Positive youth development merits state investment
California Agriculture 67(1):38-46. https://doi.org/10.3733/ca.v067n01p38
Published online January 01, 2013
In the last three decades, positive youth development has emerged as the new paradigm for youth-related research and programming. The literature provides strong evidence that high-quality youth programs can have positive and significant effects. Positive youth development is strongly associated with three outcomes of particular public significance: improved school achievement and graduation rates, decreased incidence of risk behaviors and increased sense of personal efficacy and empathy. A strong economic case could be built for increasing public investment in positive youth development programs. What is needed now is more and better data, and measurable goals at the state level.
Research over the last 30 years has borne out the value of positive youth development (PYD), resulting in a major shift in youth development research (Lerner and Benson 2003). Before this shift, researchers, scholars and practitioners developed youth-serving programs and institutions mainly on a deficit model: They considered high-risk youth behaviors and problems to be the focus of their work (Lerner et al. 2011). Youth were problems to be managed, and this mind-set generated strategies oriented toward intervening after the fact rather than prevention. In today's research environment, however, youth are increasingly considered community assets to be developed and nurtured (Damon 2004; Irby et al. 2001).
Research suggests that far too many California youth are not thriving. Approximately one out of six 16- to 24-year-olds in California is out of school and out of work (Benner et al. 2010; Lamming et al. 2006; Sum 2003). Each year, about 100,000 California youth reach graduating age but do not graduate from high school (Taylor and Rumberger 2010). These youth have a higher unemployment rate, lower lifetime earnings and a greater likelihood to be the target of public expenditures for health, welfare and criminal justice services (London and Erbstein 2011). Promotion of healthy pathways to college, work and community engagement is of urgent concern, not only for the youth and their immediate families and communities but for California as it seeks to replace an aging workforce, sustain a vibrant democracy and remain competitive in the global economy.
Researchers increasingly view young people as community assets to be nurtured, rather than focusing on high-risk youth behaviors and interventions after the fact. Above, 4-H state ambassadors at Point Bonita orientation build their competence and connection skills through group problem solving.
What is positive youth development?
Drawing on the work of Hamilton (1999), Lerner et al. (2011) describe a three-part conception of PYD as a developmental process, a philosophy or approach to youth programming, and situations in which youth programs and youth-serving organizations foster the healthy development of youth. Here we identify the characteristics held in common by positive youth development programs that are effective in helping youth develop competence in many areas of life, including social connections (i.e., access to people, institutions and networks), personal character, confidence and the ability to care and to contribute to society (Gomez and Ang 2007). Although they are critically important, strategies to support these programs via systems change within schools, juvenile justice, health-care and social welfare institutions are beyond the scope of this review (Pittman 1991, 2000).
Guiding frameworks and principles
Scholars have used a number of research-derived youth development frameworks to describe the needs of youth and guide the development of PYD programs. As summarized by Heck and Subramaniam (2009), these frameworks include the assets model of the Search Institute (Benson et al. 2006; Oman et al. 2002; Theokas et al. 2005), the four essential elements framework promoted by the national and state 4-H Youth Development Program (Kress 2003; Peterson et al. 2001), the five (sometimes six) C's of positive youth development (Lerner 1995; Lerner et al. 2000; Pittman et al. 2000; Roth and Brooks-Gunn 2003) and the Thrive framework (Heck et al. 2010; Thrive Foundation for Youth 2010). While these frameworks have some notable differences, both in their terminology and in the extensiveness of their lists of critical youth competencies, they have much in common. Heck and Subramaniam (2009, 21) identify six key developmental competencies common to them all.
Mastery and competence.
All of the PYD frameworks emphasize skill building, with a shared focus on skills for learning and academic success and skills relevant to crafts, arts, sports, work, management of emotions, and building and sustaining relationships. Through success in developing personal skills, youth increase their confidence and establish a foundation for developing other competencies. For example, the 35 life skills promoted in 4-H programs have been used to develop successful initiatives and as a framework for evaluations of other youth programs (Heck and Subramaniam 2009; Hendricks 1996). Taylor-Powell and Calvert (2006) found that the 4-H Arts and Communication program in Wisconsin improved participating youth's general sense of competence.
Independence and confidence.
Youth need to be able to differentiate themselves from others, and they need the confidence to exercise that independence in a variety of settings and situations, including those that are complex or difficult. Confidence indicates self-esteem and positive identity (Roth and Brooks-Gunn 2003) as well as resiliency (Benard 1991, 1993, 2004). Benard (1993, 44) notes that resilient youth have “the ability to bounce back successfully despite exposure to severe risks.” Her research links this capacity to certain attributes that allow youth to overcome adversity and stress. These attributes include social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy and a sense of purpose and future. Resilient children tend to be good learners and good problem solvers (Masten et al. 1990).
