Positive Indicators Project

There is a critical need to monitor positive development among children and youth. Here’s why:

  • It’s good science. The study of child development, and of human development more broadly, encompasses both positive and negative developmental processes.  Indicators of child well-being need to monitor the positive as well as the negative in children and youth, as well as in their relationships and environments.
  • Measures of positive development are needed for longitudinal research on how positive and negative characteristics of the individual interact with relationships and contexts to produce positive outcomes for children and youth.
  • Practitioners need rigorous measures of individual strengths in order to assess their programs’ effectiveness, as well as measures of relationships and context that promote positive development so that they can create optimal settings for child and youth development.
  • Indicators of positive development are needed for monitoring the development of children to assess trends in positive outcomes, not just negative outcomes.

The Flourishing Children Project was conceptualized and funded following the 2003 Indicators of Positive Development Conference, which brought together federal officials, foundation staff members, and researchers to consider indicators of positive development ranging from health behaviors, religiosity, frugality, and parent-child relationships.

Recent work

Flourishing Children: Defining and Testing Indicators of Positive Development, published in 2014, presents the results of the Flourishing Children Project. More specifically, the book presents psychometrically sound measures of important aspects of adolescent flourishing, highlights important methodological findings and measurement considerations, reports on the psychometric properties of the items on each scale, and examines the relation to key outcomes in the areas of physical and psychological health, social behavior, and academic achievement.

The chapter Positive and Protective Factors in Adolescent Well-Being was published in the 2014 Handbook of Child Well-being by Springer Science and Business Media.  It reviews the evidence behind positive and protective factors related to adolescent well-being and identifies those that are malleable and supported by research that meets rigorous selection criteria established by the authors.

We have also prepared an entry on positive indicators of child wellbeing for the 2014 Springer Encyclopedia of Quality of Life Research.

The Measuring Flourishing Among Youth webinar on July 19, 2012 presented findings from analyses conducted on data collected through a pilot survey using positive measures developed by the project. This webinar was designed for survey directors and researchers interested in positive measures of flourishing to include in national survey and program evaluation efforts. The webinar presents background on the project, the wording for parent and adolescent survey items, response scales used, psychometric properties, and correlations to selected outcomes (fighting, smoking, depression, and grades). Resources include:

The webinar reports information for constructs that had been analyzed as of July 2012. Final analyses, completed in September 2012, are accessed via links to each construct in Box 1, below.

The Flourishing Children Project pilot study database is available for secondary data analyses. To request access to these data, submit Child Trends’ Data Access Agreement.

Early work to develop positive indicators

Child Trends has been a leader in long term efforts to conceptualize and measure positive outcomes for children and adolescents. The 2003 Indicators of Positive Development Conference brought together Federal officials, foundation staff members, and researchers to consider indicators of positive development ranging from health behaviors, religiosity, frugality, and parent-child relationships.

In 2004, the John Templeton Foundation provided Child Trends with a grant to support further research, analysis, and dissemination on positive outcomes. The work included focus groups and cognitive interviews with youth throughout the Washington, D.C. area which tested the applicability of existing measures of positive youth well-being to racially and economically diverse populations and investigated what youth think is important to measure. Child Trends staff also worked with scholars to develop measures of positive development that were not available at the time of the 2003 conference.

Flourishing Children Project

The Flourishing Children Project is part of a major initiative by Child Trends to develop rigorous national indicators of flourishing among children and youth for inclusion in national surveys, research studies, and program evaluations. This work was conceptualized and implemented following the earlier work discussed above, and was funded by a larger grant from the John Templeton Foundation.


Many positive constructs were included in the study. Our UNICEF paper reviews existing frameworks of positive indicators. Child Trends’ Flourishing Children Project focused on the following constructs for measure development either because:

  • There were no measures for children on these constructs;
  • Existing measures were not working well among diverse groups of children;
  • Measures were too long to use in national surveys and program evaluations; or
  • Hard data on the psychometric properties of scales, indices, and items are needed to convince survey directors that measures of social and emotional well-being can be rigorously measured and collected.

Prior research has identified many of these constructs as important for personal flourishing, flourishing in school or work, flourishing in relationships, relationship skills, or helping others to flourish.

Box 1: Flourishing Children Project Constructs of Interest

To access construct definitions, measures developed for adolescents and parents, and psychometric testing results (including subgroup model fit and concurrent validity), click on the hyperlinked constructs below.

Personal Flourishing

Flourishing in School and Work

Flourishing in Relationships

Relationship Skills

Helping Others to Flourish

Environmental Stewardship

Stages in the project

Item development and review

Child Trends completed extensive literature and web searches for measures of the constructs, aided by our advisory board of researchers working on these constructs.  From this review we developed definitions of each construct, identified elements of each definition, and operationalized each element by identifying and adapting or developing measures that addressed each element. Click on the construct names in Box 1 above for detailed definitions as well as the items for the scale for each construct.

