Positive Youth Development in the U.S.: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development Programs: Chapter 1


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This project was initiated, in part, to describe why a "shift in approach" has been advocated for how we address youth issues in this country. This chapter examines the ways in which differing points of view have converged to form the field of positive youth development.

With the twentieth century's "discovery" of childhood and adolescence as special periods in which children should be given support to learn and develop, American society assumed an increased sense of responsibility for the care of its young people. Increases in juvenile crime and concerns about troubled youth led in the 1950s to the beginning of major federal funding initiatives to address these issues. These trends accelerated during the 1960s, as did national rates of poverty, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, family mobility, and single parenthood.

Changes in socialization forces that have historically nurtured the development of children  especially in the family  necessitate reconceptualization of school and community practices to support the family in its mission to raise successful children (Hernandez, 1995, from Weissberg & Greenberg, 1997: 5).

At first, interventions to support families and children were primarily responses to existing crises. Their focus was on reducing juvenile crime, or transforming poor character in youth. As the nation watched youth problems become more prevalent, intervention and treatment for a wide range of specific problems were developed. In the last three decades, both services and policies designed to reduce the problem behaviors of troubled youth have expanded. The effectiveness of these approaches has been extensively examined in a variety of research studies on substance abuse, conduct disorders, delinquent and antisocial behavior, academic failure, and teenage pregnancy (cf. Agee, 1979; Clarke & Cornish, 1978; Cooper, Altman, Brown & Czechowicz, 1983; De Leon & Ziengenfuss, 1986; Friedman & Beschner, 1985; Gold & Mann, 1984).

Prevention approaches began to emerge two decades ago, with an emphasis on supporting youth before problem behaviors occurred. Increasingly, investigators and practitioners in the field sought to address the circumstances (families, schools, communities, peer groups) of children's lives. Often based on earlier treatment efforts, most prevention programs initially focused on the prevention of a single problem behavior.

The prevention field has undergone its own evolution during this time. Many early prevention programs were not based on theory and research on child development or the factors influencing it. Prevention strategies changed as programs were evaluated, particularly as some approaches failed to show positive impact on youth drug use, pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, school failure, or delinquent behavior (cf. Ennett, Tobler, Ringwalt & Flewelling, 1994; Kirby, Harvey, Claussenius & Novar, 1989; Malvin, Moskowitz, Schaeffer & Schaps, 1984; Snow, Gilchrist & Schinke, 1985; Thomas, Mitchell, Devlin, Goldsmith, Singer & Watters, 1992; Mitchell, et al., 1997).

A key turning point in the field occurred as investigators and service providers began incorporating information from longitudinal studies that identified important predictors of problem behaviors in youth. A second generation of prevention efforts sought to use this information on predictors to interrupt the processes leading to specific problem behaviors. For example, drug abuse prevention programs began to address empirically identified predictors of adolescent drug use, such as peer and social influences to use drugs, and social norms that condone or promote such behaviors (cf. Ellickson & Bell, 1990; Flay et al., 1988; Pentz et al., 1989a, b). These prevention efforts were often guided by theories about how people make decisions, such as the Theory of Reasoned Action (Morrison, Simpson, Gillmore, Wells & Hoppe, 1994; Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) and the Health Belief Model (Janz & Becker, 1984; Rosenstock, Strecher & Becker, 1988). As Kirby (1997:12) noted,

In 1991, proponents of (these) leading theories of behavioral change assembled at the National Institute of Mental Health to attempt to reach agreement on the important factors influencing behavior and behavior change, particularly health behavior (Fishbein et al., 1991). They succeeded in reaching some consensus on these issues. They agreed that there are three factors that most strongly influence health-related behaviors: (1) the person's intention to engage in the behavior, (2) the lack of any environmental constraints that might prevent the behavior or the existence of any environmental resources needed to complete the behavior, and (3) the individual's skills (or ability to engage in the behavior).

In the 1980s, prevention efforts that focused only on a single problem behavior came under increasing criticism. The dominant prevention models were urged to examine the co-occurrence of problem behaviors within a single child, and the common predictors of multiple problem behaviors. Investigators were also encouraged to incorporate valuable knowledge about environmental predictors and interactions between the individual and the environment. Further, many advocated a focus on factors that promote positive youth development, in addition to focusing on problem prevention. Such concerns, expressed by both prevention practitioners and prevention scientists, helped expand the design of prevention programs to include components aimed at promoting positive youth development, and the factors that influence it. Consensus began to develop that a successful transition to adulthood requires more than avoiding drugs, violence, or precocious sexual activity. The promotion of children's social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development began to be seen as key to preventing problem behaviors themselves (W.T. Grant Consortium on the School-Based Promotion of Social Competence, 1992).

