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24 JANUARY 2001
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youth development

Youth Development: Introduction and Overview

The last several decades have witnessed a growing skepticism in America about the capacity of social programs – especially publicly funded social programs – to address the problems and prospects of American youth. This skepticism is especially strong once youth reach the pre-teen years and beyond. Thus interest in early childhood programs continues and grows, while support for teenage employment programs declines and dwindles. The body politic seems to be in the process of deciding that a young person's life course is set in concrete after the onset of puberty.

This trend is disturbing in itself, and is exacerbated by other trends:

These trends together pose difficult challenges for our society – and especially for our young people. They make it an odd time for American society to be drifting into a “What will be, will be..." policy stance toward its adolescents. Increased interest in early childhood programs is sensible and important, and will no doubt help increase the capacity of some young people to meet life’s later challenges – but to see a child's life as if its later, ongoing challenges can be neutralized by an early inoculation is to ignore what common sense and science tell us about human development, especially in an age of such rapid and basic social and economic change. It is also to ignore the evidence from the last two decades of social programming: that short-term interventions bring only short-term improvements.

There are counter-trends. The recent incidents of youth violence in non-central city schools have acted as a wake-up call to many Americans, and, although some see the solution in metal detectors and security guards, for others these incidents have stimulated increased interest in what is going on in the minds and lives of young people – and in what adult society can do to promote the healthy development of those minds and lives. The increase in support for after-school programming is a prominent example of this renewed interest.

There is also a growing body of evidence about the positive relationship between the number of supports and opportunities children experience while growing up – their “assets” or “social capital – and the increased successes and decreased problems they have during adolescence. This data confirms what many think is self-evident common sense; to others it is revealing evidence that environment does have a powerful effect, one which can be broken down into practical bits. Many communities have expressed a commitment to learning how they can organize to implement a “positive youth development” approach for their young people.

In addition, evidence is accumulating that individual social programs can produce the assets that increase a youth's successes and decrease his or her problems. The most publicized example is the impact study of Big Brothers Big Sisters, which shows that mentoring significantly reduces initial drug use and school violence, and increases school performance. In short, the evidence is clear that we do not have to “give up” on youth if they experience serious problems and do not have adequate support, guidance or opportunities in their immediate environment.

Lastly, there arose in the early 1990s a movement to augment the typical “problem-reduction” orientation of youth policy with a new (at least new to public policy) orientation toward “positive youth development.” The new orientation is more attuned to the basic needs and stages of a youth's development, rather than on simply “fixing” whatever “problem” may have arisen. It focuses on youth's need for positive, ongoing relationships with both adults and other youth; for active involvement in community life; and for a variety of positive choices in how they spend non-school time. It aims to build strengths as well as reduce weaknesses.

The movement’s fundamental assumption – one receiving increased corroboration both from the study of human behavior and program evaluations – is that enduring, positive results in a youth's life are most effectively achieved by tending to basic needs for guidance, support and involvement, and not by surgical interventions aimed at removing problems.

These counter-trends have gained in force, credibility and support throughout the 1990s, especially in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. They have not, however, supplanted skepticism about public social programs generally, and specifically about public support for programs for adolescents. Rather they have co-existed with that skepticism.

These counter-trends have helped many youth organizations gain greater (and deserved) recognition and resources – both larger, nationally known groups like Boys & Girls Clubs, and smaller, local efforts like Brooklyn's El Puente. They have also stimulated greater political and media attention to other sources of support, opportunity and guidance for young people, most notably from their families, schools, churches and volunteers. In the spring of 1997 a host of American notables – including three Presidents – gathered in Philadelphia for the President’s Summit to declare their support for “positive youth development" – and to push for more private contributions and volunteers to that end.

All the above are favorable and promising. Yet, in the many highly publicized statements over what to do with the projected multi-trillion dollar budget surplus that America may experience over the next decade, there are almost none that make the positive development of young people a high priority. The most publicized discussions about young people are about the age at which they should be prosecuted as adults.

As a society, we are at a crossroads. Awareness that our youth need more and better support is growing – as is the willingness to use private time and resources for that support. However, our willingness to use the only source of funds able to meet the size and scope of the need–public funds–has hardly budged, even in the face of unprecedented surplus.

A large (and growing) number of neighborhoods, cities and states have or are holding “summits” to address youth issues, and involve parents, neighborhood leaders, corporate leaders, elected officials and youth themselves. These “summits,” as well as the philanthropic and public officials increasingly engaged in youth issues, all quickly face several key issues: What exactly do we do? What is most effective – for which youth? How do we address the youth with the most difficult issues? What does it cost – and who will pay? How do we know if we are succeeding?

