger community, and increasing the odds of school success.

Decreasing risk and enhancing protection to improve outcomes

CTC takes a risk- and protection-focused approach to prevention based on research showing that reducing risk factors, like family conflict or associating with drug-using peers, can improve important outcomes like staying in school. Enhancing protective factors also improves outcomes. Young people who have opportunities to participate in positive activities and develop skills, and who receive recognition for their efforts, are much more likely to develop a strong commitment to schooling and strong bonds with adults who are positive role models. This reduces their chances of problem behavior.

Research shows that some risk and protective factors are shared predictors of a wide range of problems, so improvements can have an impact on multiple outcomes. Communities using CTC can simultaneously reach a set of prevention goals, such as reducing school failure while also preventing substance abuse and crime.

Community coalitions: Essential to CTC success

CTC is designed flexibly to respond to different community needs and priorities. It is “owned and operated” locally. The first step is to establish a prevention coalition of key leaders, such as the school superintendent, mayor, and police chief, as well as representatives from diverse sectors, including education, human services, business, and healthcare. CTC requires broad-based community support to succeed. The emphasis is on identifying prevalent concerns and using the most effective strategies to address them, without assigning blame or expecting one sector (e.g., schools), to solve problems alone. Over the course of a year, the coalition is trained to use the CTC system.

Who better to report on youth concerns than young people themselves? To assess levels of risk, protection, and problem behavior in the community, coalitions use the 200-item Communities That Care Youth Survey, which middle and high school students complete in one class period. Questions cover friendships, extracurricular involvement, school performance and engagement, family relationships, and problem behavior, such as whether and how frequently they have used cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs, or engaged in delinquent behavior. Coalitions use information to develop a community-specific profile of risk, protection, and problem behavior. These results help coalitions prioritize prevention activities. Without specific goals, efforts may be spread too thin to make a difference. Typically, communities prioritize two to five elevated risk factors for improvement.

Coalitions then select prevention programs addressing their elevated risks from a menu of scientifically proven programs. Some are school based, while others are family focused, or are after-school activities such as mentoring or tutoring programs. Chosen programs reflect the coalition’s strategic assessment of what can make the biggest difference. School-based programs have the advantage of reaching many students simultaneously, but, in some communities, new parenting or mentoring programs are needed.

Coalitions generally implement two or three programs per year. They understand that programs should be faithfully replicated in order to achieve successful outcomes, and they monitor implementation practices to ensure high quality.

One community’s experience

A rapidly growing town in the western United States implemented CTC as part of a research study. A coalition was formed, whose actions were guided by the belief that theirs was a “diverse community unified in fostering respectful and responsible citizens.” The coalition had support from the state offices of education and drug abuse prevention. Its local members included both “movers and shakers” and “good people who are strongly invested in the community and want to make a difference,” as well as a full-time coordinator.

The Communities That Care Youth Survey results for this community led the coalition to focus on three risk factors: family conflict, low commitment to school, and friends who engage in delinquent behavior. They set specific targets for improvement, for example, reducing the percentage of students who experienced low commitment to school from 59% to 41% over four years. They also wanted to reduce alcohol and marijuana use, school suspensions, and violence. The coalition selected three programs to achieve these goals. Guiding Good Choices was aimed at strengthening families and reducing conflict. Two school-based programs, LifeSkills Training and Lion’s Quest Skills for Adolescence, addressed the other risk factors and problem behaviors of concern. Programs were implemented with high fidelity over the course of four years. Over time, improvements were seen in risk, protection, and problem behavior. For example, commitment to school improved by 15 percentage points after three years of intervention. Now in its 7th year, CTC is integral to this community’s prevention work. “We’re in total support of this in our community and don’t want to see it leave.”

A track record of sustained improvements

CTC was tested in the Community Youth Development Study, a randomized, experimental trial conducted in 24 communities across the U.S. The study showed that CTC was effective in preventing alcohol and tobacco use and delinquent behavior after three years of focused, evidence-based prevention activities:

  • Communities achieved high-fidelity implementation of the CTC system and prevention programs.
  • Risk factors, including low commitment to school, increased less rapidly from Grade 5 to Grade 8 in CTC communities, compared to communities not using CTC.
  • Grade 8 students in CTC communities were 33% less likely to start smoking, 32% less likely to start drinking, and 25% less likely to start engaging in delinquent behavior than students in “control” communities.
  • Improvements were sustained through Grade 10, one year after study support ended.
  • Effects on the prevalence of substance abuse and delinquent behavior were found for both boys and girls, and for youth, who differed in risk at the study’s start.
  • CTC was cost beneficial, estimated to return $5.30 in benefits to participants and the community for every dollar invested.


Educators often wonder how to reduce barriers to school achievement. CTC is an effective way to prevent common problems for young people – like substance abuse and delinquent behavior – that interfere with school success and positive development. Interested communities can access a complete set of CTC materials at

Author note

This article is based on research supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R01 DA015183-08), with co-funding from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The content of this paper is solely the responsibility of the authors, and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funding agencies.

About the authors

J. David Hawkins is the founding director of the Social Development Research Group and endowed professor of prevention in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. He is one of the developers of Communities That Care. Dr. Hawkins works with communities and governmental organizations, nationally and abroad, to promote positive youth development through the use of evidence-based programs, policies, and practices.

Margaret Kuklinski is a research scientist at the Social Development Research Group in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. Her research centers on the evaluation of interventions that promote positive development in youth.

Abigail Fagan is associate professor and graduate program director in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina. Her research includes the sustainability and dissemination of effective prevention strategies.

Further reading

Hawkins JD, Catalano RF, and Kuklinski MR (2011), Mobilizing Communities to Implement Tested and Effective Programs to Help Youth Avoid Risky Behaviors: The Communities That Care Approach. Washington, DC: ChildTrends.

Hawkins JD et al (2011), Sustained Decreases in Risk Exposure and Youth Problem Behaviors After Installation of the Communities That Care Prevention System in a Randomized Trial. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Kuklinski et al (2011), Cost-Benefit Analysis of Communities That Care Outcomes at Eighth Grade. Prevention Science. Social Development Research Group (2009), Can Communities Implement Prevention Programs With Fidelity to Program Design? (Research Brief No.1). Seattle, WA: Social Development Research Group.

Social Development Research Group (2009), A Test of Communities That Care: Community Coalitions Can Prevent Youth Substance Use and Delinquency (Research Brief No. 3). Seattle, WA: Social Development Research Group.


February 2012