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


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.