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

Publication Date
Nov 12, 1998



The past 30 years have seen widespread proliferation of prevention and positive youth development programs. During this time, prevention programs have been the subject of much evaluative study. More recently, the field has witnessed a greater focus on evaluation of programs emphasizing positive youth development, the subject of the present study.1  Interest in positive youth development has grown as a result of studies that show the same individual, family, school, and community factors often predict both positive (e.g., success in school) and negative (e.g., delinquency) outcomes for youth. Such factors as developing strong bonds with healthy adults and maintaining regular involvement in positive activities not only create a positive developmental pathway, but can prevent the occurrence of problems. While encouraging, these findings highlight the need for systematic review across programs to further their general acceptance by the field.

Accordingly, the goals of the present study were to:

  • research and establish both theoretical and empirical definitions of positive youth development and related concepts
  • document and describe common denominators between risk and protective factors implicated in youth problem behavior
  • identify and summarize the results of evaluations of positive youth development interventions; and
  • identify elements contributing to both the success and lack of success in positive youth development programs and program evaluations, as well as potential improvements in evaluation approaches.

Defining Positive Youth Development

Positive youth development is not yet well defined. This study has identified a set of recognizable features of positive youth development programs, which generally seek to achieve one or more of the following objectives:

  • promote bonding
  • foster resilience
  • promote social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and moral competence
  • foster self-determination
  • foster spirituality
  • foster self-efficacy
  • foster clear and positive identity
  • foster belief in the future
  • provide recognition for positive behavior and opportunities for prosocial involvement
  • foster prosocial norms (healthy standards for behavior).

Selecting Programs for Review

The programs reviewed for this study all sought to achieve one or more of these positive youth development objectives with youths aged 6-20. Programs were not included if their activities represented treatment of, or a response to a diagnosed disorder or behavior problem. All evaluations of these programs were considered against the usual standard in the field-research designs employing control or at least strong comparison groups  and all had to measure youth behavioral outcomes.

Seventy-seven positive youth development programs with evaluated interventions were selected and analyzed for their effects. Twenty-five of these programs were ultimately designated as "effective" based on the evidence presented in the evaluation. The 52 other programs were generally excluded either because the evaluation did not meet the study's scientific criteria, or, in spite of meeting the criteria, there was no evidence their program components produced an impact. Regrettably, some positive youth development programs with potential could not be fully considered in the review due to being in the early implementation stages of their study or because they lacked an evaluation component.

Program Findings

The 25 programs were found in community, school, and family settings. Eight approaches took place in one environment, either the community or schools. The remaining 17 programs combined their strategies in either two (typically the family and school) or three (the community combined with the family and school) environments. School components were used in 22 (88%) programs, family components in 15 (60%), and community components in 12 (48%).

The study showed that there are at least three ways in which positive youth development programs engaged the family: through parent skills training (seven programs), through using strategies that involve parents in program implementation (nine programs), and/or through strategies that involve parents in program design and planning (two programs). Several programs combined parent skills training with parental involvement in implementation or organizational strategies.

When positive youth development programs involved the community, they often used its many resources to enhance the other youth, family, and school strategies. For example, one intergenerational mentoring program sent youth and their older mentors together into nursing homes to work side by side with residents of the homes, while another placed youth and their parents in neighborhoods mobilizing for change as the whole family received communication skills training in another setting. Several programs targeted community factors more broadly, through influencing local city or neighborhood policies for youth, or through the use of mass media.

Effective programs addressed a range of positive youth development objectives yet shared common themes. All sought to strengthen social, emotional, cognitive and/or behavioral competencies, self-efficacy, and family and community standards for healthy social and personal behavior. Seventy-five percent also targeted healthy bonds between youth and adults, increased opportunities for youth participation in positive social activities, and recognition and reinforcement for that participation. Based on the evidence of their evaluations, very few of the studied programs focused on youth spirituality, self-determination, and belief in the future.

