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Scientific Foundations of Positive Youth Development

The origins of the positive youth development (PYD) approach are found in key theoretical and research questions. What do we need to thrive or flourish as human beings? How does development occur? What do we mean by "thriving"? When it comes to youth, what intervention points make a difference?

PYD Foundations: Theories of Development

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: What do we need to thrive?

One theory essential to PYD is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow was concerned with the question of what individuals need in order to thrive [1].

Maslow showed that for healthy development to occur, the primary needs of human beings (such as safety, food, water, and shelter) must be met. More recently, brain research has taught us that belonging — feeling loved and part of a larger group — is also a fundamental need [2]. Beyond the fundamentals, human beings thrive when we are:

  • competent and able to contribute
  • able to understand and meet the basic requirements of our environment
  • capable of finding symmetry, order, and beauty in our environment
  • able to realize our full potential (a status not all of us are able to achieve, and which is not a requirement of healthy development)

Children and youth who don't have their primary needs met are preoccupied with survival and unable to focus on learning or engage in other social interactions. We need to attend to foundational needs if we want to offer meaningful opportunities for development [3, 4].

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Model of Development: How does development occur?

Development is not solely an internal process. Urie Bronfenbrenner pioneered the ecological model of human development, theorizing that development occurs through the interaction of, and the individual's interaction with, social systems. Young people grow up in families, peer groups, schools, work settings, and neighborhoods, and within societal structures and norms. By interacting with these social groups and systems, young people develop competencies and values.

Bronfenbrenner also emphasized that the interaction between young people and their environment is reciprocal. This means that development does not just happen to us: we are actively involved in shaping our own development. Youth are participants, not just recipients. He used the term "agency" to denote the ability to direct or influence events. This is an important concept that has bearing on authentic youth engagement [5].

Bronfenbrenner's model and insights are supported by new research in the science of learning and development. As children and adolescents, each of us has tremendous capacity for learning and mastery of complex skills. Human development is now understood to be a constant, dynamic, collaborative process between our biology and our environments. The brain is highly malleable and resilient, wiring and rewiring in interaction with external contacts. We learn and grow through experience — through reciprocal interaction with our environments, cultures, and relationships [6].

PYD Research: Intervention Points

There are three bodies of research that have supported the positive youth development approach and its theoretical foundation. Each field asks a different guiding question, suggesting different, but complementary, pathways for intervention.

Prevention Science

Prevention science has investigated the question: How can we predict and prevent negative behaviors? By identifying risk factors — conditions that increase the likelihood of negative outcomes — and protective factors, which buffer against these negative effects, prevention science is the foundation of many interventions and programs.

Resiliency Research

Resiliency research shifted to the question: Why do many young people do well despite hardship? Resilience is not in itself a trait but a process that enables us to rise above negative experiences and circumstances. Based largely on longitudinal studies that have followed individuals from childhood to adulthood, resiliency research has uncovered the power of protective factors: internal characteristics and external opportunities and resources that help us overcome adversity. Resiliency research has shown us that protective factors have a more profound impact on a child than individual risk factors [7].

Youth Development Research

Another body of research has investigated the question: What makes young people thrive? This question continues the shift toward strengths and positive outcomes. It also focuses on all youth rather than pathologizing so-called "at-risk" youth.

Ready for college, work, and life. Karen Pittman, co-founder of the Forum for Youth Investment, famously made the point that "problem-free [the goal of prevention science] is not fully prepared." She and her colleagues described prevention approaches as essential but inadequate: to thrive, all young people also need to be fully prepared for life and fully engaged in developmental opportunities of their choosing [8]. Pittman and colleagues, along with researchers such as Richard M. Lerner of Tufts University and others, led the charge to shift the paradigm in youth work from preventing and "fixing" behavior deficits to building and nurturing the positive outcomes that lead to healthy and fulfilling lives [9, 10].

Developmental assets. The late Peter Benson and his colleagues at Search Institute were a key part of this paradigm shift from a deficit to an asset focus. Synthesizing the research on adolescent development, they identified 40 assets or building blocks that young people need to thrive. Half are external assets derived from the relationships and opportunities our environments may (or may not) provide; half are internal assets, the "social-emotional strengths, values, and commitments" that can be developed in and by each of us [11]. Search Institute's research demonstrated that the more assets we have, the more likely we are to succeed academically and engage in healthy behaviors. In recent years, Search Institute has shifted their research and practice focus to developmental relationships. Just as resiliency research identified the primacy of positive relationships, Search Institute considers developmental relationships the "gateway to building assets" [12].

Science of learning and development. The science of learning and development is now also making an enormous contribution to the positive youth development approach. The SoLD Alliance and its partners (including the Center for Whole-Child Education and The Forum for Youth Investment, among others) advance a framework they term "whole-child design." To support development and thriving, the SoLD Alliance calls for an equitable and science-based approach that not only meets fundamental needs but supports each young person's unique development through positive relationships, environments, and experiences. Whole child design explicitly acknowledges the role of social toxicity in child and youth development and how racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism have infiltrated systems that deeply affect children [13]. In response, this approach seeks to engage young people in relationships and experiences that are culturally affirming, personalized, empowering, and transformative [14].


  1. Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.
  2. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
  3. Garbarino, J. (1995). Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment. Jossey-Bass, Inc.
  4. Scales, P. C., & Leffert, N. (1999). Developmental assets: A synthesis of the scientific research on adolescent development. Search Institute.
  5. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Harvard University Press.
  6. Science of Learning and Development Alliance. What We've Learned.
  7. Werner, E. E., & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. Cornell University Press.
  8. Pittman, K. J., Irby, M., Tolman, J., Yohalem, N., & Ferber, T. (2003, March). Preventing Problems, Promoting Development, Encouraging Engagement: Competing Priorities or Inseparable Goals?
  9. Pittman, K. (1999). Youth Today: The Power of Engagement. Forum for Youth Investment.
  10. Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., et al. (2013, December). The Positive Development of Youth: Comprehensive Findings from the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development. National 4-H Council.
  11. Search Institute. The Developmental Assets Framework ®.
  12. Search Institute. Developmental Relationships: Helping Young People Be and Become Their Best Selves.
  13. Turnaround for Children. (2021). Turnaround for Children Toolbox: Science Foundations.
  14. Little, P. M., Irby, M., Borah, P., & Pittman, K. (2021, September 13). Design Principles for Community-Based Settings: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action. Forum for Youth Investment.