Why positive youth development works

Practitioners and policymakers have spent decades trying varied approaches to the prevention of problem behaviors among youth and to helping youth navigate the transition to adulthood. Most of these efforts, however, have had only modest success, and some have actually backfired.

In many instances, providing information has been the first strategy tried. If only youth knew that unplanned pregnancy results from having sex… If only youth knew that contraception exists… If only youth knew about the effects of drugs… Yet research finds that information alone does not change behavior. Information is important and necessary, but it does not seem to be sufficient. For example, the DARE program, which provided students with information about drugs, was found to be largely unsuccessful at preventing substance use.

Similarly, providing services alone has not proven to be sufficient – necessary, but not sufficient. Service take-up, engagement, and retention have proven to be very difficult challenges.

Scaring youth has been another frequent approach.  Scared Straight programs exposed at-risk youth to adult prisoners, believing that this experience would be so traumatic it would motivate participants to abandon antisocial behavior. Nope. It not only doesn’t work, it backfires!  The U.S. Department of Justice now discourages the use of Scared Straight programming.

Punitive approaches are also common, for example, systematically suspending or expelling students who have minor behavior problems in school and three strikes laws. These approaches have also had negative effects more often than positive. For example, a 2009 analysis examining 361 evaluation studies of interventions for youth involved in the juvenile justice system determined that the strongest results were achieved by programs employing a “therapeutic intervention philosophy.” That is, programs employing therapeutic counseling, skill building and case management approaches all produced improvement in recidivism results of at least 12 percent. By contrast, programs oriented toward surveillance, deterrence, or discipline all yielded weak, null, or negative results.

With so many first-instinct approaches failing to meet their objectives, clearly, a new approach was needed, and evidence accumulated that confirmed the success of Positive Youth Development (PYD). PYD is an approach that builds on that research and experience promising the new approach we are looking for.  Often, positive youth development approaches arose from grassroots initiatives, where practitioners independently came up with PYD strategies. Over time, evaluations have indicated their efficacy.

No one is saying that this is easy work; but a PYD approach seems to be relatively successful. In fact, when a positive youth development approach is added onto other programs, youth are more likely to be engaged and impacts are more likely.

So, what is positive youth development? The Federal Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs provides the following definition:

Positive youth development is an intentional, pro-social approach that engages youth within their communities, schools, organizations, peer groups, and families in a manner that is productive and constructive; recognizes, utilizes, and enhances youths’ strengths; and promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, and furnishing the support needed to build on their leadership strengths.

But let’s break this down.

First, PYD is intentional.  That is, it is purposeful and deliberate. PYD may, and should, seem warm and casual; but it is actually a planned out and thoughtful approach that involves training staff and monitoring whether PYD practices are actually being implemented on a day-to-day basis.

PYD is also pro-social. This means that it benefits other people or society as a whole. Importantly, researchers find that getting youth involved in pro-social activities, such as volunteer work, reduces the likelihood that they will engage in problem behaviors.  Just how this happens isn’t specified, though.  It could be volunteering as an individual (perhaps in your organization!), or working on a community project, or doing a group activity with other youth.

Importantly, PYD is an approach. In other words, PYD is not a specific curriculum or a particular program. A positive youth development approach can be implemented across different types of programs, systems, and settings. So, it can take on different forms and it can co-exist with varied programs – an apprenticeship program, a clinic-based program, an employment program, for example.

And PYD engages youth.  This means that it does not “lecture” or “teach” but seeks to engage youth in learning, for example, by involving them in a project that they themselves are invested in. This goes beyond just doing things and includes being emotionally involved and cognitively involved – caring and thinking – about what the program has to offer.

PYD also recognizes youth as young people with promise (not just problems). The working assumption is that all youth have strengths and that youth can contribute positively. PYD draws on the strengths that youth offer, in ways that are a good use of time. Not busy-work, but meaningful projects or work, that enhance youths’ strengths. For example, an older participant might mentor a new participant, and both participants would benefit from this.

Importantly, PYD is not a “one-size-fits all” sort of approach. The unique and particular strengths of each individual are likely to vary a lot, and it may take some effort to find out what they are.  Is a youth artistic, musical, mathematical, or interpersonal?  Maybe they have IT skills that could be an asset to your program? Whatever their strengths, the goal is to recognize, use, and enhance those particular strengths. It is important, of course, to prevent problems. However, the PYD strategy involves building strengths, knowing that youth with greater strengths generally have fewer problems.

To reach these positive outcomes, PYD provides opportunities.  This might include:

  • Jobs, job training
  • Volunteering, service-learning
  • Youth advisory boards
  • Referrals for assistance, or
  • Activities such as sports or mentoring

And, of course, a critical component of this approach is the positive relationships that are fostered. Many would say that positive relationships with caring adults are the “secret sauce” that makes PYD effective. This means relationships that are affirming of the youth, relationships that are warm in age-appropriate ways, consistent, and trustworthy. Many youth have not experienced trustworthy and respectful relationships with adults, and it is important to provide that.

These PYD elements represent approaches to providing services, rather than a specific program or curriculum. The PYD elements can be integrated into any existing program, and there is no one single, correct way to implement a PYD approach. Workforce development providers have the ability to integrate the elements of PYD into their local program settings by infusing programs for young adults with PYD elements, training staff to feel comfortable with the PYD approach, and preparing young adults to surmount workforce realities. Although the integration of PYD practices into programs such as workforce development can take time and effort, the benefits of implementing these practices can be far-reaching.