In the 1990s, practitioners, policy makers, and prevention scientists adopted a broader focus for addressing youth issues (Pittman, et al. 1993). There is a growing body of research on the developmental etiology of problem and positive behaviors (Kellam & Rebok, 1992; Hawkins, Catalano & Miller, 1992; Newcomb et al., 1986), and comprehensive outcome reports from rigorous randomized and non-randomized controlled trials of positive youth development programs (e.g., Greenberg, 1996; Greenberg & Kusche, 1997; Weissberg & Caplan, 1998; Hahn, Leavitt & Aaron, 1994). Two parallel currents of work in the 1990s are now converging: positive youth development and prevention science. It is useful to understand the contributions of each.

Practitioner, Policy, and Prevention Science Perspectives

Practitioner and Policy Perspectives

Advocates of the Positive Youth Development Approach

A number of organizations have articulated the benefits of a comprehensive approach to positive youth development approach that incorporates social and other influential factors, including the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1995), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1996), the Annie E. Casey Foundation (1995), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (1997), the Consortium on the School Based Promotion of Social Competence (1994), and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (1995).

Today's youth live and develop in a society that offers tremendous choices and challenges during the formative period of adolescence. The adolescent's environment is shaped profoundly by the presence or absence of many different factors, including family resources, community services, and educational and employment opportunities. In the past few decades, a body of social and behavioral research has emerged that seeks to explain why some adolescents successfully navigate their social settings, while others who are similarly situated adopt "risky" lifestyles characterized by drug use, unprotected sexual behavior, dropping out of school, delinquency, gang membership, and violence. During the same period, community leaders have experimented with a wide variety of approaches designed to improve the quality of life for all community residents, including the creation of social settings that are supportive of youth  school, recreation centers, job training programs, and others (1996: vii). An emphasis on social settings compels service providers to move beyond a perspective that focuses on the deficits of today's youth (such as delinquency, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and violence) and to examine the density and quality of social interactions as well as demographic features and economic measures in assessing a community's resources. The emphasis on social context has stimulated a new agenda for program development and evaluation, one that stresses the importance of knowing how, when, and where adolescents interact with their families, peers, and unrelated adults in settings such as home, employment, recreation and education. Finally, the research on social settings has highlighted the need to integrate the youth development research literature with other research on community development and community organization (in the fields of economics, urban studies, anthropology, and sociology, for example) so that knowledge can inform efforts to build communities that are supportive and protective of their youth and families (The National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, 1996: 4).

Arguments have been made for an integrated positive youth development focus over a focus on preventing a single problem behavior when working with youth. These are reviewed below.

Concern About Preventing Problems Rather than Promoting Development

An understanding that "problem-free is not fully prepared" (Pittman, 1991), is fundamental to positive youth development:

For years, Americans have accepted the notion that   with the exception of education  services for youth, particularly publicly funded services, exist to address youth problems. We have assumed that positive youth development occurs naturally in the absence of youth problems. Such thinking has created an assortment of youth services focused on "fixing" adolescents engaged in risky behaviors or preventing other youth from "getting into trouble." Preventing high risk behaviors, however, is not the same as preparation for the future. Indeed, an adolescent who attends school, obeys laws, and avoids drugs, is not necessarily equipped to meet the difficult demands of adulthood. Problem-free does not mean fully prepared. There must be an equal commitment to helping young people understand life's challenges and responsibilities and to developing the necessary skills to succeed as adults. What is needed is a massive conceptual shift  from thinking that youth problems are merely the principal barrier to youth development to thinking that youth development serves as the most effective strategy for the prevention of youth problems (Pittman & Fleming, 1991:3).

The Person-in-Environment Perspective

The person-in-environment perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) suggests that the socializing influences of caregivers, school officials, classmates, and neighborhood residents are primary to child development, along with the standards and values of the youth's cultural group and community. Advocates for positive youth development urge attention to the interaction of the environment and the individual. Attention to cultural factors in different ethnic communities is often emphasized as key to positive youth outcomes (Deyhle, 1995; Boykins & Toms, 1985).

Developmental Models of How Youth Grow, Learn, and Change

Developmental theories that identify important developmental tasks, challenges and milestones, and the competencies required to meet them during infancy, childhood and adolescence, provide the foundations for positive youth development approaches.

Attachment theory describes the essential bond between child and caregiver and how this bond serves as a secure base for the child's exploration. This bonding lays the foundation for healthy processes of emotional self-regulation, skill building, and for the development of social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and moral competence (Ainsworth, Behar, Water & Wall, 1978, Ainsworth, 1969; Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1979, 1982; Mahler, Pine & Bergman, 1975).

