Family therapists and school counselors are increasingly called upon to provide services for youth in alternative education (Carver, Lewis, & Tice, 2010). Alternative education systems are programs for youth who have been defined as at risk. This study explored the at-risk discourse and asked the questions (a) how do youth and staff define the term at risk, (b) construct their experience in alternative education systems, and (c) experience their relationships with each other.

Combined elements from critical theory and a social constructionist perspective guided this study. A qualitative, grounded theory method was used that included semi structured interviews with youth and their service providers in alternative education. A convenience sample of 20 staff and 20 youth from 3 alternative education sites participated. Results showed that youth and staff spoke in ways that reflected a traditional risk discourse (TRD) that framed youth as dangerous, delinquent and focused on presumed deficiencies. Nonetheless, youth and staff differed in their adoption of TRD, either resisting or reproducing it. Youth and staff interactions either replicated a negative view of youth based on TRD reproduction or created new, more positive views of youth based on TRD resistance.

Responses to the risk discourse revealed relational patterns between staff and youth that were either conflictual or transformative. Results showed that overriding systemic barriers, as well as a reproduction of the TRD, influenced constructions of conflictual youth and staff relationships. The construction of transformative relationships included an active resistance of the traditional risk discourse primarily by staff. Key elements included authentic interactions, high expectations, sense of belonging, opportunities for leadership, peer and community support.

These results enable family therapists and school counselors to recognize the endurance of disabling discourses for youth in alternative education and also open up new possibilities for interrupting these processes through advocacy and whole-system change.

LLU Discipline

Marital and Family Therapy


Marital and Family Therapy


Graduate Studies

First Advisor

Carmen Knudson-Martin

Second Advisor

Colwick Wilson

Third Advisor

Brian Distelberg

Fourth Advisor

Ron Morgan

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Level


Year Degree Awarded


Date (Title Page)




Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings

Non-formal education; Youth -- Education; Problem children -- Education; Educational counseling; School counselors; Family therapy; Community-base family services -- Case studies; Social work education.



Page Count

xiii: 166

Digital Format


Digital Publisher

Loma Linda University Libraries

Usage Rights

This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.


Loma Linda University Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Collection Website



Loma Linda University. Del E. Webb Memorial Library. University Archives