Cognitive interviews

To test the validity of items and identify problems with item wording, three rounds of cognitive interviews were conducted across the country with adolescents ages 12-17 and parents. A variety of techniques were used in the interviews, including concurrent and retrospective “think-alouds,” follow-up probes, paraphrasing, and the use of semi-structured, open-ended items. Items for the 19 constructs listed above were tested across three iterative rounds of interviews.

Separate  were prepared for adolescents and their parents. A total of 68 cognitive interviews were conducted with adolescents, and 23 interviews were completed with parents, across 15 cities in the United States. The sample was spread across the spectrum of racial/ethnic groups, adolescent age groups (12-13 years old and 14-17 years old), and income groups.

Findings: The constructs were generally well understood and items were interpreted as intended by both adolescents and parents, with a few exceptions.

What worked:

  • Items with clear, distinct, and salient reference groups or points (e.g., close friends vs. any friends; school or home life; etc.) elicited more specific and meaningful responses.
  • Underlying constructs being measured by an item that were more concrete (e.g. school and family life) detected fewer problems.

Problem areas:

  • Items that were revealed to be ambiguous.
  • Items which asked about multiple things in one question (a.k.a. “double-barreled”).
  • Items which lacked clear reference groups.
  • Items tapping into constructs that required abstract thinking – such as spirituality, forgiveness, purpose, and goal orientation. These were particularly problematic for younger adolescents.
  • Social desirability in responses, with few items being associated with usage of the full range of the response scale.
  • Parents sometimes found it difficult to separate their own perceptions or opinions from those of their child.

The information gained from these cognitive interviews was used to address these issues in preparation for the pilot survey.

Pilot test

Following completion of the cognitive interviews, items were tested in the winter and spring of 2012. Child Trends partnered with Knowledge Networks to do a web-based survey of a nationally-representative sample of adolescents and parents.

The pilot study was comprised of 2,421 parents and 1,915 adolescents (ages 12-17) with 1,846 complete parent-adolescent pairs from diverse backgrounds.

Pilot Study Sample Unweighted Demographic Distributions

The pilot study provided data to conduct psychometric analysis to determine how well the scales were working and to identify scales and items that could be recommended for use in federal surveys, research studies and by programs.  Additionally, the survey included a number of experiments to determine which response scales were most appropriate for use with adolescents, to assess the extent of agreement between adolescent and parent reports.  Experiment analyses are in progress, and updates will be posted when the results are available.

Psychometric work

Psychometric work on the scales and items tested during the pilot study was conducted during the spring and early summer of 2012. Analyses examined distributions of each item and assessed internal consistency (Cronbach’s alpha). Confirmatory factor analyses were also conducted for adolescents, parents, and jointly. We also evaluated concurrent validity for a number of outcomes, including social behavior (fighting); health behavior (smoking); emotional outcomes (depressive symptoms); and cognitive outcomes (grades, per parent report). Multivariate analyses controlled for adolescent gender, age, race, household income, household size, parental education status, parental marital status, metropolitan area, region of residence, parental home ownership, and parental employment. Details about these analyses were presented in a July 19, 2012 Webinar, and are also available for each construct presented in Box 1 above. Click on the construct name in Box 1 to see results of the analyses.


In May 2005, the book What Do Children Need to Flourish? Conceptualizing and Measuring Indicators of Positive Development, edited by Kristin Anderson Moore and Laura H. Lippman for Springer Science and Business Media, was published as the end-result of the 2003 Indicators of Positive Development Conference discussed above.

paper for UNICEF, published in 2009, provides a review of existing frameworks of positive indicators and suggests a new comprehensive framework which identifies constructs for positive well-being as well as potential indicators and extant measures that fit with those constructs.  In addition, the paper reviews data sources and research studies that have been successful in measuring these indicators, then notes the data and measurement gaps that exist in comprehensively measuring the positive in children and youth.  Finally, it identifies a number of conceptual and methodological issues related to defining and measuring positive indicators of well-being and well-becoming.

In 2010, a Child Trends brief on patterns of spirituality among youth was completed. This brief examines the differences between religiosity and spirituality and its effects on children.

An article describing a conceptual framework, measures, and methodological issues related to positive indicators of child well-being was produced in 2011 for Applied Research in Quality of Life (ARQOL), a journal of the International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies (ISQOLS).

Positive measures have also been included in PerformWell, a web site for performance management developed by Child Trends, the Urban Institute, and Social Solutions.  In addition, independent researchers have used the measures in various research projects examining the relationships between constructs and applying them to different subgroups around the country.