Erikson's identity development theory (1950, 1968) emphasizes the dynamic, progressive organization of the child's drives, abilities, beliefs, and individual history leading to the development of the internal self structure known as identity. The cohesive development of a sense of identity progresses as the child grows. Identity development in adolescence depends to a great extent on the stability of identity achieved in earlier stages. Positive coping in adolescence is based on successful achievement of tasks in the "industry" stage of preadolescence. It is at this stage that a youth learns to feel competent, effective, and capable of mastering age-appropriate tasks. The successful outcome of this period is the acquisition of specific skills and patterns linked to the youth's sense of competence. Underachievement in preadolescence is likely to result in social and emotional vulnerability during adolescence. Disruption of secure identity development produces a child unable to make healthy choices based on positive internal values and standards. In short, the unsuccessful completion of developmental tasks is a primary source of behavioral problems, according to Erikson. From this perspective, positive youth development holds the key to both promoting strengths and preventing problems in youth.

The perspectives reviewed above have led to the call for a greater focus on positive outcomes for youth, on developmentally-based strategies, and on attention to the role of families, schools, and communities in promoting positive youth development. From this base, positive youth development approaches seek to promote healthy development to foster positive youth outcomes; focus "non-categorically" on the whole child; focus on the achievement of developmental tasks; and focus on interactions with family, school, neighborhood, societal, and cultural contexts.

Prevention Science Perspectives

Prevention Science and Positive Youth Development

In the 1970s and early 1980s, most prevention programs limited their focus to individual level risk or protective factors, and generally addressed only one or two predictors. Tolan & Guerra, (1994: 10), in their review of violence prevention programs, found that: "Most interventions tend to focus on changing one promising risk factor, and most emphasize changing only individual (and not social or environmental) characteristics." In reviewing pregnancy prevention programs, Kirby (1997) reported similar findings.

Yet, longitudinal studies conducted over the past 30 years identified many factors in neighborhoods, families, schools, and peer groups as well as within the individual (Brewer, Hawkins, Catalano & Neckerman, 1995; Coie, et al., 1993; Dryfoos, 1990; Hawkins, Catalano & Miller, 1992; Farrington, 1996; Loeber, 1990) that predicted problem behaviors. Exposure to increasing numbers of risk factors was found to increase the likelihood of a child's problem behaviors, while exposure to increasing numbers of protective factors was found to prevent problem behaviors in spite of risk exposure (Hawkins, Catalano & Miller, 1992; IOM, 1994; Newcomb, Maddahian, Skager & Bentler, 1987; Pollard, Hawkins, & Arthur, 1998; Rutter 1987a,b; Sameroff & Seifer, 1990).

Moreover, research showed that many of the same risk and protective factors predict diverse adolescent problems, including substance abuse, delinquency, violence, teenage pregnancy and school dropout (Dryfoos, 1990; Hawkins, Jenson, Catalano & Lishner, 1988; Howell, Krisberg, Hawkins & Wilson, 1995; IOM, 1994; Loeber, Stouthamer­Loeber, Van Kammen & Farrington, 1991; Slavin, 1991), that problem behaviors are correlated with one another (Elliott, Huizinga & Menard, 1989; Jessor & Jessor, 1977; Zabin, Hardy, Smith & Hirsch, 1986), and typically cluster within the same individuals and reinforce each other (Benson, 1990; Dryfoos, 1990; Jessor, Donovan & Costa, 1991). These findings suggested the need for more comprehensive or "non-categorical" approaches for preventing a broad range of youth problems (e.g., Catalano & Hawkins, 1996; Dryfoos, 1996, 1994, 1990; Hawkins, Catalano & Miller, 1992; Kirby, 1997; Moore, Sugland, Blumenthal, Glei & Snyder, 1995; Perry, Kelder & Komro, 1993; The National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, 1996, 1993; Weissberg & Greenberg, 1997). Like youth development practitioners, prevention scientists became increasingly dissatisfied with a single-problem approach to prevention.

Developmental Perspective

Prevention research also showed that different risk and protective factors are salient at different stages of a child's development (Bell, 1986). For example, while aggressive behavior from the early elementary grades appears to be a stable predictor of teenage drug abuse, poor achievement stabilizes as a predictor of drug abuse only in later elementary grades (Kellam & Brown, 1982). Prevention scientists began to emphasize the importance of attending to developmental theory and research in designing prevention programs. Information on developmentally and environmentally relevant task demands (Kellam & Rebok, 1992), as well as on specific developmental processes (Catalano & Hawkins, 1996) was incorporated to make preventive interventions appropriate to the youth's developmental stage and challenges.