Generosity, caring and compassion.
The PYD frameworks stress the need to nurture character and a strong sense of personal values, which lead to empathy and caring for others. The frameworks recognize that individual development cannot be divorced from the relationships, social contexts and public settings in which young people find themselves. In a survey of 6,000 youth, grades 6 through 12, Scales et al. (2000) found “helping others” to be strongly related to the presence of developmental assets as identified in the Search Institute framework, particularly time spent in one's religious community and time spent in youth programs. Phelps et al. (2009) validated caring (defined as feeling sorry for the sadness of others) as a key developmental asset.
Initiative and purpose.
Healthy youth have an increased capacity to initiate work and to act on the world. They can sustain self-motivation as they direct their attention and action toward achievement of a challenging goal (Larson 2000, 170). With a sense of purpose, youth are possessed of a deep reason, a sense of inspiration or meaning that motivates them to learn and achieve. Research shows that youth with a sense of purpose have more-positive developmental outcomes (Damon 2004). One source of purpose can be spiritual growth. Shaped both within and outside of religious traditions, spiritual growth is often an important driver in the search for meaning in life (Benson et al. 2003). Another source of purpose highlighted by researchers and practitioners of social justice youth development is the desire to improve conditions for one's family and community (Ginwright and James 2002).
Involvement and contribution.
Youth need meaningful ways to contribute within their home, school, organizations and civic institutions. Surveys of youth participating in PYD programs characterize their ability to contribute as highly significant (Alberts et al. 2006). As Campbell and Erbstein (2012) note:
… engagement can deepen civic commitment, extend social capital, create meaningful relationships with adults, foster self-esteem and identity development, and build a sense of self and collective efficacy (Hughes and Curnan 2000; Irby et al. 2001; Gambone et al. 2006).
Ginwright and Cammarota (2007, 694) highlight the transformative power of a “critical civic praxis,” a strategy for putting social theory into practice. It can give our most marginalized youth populations access to the networks, ideas and experiences that build individual and collective capacity to foster equitable opportunities and outcomes.
Through animal science projects, 4-H members gain a greater sense of purpose, which leads to improved contributions to their communities. Above, a 4-H member at a spring exposition, San Mateo County fairgrounds.
Belonging and connections.
All of the frameworks discussed here point to the importance of positive, supportive relationships with peers and adults, whether family members, teachers, mentors or other adults. Supportive relationships help create a sense of appropriate boundaries and expectations while enhancing feelings of personal safety and development of a positive identity. Programs and activities that support social skill acquisition and relationship building can result in improvements in both academic achievement and self-perception (Durlak et al. 2007).
Hensley et al. (2007) found that with increased involvement in 4-H, a youth's sense of belonging increased. As Russell and Van Campen (2011) argue, many mainstream youth programs such as the Boy Scouts and YMCA do a much better job of providing connections for middle-class youth, traditional families and dominant cultural groups than they do in reaching more marginal populations such as immigrant youth, young people growing up in low-income households or lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) youth.
As 4-H members become more competent and confident working with their animals, they are introduced to basic practices in veterinary medicine.
One strategy to increase belonging and connection for a greater diversity of young people is to build upon ethnic and cultural networks, youth culture and knowledge within communities (Burciaga and Erbstein 2010; Yosso 2005). For example, drawing on the Chicana/Chicano tradition of community art workshops (Jackson 2009), the Department of Chicana/o Studies at UC Davis has collaborated with the Yolo County Housing Authority to launch Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer (TANA). This studio engages youth living in nearby subsidized housing and beyond, documenting their experience and hopes through silk-screen printing and mural painting, providing access to new skills and a safe space for community building. (See http://ucdavismagazine.ucdavis.edu/issues/su10/drawing_on_culture.html .)
PYD program results
There are many types of youth-serving entities that offer PYD programs, including government agencies, universities and schools, nonprofit organizations, faith-related institutions and ethnic networks. Backed with public funding and operating through the auspices of land-grant universities, the 4-H Youth Development Program is among the most long-standing of them. It creates a safe environment where adults and youth can work together on meaningful, inquiry-based learning. Another example is the nonprofit Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which solicits grants and donations to further its mission of providing a safe place for youth to learn, grow and experience ongoing relationships with caring adult professionals.
