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