This seems, then, a good time to take stock of the emerging “positive youth development” field, and to begin charting the issues it must address if it is to play a significant role in the future of American youth.

The Youth Development Directions Project was established in the spring of 1998 as a vehicle for taking stock and charting the issues. This volume summarizes the project’s work. The aim of the project was not to cover all youth, but rather to focus on adolescents – the hardest age group for which to generate positive public interest and support, and thus the group (unsurprisingly) for which the public and nonprofit sectors provide the least amount of support, opportunities and guidance. The project’s aim was not to cover every issue relevant to adolescent development but rather to produce a group of essays that would stimulate the thinking of leaders in the public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors about the actions needed to support the healthy development of America's youth.

The project’s approach was to pull together a group of national intermediary organizations that work with service providers, funders and policymakers, and that regularly and publicly communicate the findings of their work – and to take their collective pulse on the issues laid out above. Other kinds of organizations will have different perspectives on the issues the essays address, and we hope that this volume stimulates their involvement in the dialogue.

The project’s structure was simple: the group met for a day and a half in late May 1998 to discuss the major issues facing the “youth development” field, and to determine the topics and writers for this volume. The writers wrote drafts over the remainder of 1998 and early 1999, and also met again for a day and a half in late 1998 to continue the May discussion and to critique the draft papers. Editing and further discussions took place during the remainder of 1999.

The discussions, and the papers in this volume, center on three themes:

The essays in this volume are organized by these theme issues. Below are brief summaries of the discussions on these theme issues that took place at the May and October meetings, and of the essays themselves.

1. The Context for Moving Forward
The group's discussions on this issues, like the three papers related to this topic,1 revolved around two views: on the one hand, appreciation and some surprise at the progress of the youth development approach over the last decade; on the other hand, great respect for the challenges ahead. There was pride over what has been accomplished, and concern that progress may have now stalled.

Some of the concern over stalling has to do with America's historical reluctance to dedicate significant portions of public budgets to developmental activities for youth. The recent attempt to get federal legislation and funding for a Youth Development block grant did not succeed. Even Head Start, after decades of support across the political spectrum, has only enough funds for less than half of the eligible children – and Head Start, being for young children, is a much easier sell than almost anything for adolescents, who have a far less attractive image.

There was also concern that “positive youth development” is not a compelling enough phrase under which to mount a public campaign to maintain the newly emerging field's momentum. It is not a single program, and does not bring to mind any particular substantive action or content. In fact, it may be that no single phrase could be both a compelling banner and a concrete program, since individual adolescents vary considerably in the level, number and priority of their needs. Effective youth work is creative and responsive, and can only be structured and packaged to a certain extent.

Nonetheless there was strong feeling among many participants, especially foundation representatives, that there needs to be an agreed-upon set of principles or phrases that can be effectively used for public communication'something between the vagueness of “positive youth development and the concreteness of – mentoring and after-school programs.

There was consensus that key challenges for the coming decade are to create information and messages that can generate public and political support for positive youth development, and to secure leadership to publicize these messages and information. Several thought that General Colin Powell and the five element agenda of his America's Promise campaign were the right vehicle; others were skeptical. Some felt that aiming at local and state leadership was more critical, given the devolution of public funds and decision-making on most social policy issues. A few wondered if an overall message or banner was necessary at all, noting that “positive youth development's” greatest successes to date have been mentoring and after-school programming, and that both those successes were based on targeted advocacy, the common sense appeal of those interventions and people’s belief that they reduced problems. Nevertheless, all agreed that the “messages and information” issues was a key strategic challenge that needed more focused attention, since promoting a broad public consensus around investing in young people is of critical importance.

Three essays in this volume elaborate on different aspects of the context for moving forward. Pittman, Irby and Ferber provide an overview of the accomplishments of the past decade, the key challenges remaining and the priorities for achieving them; Newman, Smith and Murphy analyze what the costs would be of providing “youth development” to America's youth; and Walker discusses the opportunities and limits that American social and political culture provide in advancing youth development as a public agenda priority.

2. What We Know and Don't
The state of knowledge about positive youth development depends on your perspective; the group's discussions reflected these various perspectives. On the one hand, from the perspective of common sense, it is clear that active attention to a youth's developmental needs has a high probability of paying off in terms of increasing a youth's successes in life and decreasing his or her serious problems. Many surveys provide important backup data for this proposition. There would seem to be little need to have more basic evidence on this point.