The youth competency strategies varied among programs from targeting youth directly with skills training sessions, to peer tutoring conducted by at-risk youth, to teacher training that resulted in better classroom management and instruction. The evidence showed an associated list of important outcomes including better school attendance, higher academic performance, healthier peer and adult interactions, improved decision-making abilities, and less substance use and risky sexual behavior.

The study highlighted the importance of two features also generally present in effective programs. One is the evident value of using structured program guidelines or manuals (curricula) that help those delivering the program to implement it consistently from group to group, or from site to site. Twenty-four (96%) programs used training manuals or other forms of structured curricula. The second aspect is that programs require sufficient time for evidence of behavior change to occur, and to be measured. Twenty (80%) programs provided their services for nine months or more.

Evaluation Findings

This review identified several areas of concern linked to the current state of evaluating positive youth development programs.

The first issue is the relatively low frequency of follow-up studies in the field. Only about half the 25 reviewed programs used follow-up methods to track long-term youth outcomes. Tracking these effects for a significant period beyond the intervention delivery would allow the field to determine whether, and which, program effects endured. This would also clarify the need for booster sessions or other activities to help maintain the beneficial effects over time.

The second issue concerns the type of measures used in the evaluations. The field could greatly benefit from the development and use of standardized measures applied within a comprehensive outcomes framework. Such measures would permit consistent assessment and interpretation of outcomes across studies. Using a comprehensive measurement framework could mean the "whole child" is assessed while change is occurring: one set of measures could track indicators of positive youth development constructs, another could track positive behavior outcomes, and another would document the prevention or decrease of problems. Currently, problem behaviors are tracked more often than positive ones and, while an increasing number of positive youth development interventions are choosing to measure both, this is still far from being the standard in the field. A major obstacle to tracking indicators of positive youth development constructs is the absence of widely accepted measures for this purpose. Although such outcomes as academic achievement, engagement in the workforce, and financial self-sufficiency are commonly used, many aspects of positive youth development go unassessed due to the underdeveloped state of the assessment tools. Beyond this, it would be desirable to measure predictors (i.e., risk and protective factors) of positive and problem outcomes. This would promote understanding of the chain of effects that programs have on intermediate factors and behavioral outcomes.

The third issue is the comprehensiveness of information supplied by the evaluations upon publication. Ideally, there needs to be a complete description of the program, detail about the implementation process, specifics about the youth development constructs they addressed, and descriptions of the hypothesized relationships between these constructs and the youth outcomes measured. In addition, precise and complete quantitative and statistical information allows readers to independently assess the program's accomplishments, as well as to compare interesting effects across studies.

The final area of concern is the use of proven evaluation methods. The development of several promising new measurement approaches has been reported, particularly in the area of community-based interventions. However, the standard in the field to this point remains a controlled research design that employs strong comparison groups. Although it is clear that experimental designs with random assignment are not always realistic or appropriate, well designed quasi-experimental studies can provide adequate comparisons of program effects.


This study concluded that a wide range of positive youth development approaches can result in positive youth behavior outcomes and the prevention of youth problem behaviors. Nineteen effective programs showed positive changes in youth behavior, including significant improvements in interpersonal skills, quality of peer and adult relationships, self-control, problem solving, cognitive competencies, self-efficacy, commitment to schooling, and academic achievement. Twenty-four effective programs showed significant improvements in problem behaviors, including drug and alcohol use, school misbehavior, aggressive behavior, violence, truancy, high risk sexual behavior, and smoking. Although a broad range of strategies produced these results, the themes common to success involved methods to: strengthen social, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and moral competencies; build self-efficacy; shape messages from family and community about standards for positive youth behavior; increase healthy bonding with adults, peers and younger children; expand opportunities and recognition for youth who engage in positive behavior and activities; provide structure and consistency in program delivery; and intervene with youth for at least nine months or more. Although one third of the effective programs operated in only a single setting, it is important to note that for the other two thirds, combining the resources of the family, the community, and the community's schools were the other ingredients of success.



  1. The Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) awarded a grant to the Social Development Research Group (SDRG) at the University of Washington to undertake this project.