Positive Youth Development in the United States: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development Programs. 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.