Positive Adolescent Functioning: An Assessment of Measures Across Time and Group

Indicators of Positive Development Conference
March 12-13, 2003
Bureau of Labor Statistics Conference Center
Washington, DC


Brian Barber, University of Tennessee

The welcome shift in focus from negative to positive aspects of adolescents currently being pursued by many social science and public health researchers (e.g., Arnett, 1999; Larson, 2000; Susman, Reiter, Ford, & Dorn, 2002; Yates & Youniss, 1999) brings with it the important challenge of identifying, revising, and/or developing adequate measurement. Efficient progress in understanding adolescent competence rests largely on this key task of solidifying reliable and valid measures that can be used in the substantial research that is sure to follow this new turn in focus on adolescents.

Not unlike measuring maladaptive behavior, assessing competence or positive functioning is complex given the intricate nature of adolescent experience. However, unlike the traditional approach to studying adolescent problem behaviors that has organized inquiry by type or severity of specific problems (e.g., internalized and externalized problem syndromes and their many sub-categories), assessing positive adolescent functioning might better be organized according to the developmental tasks that face children in the second decade of life.

Developmental theory suggests that adolescence is characterized by at least three fundamental dimensions of adolescent functioning, competent functioning at any or all of which is used as a marker of successful development and preparation for advancement to challenges yet to come in the adult years. First, central to many theoretical approaches to adolescence is the consolidation of self and the relation of self to others, two basic and interrelated components of identity formation [insert brief review of theories, references]. Thus, one lens for viewing positive adolescent functioning is to assess adolescent feelings or satisfaction with self and the degree to which adolescents have the capacity to focus outside of self on to others. For the purposes of this paper, this dimension is labeled Intrapersonal Functioning, and is assessed specifically by measures of self-esteem, perspective taking, and empathy.

Second, theory on adolescents also gives key importance to social competence. Thus, beyond one’s own psychological perspective on the self-other dynamic as described above, adolescents are faced with increasing opportunity and requirement to interact with peers and adults in various contexts [theory; references]. For the purposes of this paper, this domain will be referred to as Interpersonal Functioning, and will be assessed specifically with indexes of social initiative, peer connection, communication with mother, and communication with father.

Third, a significant indicator of adolescent successful development and a key marker for future success is adolescent functioning in social institutions [theory; references]. These include school, and civic and religious organizations. For the purposes of this paper, this domain will be referred to as Institutional Functioning.

A comprehensive understanding of positive adolescent functioning would include attention to these three (and likely other) theoretically-informed domains of adolescent experience. Eventually, a thorough analysis of such a multi-domain model will need to include attention to both within- and between-domain parameters as well as the common or distinct antecedents and consequences of the multiple domains. The purpose of this initial paper, however, is to thoroughly examine the psychometric properties and construct validity of the several measures we have at our disposal that represent these domains. Attention will be given in this first set of analyses to the measures of the Intrapersonal and Interpersonal domains.