On the other hand, there is only a modest body of evidence about effective interventions. It is possible for someone to support “positive youth development” and yet not be convinced that social programs can do much to accomplish it. There are many small studies, but few are large and methodologically stringent enough to persuade a skeptic. Mentoring has the most substantial and scientifically sound evidence about its effectiveness; after-school programming is also generating evidence. But the scientific evidence is less compelling beyond that.

The group did not feel that simply calling for more evaluations of individual youth development programs was the best way to address this issue. Several factors make the youth development field's evidentiary needs more complex than simply increasing the number of program evaluations.

3. Institutional Challenges
It is a major challenge to take any social policy idea to scale in the United States. Ours is not a political culture inclined favorably toward social interventions, and the last two decades have underscored that disinclination. Thus, by any measure “positive youth development” has its work cut out. The recommendations above regarding creating a research agenda and a message agenda address this political culture challenge.

There are also distinct institutional challenges. The vast majority of America's adolescents are involved with an institution or organization: they are either in school, incarcerated or working. Many are involved with nonprofits. Those that are not involved in any of those institutions will, odds are, soon be – and too many will end up incarcerated. Those that have not succeeded at the first school will find economic self-sufficiency an increasingly difficult goal to achieve.

Youth development has made the greatest inroads with youth-oriented nonprofits. It has made the least progress in influencing schools, employers and employment intermediaries, and justice institutions.

Why has there been such limited progress with those institutions? The four essays in this section3 attempt to articulate the obstacles to positive youth development in these major institutions, and to present the opportunities for addressing those obstacles.

Costello, Toles, Spielberger and Wynn's essay describes the fundamental incongruency of adolescent developmental needs with the dominant organizational structures of most public youth-serving institutions. These incongruencies are formidable – but there is a growing movement of more appropriate organizational structures.

Schwartz recounts the history of juvenile justice institutions, and notes that while the history and culture of juvenile justice systems across the country present major obstacles to youth development, there are several promising initiatives.

Zuckerman recounts the history of youth employment initiatives, and how the lack of a youth development approach may have been a vital part of the decline of public support for youth employment programs.

Connell, Gambone and Smith address an even larger institution – entire communities and neighborhoods –and provide a framework and recommendations for organizing their resources to make youth development a more integral part of the everyday process of growing up.

Although it was (and still is) easy to dwell on the enormous challenges each institution poses to change, the discussion also emphasized a broader pattern: that each of these institutions is under external pressure to change and improve, and each has within it advocates for new approaches that are consistent with positive youth development. Thus, though the challenges are formidable, the opportunities are present. The direction that change takes in each institution is, to put it most simply, up for grabs.

Thus the group's recommendations in this area focused around three priorities:

One cross-cutting theme recurred throughout the discussions and the papers that merits special attention: a concern about front-line practice: What teachers, youth workers, juvenile facility staff and others who work with youth actually do, and how they are trained and supported in doing it. The oft-quoted notion that some people are “just born” to work with adolescents – and, by implication, that everyone else just can't – is a tremendous barrier to the codification and spread of effective practice, and an easy justification for regarding these front-line jobs as less than “professional". There was consensus that promoting the wider application of youth development is not just a matter of public will and policy, but is also a matter of building and transmitting an accepted body of knowledge about practice and performance. This will require a substantial focus of resources and effort. Considerable work has been done in mentoring regarding effective practice and operational benchmarks, and similar work is under way regarding after-school programming. Such work needs to be carried out regarding the institutions and issues discussed throughout this volume.

The social and economic reality of our times is that adolescents need more support, guidance and active involvement than ever to successfully navigate their lives – and they are instead, in too many cases, getting less.

We hope these essays help promote the actions and dialogue that are necessary to meet this critical challenge.


1. Unfinished Business: Further Reflections on a Decade of Promoting Youth Development, Karen Pittman, Merita Irby and Thaddeus Ferber; The Policy Climate for Early Adolescent Initiatives, Gary Walker; A Matter of Money: The Cost and Financing of Youth Development, Robert P. Newman, Stephanie M. Smith and Richard Murphy.

2. The Scientific Foundations of Youth Development, Peter L. Benson and Rebecca N. Saito; Measuring Deficits and Assets: How We Track Youth Development Now, and How We Should Track It, Gary B. MacDonald and Rafael Valdivieso.

3. History, Ideology, Structure: Shaping the Organizations that Shape Youth, Joan Costello, Mark Toles, Julie Spielberger and Joan Wynn; Juvenile Justice and Positive Youth Development, Robert G. Schwartz; Youth Development in Community Settings: Challenges to Our Field and Our Approach, James P. Connell, Michelle Alberti Gambone and Thomas J. Smith; The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same: The Evolution and Devolution of Youth Employment Programs, Alan Zuckerman.

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