Gregg Dowty

Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Educational Leadership


Gordon Donaldson

Second Committee Member

Richard Ackerman

Third Committee Member

David Brown


Significant adults serve as protective factors in the lives of at-risk youth yet little is known regarding how they become significant to at-risk youth and what actions and behaviors identify them as protective factors. This study identifies those actions and behaviors important to at-risk youth and how those actions and behaviors define qualities and characteristics of the adults that lead to them becoming protective factors. The findings can inform the practice of organizations responsible for ensuring that qualified adults are placed with at-risk youth. The study employed a semistructured interview with 15 participants between the ages of 18 and 29 who met three criteria: They had previously been at-risk; they had at one time been in residential care; and they demonstrated evidence of successful adjustment to adulthood. Interview data were examined through constant comparative analysis to identify the important actions and behaviors attributed to adults who participants described as significant to them. Coding and sorting of the data led to the identification of qualities and characteristics that described adults as significant. In the views of these 15 participants, significant adults demonstrated a willingness to communicate with them, provided personal guidance through supportive approaches, and actively invested in youth by initiating and maintaining connections. These actions and behaviors translated into qualities and characteristics that identified the adult as significant. Participants attributed to adults three broad characteristics that made them significant to them: respectfulness and sincerity, inspiration or motivation, and nurturing. These qualities formed the basis for a dynamic relationship between the participant and the adult that often endured over time, resulting in the adult becoming a protective factor. The patterns of adult behavior and impact revealed as protective in this study can guide the recruitment, training, and performance assessment of professionals working with at-risk youth. Further, this study demonstrates the potential of in-depth qualitative research into the nature of the relationship between at-risk youth and the adults they encounter. Clearly, more examination of the dynamic of protective factors is needed.