Thousands of churches and faith-related nonprofits across the nation offer youth programs such as tutoring, spiritual exploration, camping, crafts, career exploration and community service. Still other programs engage youth in exploring and celebrating their cultural identity or defining community challenges and getting organized to create meaningful community change (Campbell and Erbstein 2012).
Our first question was whether these PYD programs result in positive outcomes for youth. For this analysis, we reviewed a wide variety of peer-reviewed publications from the past two decades that used formal evaluation data to track the effects of PYD programs. Within this growing body of literature, we paid particular attention to metareviews that synthesized the findings of previous studies and to individual longitudinal studies with large sample sizes.
After-school programs that promote personal and social skills result in improved test scores and grades — even more than programs focusing on academics alone. 4-H helps young people discover the things that give them joy, energy and passion for making the world a better place.
Because this article aims to provide a concise literature review that identifies promising policy and program directions, we will not provide a detailed accounting of the methodological strengths and limits of individual studies. However, several general caveats regarding the literature should be noted. While many studies provide evidence of a relationship between PYD programs and beneficial youth outcomes, this relationship is not present in all cases. When such effects are found, they range widely in magnitude across different studies. The relationships discussed are stronger in high-quality programs. (We discuss what constitutes a high-quality program below.)
Overall, the findings tend to reflect correlational rather than causal relationships. Many studies do not control for self-selection into programs or exposure to PYD support in families and communities, and that makes it difficult to distinguish the outcomes that flow from informal efforts by parents, peers and communities from outcomes that can be created in structured youth programs. Also, many PYD programs have not been formally evaluated, and existing evaluations often have not disaggregated youth experience by demographic, cultural and geographic characteristics to assess whether the outcomes are consistent across different populations and places.
Despite these caveats, there is strong evidence that high-quality youth programs can have positive and significant effects. Support for PYD in a young person's life is positively associated with three outcomes of particular public significance:
Improved school achievement and graduation rates.
Decreased incidence of risk behaviors.
Increased sense of personal efficacy and empathy.
Improved school achievement, graduation.
Research shows a strong correlation between involvement in PYD programs and improved academic achievement (Gomez and Ang 2007; Guest and Sneider 2003). Indeed, Meltzer et al. (2006) found that the length of time spent in PYD programs during childhood and adolescence predicted positive outcomes during adulthood, including increased high school graduation rates and improved college attendance.
A qualitative review of 161 PYD programs found that school achievement and attachment were improved among participants (Catalano et al. 2004). Also, strong evidence from a recent meta-analysis of studies that employed experimental designs indicates that participation in after-school programs that promote personal and social skills has resulted in increased achievement test scores, grades, school attendance and school bonding, when compared to control conditions (Durlak et al. 2010). Impressively, the overall increase in achievement gained by participating in these social-emotional learning programs was larger than is typically found for programs that focus only on academics.
Decreased incidence of risk behaviors.
Many researchers have found correlations between PYD and the prevention of self-destructive behaviors (Beets et al. 2009; Benson 1997; Benson and Pittman 2001; Benson and Scales 2009; Benson et al. 1998; Benson et al. 2006; Catalano et al. 2004; Goldschmidt et al. 2007; Hawkins et al. 2009; Oman et al. 2002; Tebes et al. 2007; Weissberg and Utne O'Brien 2004). A formal meta-analysis of rigorous evaluations found that after-school programs promoting personal and social skills were effective in reducing problem behaviors and drug use (Durlak et al. 2010). Other research has linked PYD to a reduction in potentially dangerous sexual activity, including early or frequent sexual intercourse, multiple sexual partners, not using birth control and failing to protect against sexually transmitted diseases (Catalano et al. 2004; Gavin et al. 2009; Gloppen et al. 2010; Sieving et al. 2011; Weissberg and Utne O'Brien 2004).
Increased efficacy and empathy.
Multiple studies have found that PYD programs promote positive personal traits and relationships, built on both self-assertive and self-regulative efficacy and empathy (Anderson et al. 2007; Catalano et al. 2004; Roth and Brooks-Gunn 2003). Higher levels of key PYD indicators predict greater contributions to family and community (Lerner et al. 2008). And meta-analytic findings show that after-school programs promoting personal and social skills improved self-esteem and self-efficacy and increased positive interactions with others (Durlak et al. 2010).
The achievement of these outcomes across a wide range of programmatic settings is indicative of the payoffs the public might expect from high-quality PYD programs. However, the degree to which these outcomes may be evident in any given program or community setting appears to depend on program quality. To bring about the desired outcomes for youth, a program must embody specific key characteristics.