There is a growing emphasis on the integration of developmental theory with models from public health, epidemiology, social work, sociology and developmental psychopathology in conceptualizing, designing and implementing preventive interventions (Cichetti & Cohen, 1995; Cichetti, 1984; Kellam & Rebok, 1992; Lorion, 1990; Sameroff, 1990; Sroufe & Rutter, 1984). As concepts in development have broadened to include ecological analysis (Belsky, 1993; Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1995; Garbarino, 1992) and multivariate examination of causation and risk (IOM, 1994; Rutter, 1987a & b), developmental theory has become more able to provide a powerful framework for organizing and building the field (Weissberg & Greenberg, 1997: 9).

All these developments led prevention scientists to call for a broader focus in preventive interventions: the identification of important connections between risk and protective factors and youth outcomes; the evidence that problem behaviors share many common antecedents; the evidence that the number of risk and protective factors to which a youth is exposed strongly affects that youth's likely outcomes; the importance of factoring age-appropriate task demands and processes into prevention program design; and documentation that early initiation of problem behavior is itself a predictor of poor outcomes.

The Convergence of Approaches

Youth development practitioners, the policy community, and prevention scientists have reached the same conclusions about promoting better outcomes for youth. They call for expanding programs beyond a single problem behavior focus, and considering program effects on a range of positive and problem behaviors. Prevention science provides empirical support for this position through substantial evidence that many youth outcomes are affected by the same risk and protective factors. These groups are also calling for interventions that involve several social domains. The evidence that risk and protective factors are found across family, peer, school, and community environments supports this approach. Both positive youth development advocates and prevention scientists now encourage attention to the importance of social and environmental factors that affect youths' accomplishments of the developmental tasks they face. This convergence in thinking has been recognized in forums of researchers, practitioners and government representatives on youth development (e.g., The National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, 1996).

Current Challenges for Positive Youth Development

The new vision of positive youth development faces at least three challenges.

  1. To establish shared definitions of the key constructs of positive youth development.
  2. To document the evidence for the effectiveness of programs that use a positive youth development approach.
  3. To develop a better understanding of why enhancing positive youth development also prevents problem behaviors.

The first challenge requires operationalizing the concept of positive youth development. Chapter Two addresses that challenge by identifying the fundamental components of positive youth development.

The second challenge is to assemble the evidence for the effectiveness of the positive youth development approach. This is done in Chapter Three.

The third challenge is to investigate why promoting positive youth development is also likely to prevent problem behavior. Practitioners, policy makers, and prevention scientists have advocated that models of healthy development hold the key to both health promotion and prevention of problem behaviors. A sound empirical and theoretical basis for this assumption is needed. We must better understand the mechanisms through which different risk and protective factors influence positive youth development and problem behavior. Such theoretical and empirical tasks are beyond the scope of this report. While some work has begun in this area (Blechman, Prinz & Dumas, 1995; Catalano & Hawkins, 1996; Cichetti & Cohen, 1995; Kellam & Rebok, 1992; Lorian, 1990; Sameroff, 1990), much remains to be accomplished.

We are finding new evidence that offers an empirical demonstration of why increasing positive youth development outcomes is likely to prevent problem behavior. This evidence demonstrates that the same risk and protective factors that studies have shown predict problem behaviors are also important in predicting positive outcomes. Risk factors increase the likelihood of problem behavior and decrease the likelihood of positive outcomes. Protective factors decrease the likelihood of problem behavior and increase the likelihood of positive outcomes. Given this similar etiological base, it is likely that decreasing risk and increasing protection is likely to affect both problem and positive outcomes.

This chapter closes with the presentation of the association between risk and protective factors in the community, school, family, peer group, and individual, and positive and problem outcomes (see graphs in Appendices A - E). This analysis used survey data from representative samples of over 80,000 students in grades 6-12 across five states (Six State Needs Assessment Consortium, funded by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention). Measures of risk and protective factors, positive youth development outcomes, and problem behaviors were completed by students, anonymously. The cumulative numbers of risk and protective factors for each child was determined and these are graphically related to problem and positive outcomes. The first three analyses (Appendices A, B, and C) show that as the literature on problem behavior suggests, as exposure to risk factors increase, the prevalence of health and behavior problems such as drug use and crime increase. In addition, protective factors buffered the effects of youth's risk exposure at every level of risk (Appendices D and E). The same risk and protective factors either decreased or increased the prevalence of the positive youth development outcomes of academic and social competence. The common etiology of positive and problem outcomes suggests that programs that address these risk and protective factors are likely to enhance positive outcomes and reduce problem outcomes.

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