The most exhaustive review of the literature on this topic remains the National Research Council's report of the Committee on Community-Level Programs for Youth (NRC/IOM 2002). The authors identified eight characteristics of positive developmental settings (see pp. 9–10 of report): physical and psychological safety, appropriate structure, supportive relationships, opportunities to belong, positive social norms, support for efficacy and mattering, opportunities for skill building, and integration of family, school and community efforts. The study notes that these features work in synergistic ways, such that “programs with more features are likely to provide better supports for young people's positive development” (2002, 8).
Scientific inquiry is a primary educational practice in 4-H, which builds youth competence and love of learning. Above, participants in a National Youth Science Day activity at San Mateo County's 4-H World of Water workshop.
In their meta-analysis, Durlak et al. (2010) categorized successful interventions as following sequential, active, focused and explicit (SAFE) practices that are structured and youth focused. These practices include sequential activities linked over several days rather than unstructured, drop-in opportunities; active involvement of youth rather than passive reception of messages from adults; focus on personal or social skills (achieved by setting aside time and elements of the program to work on those skills) and explicit identification of skills youth are expected to develop. Durlak et al. found that programs that included SAFE practices had stronger outcomes than programs that did not. In fact, all of the outcomes (personal, behavioral and academic) were significantly improved for SAFE programs, and none of the outcomes were significantly improved for non-SAFE programs.
At a National Youth Science Day at San Mateo County's 4-H World of Water workshop, members improve their competence in understanding science. 4-H programming helps address the critical need for more scientists and engineers in the workforce.
Drawing on more than a dozen after-school program evaluations, Huang and Dietel (2011) and colleagues at the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing developed a model that posits five key components of effective after-school programs: clear and rigorous goals, experienced leadership that sets high expectations, staff with longevity at the site, programs that align with school goals and evaluation that uses both formative and summative methods. (Formative assessment assists the leader in forming lessons based on the progress of student understanding, while summative assessment comes at the end and summarizes what the student has learned.)
Recent years have seen a proliferation of program quality assessment tools, which provide one way to summarize key research findings and provide guidance on program design and management. A review of these tools by the Forum on Youth Investment finds that there is a common core of concerns: relationships, environment, engagement, social norms, skill-building opportunities and routines and structures (Yohalem et al. 2009). Some tools also look in more detail at participation, management, staffing and community linkages as important variables.
Researchers at the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality focus their efforts on improving instructional practices at the point of service by means of a structured approach to assessment. Their research (Smith et al. 2012) identifies four important domains of quality practice:
Safety (physical and emotional).
Support (welcoming setting, conflict resolution, active learning, skill building, etc.).
Interaction (peer group interaction and community building).
Engagement (higher-order choice, planning and reflection).
Limits in current research.
As Heck and Subramaniam (2009) conclude, relatively little literature addresses how race, class, ethnicity or other demographic characteristics impact the ability of youth development programs to achieve positive outcomes. We add to this list the lack of attention to the ways in which place or regional geography matters. Universal frameworks are useful, but they have a tendency to downplay or ignore the need to tailor youth programs to particular situations or populations. As Campbell and Erbstein (2012) note:
An important segment of the literature argues against universal, one-size-fits-all approaches and in favor of tailoring initiatives to the circumstances of particular disadvantaged, and typically underrepresented, youth populations and communities.
Emerging research (Russell and Van Campen 2011) seeks to identify qualities held in common by programs that effectively serve populations marginalized on the basis of race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, immigration status, language background or sexual orientation. Some research suggests particular efficacy for community engagement strategies that explicitly help youth identify and act upon the root causes of challenging community conditions (Erbstein 2010; Ginwright et al. 2006). These are seen in programs that connect young people with what Ricardo Stanton-Salazar (2011) describes as empowerment agents and programs that attend to cultural and organizational factors that might be limiting the participation of underrepresented populations (Erbstein 2010; Romero et al. 2010; Russell and Van Campen 2011).
An example of a project that addresses the circumstances of disadvantaged youth is an effort funded by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) to extend indices of youth well-being and vulnerability in California (see sidebar below). The aim is to produce accurate, compelling and actionable data at the community scale, by targeting resources to neighborhoods or subpopulations that have a particular need for support.
Putting youth on the map
Californians want — and need — the state's youth to thrive, not merely survive or face fewer problems. But how to tell whether our young people are doing well? To answer this question the Center for Regional Change and UC Cooperative Extension are partnering to create and disseminate a Youth Well-Being Index. <