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What is Youth Development?

ACT for Youth Resources: Understanding PYD

Manual: Positive Youth Development 101

Use this free curriculum to provide professional development to new youth workers, supervisors and administrators, funders, and community volunteers.


Principles for Youth Development

An excellent overview by Stephen F. Hamilton, Mary Agnes Hamilton, and Karen Pittman is provided in this chapter of "The Youth Development Handbook: Coming of Age in American Communities." Reprinted with permission.


Understanding Youth Development Principles and Practices

In this edition of Research Facts and Findings, Janis Whitlock of Cornell University reviews key features of the positive youth development framework.


Formatted for Screen Readers

Positive Youth Development Resources in Spanish

Principios del Desarrollo de Jóvenes
(Principles of Youth Development)

Resultados Positivos de Jóvenes
(Positive Outcomes)

Etapas del Desarrollo en Adolescentes
(Stages of Adolescent Development summary chart)

Recommended Link
Preventing Problems, Promoting Development, Encouraging Engagement

This paper by Karen Pittman and colleagues at the Forum for Youth Investment summarizes shifts in policy and practice regarding youth development, and points to implications for those who work with or advocate for young people.


Youth Development Research Base

The origins of the positive youth development framework are found in the fields of human ecology, prevention, resilience, and developmental assets.

Human Ecology

Urie Bronfenbrenner's theory of ecological human development [1] teaches us that a child develops through interactions with her social environments. Families, peer groups, schools, neighborhoods, after-school groups, faith groups, and the many other social settings that a child experiences will promote or hinder her development. The relationships between each of these entities will play a role. Her growth will also be affected by larger societal systems -- new communication technologies, social movements, or economic peaks and valleys, for example.

This is not to say that children are entirely at the mercy of their environments. According to Bronfenbrenner, the interaction between a child and his social environments is reciprocal. This means that development does not simply happen to children and adolescents. On the contrary, young people are actively involved in shaping their own development; what's more, they influence the events that happen around them. They are participants, not just recipients.

The human ecology perspective informs the positive youth development philosophy. Rather than focusing solely on behavior change among youth, the positive youth development approach seeks to change the environments in which young people grow, act, and make decisions. To change these environments, it is necessary to change the attitudes of adults, as well as the policies and practices of organizations and groups in all community sectors. Drawing on the insights of human ecology, positive youth development improves youth outcomes by changing adults and their organizations, and ultimately changing the community itself.


Prevention science is a very large body of research that, since the 1960s, has investigated the question "How can we predict and prevent negative behaviors?" Prevention analysis identifies risk factors that increase the likelihood of negative behaviors such as violence, risky sexual behaviors, substance abuse, and school drop out, and suggests strategies for supporting at-risk youth. Some prevention researchers base their work on human ecology theory. Richard Catalano and David Hawkins at Washington University, for example, consider the whole community as well as the school, family, peer group, and individual. With an overall focus on preventing problems and reducing risk, prevention approaches have different emphases but frequently complement positive youth development approaches. Stephen F. Hamilton offers an analysis of this relationship in Youth Development and Prevention (PDF: 110K).


Findings from resiliency studies, which began to appear in the 1980s, greatly influenced the development of the positive youth development approach in the 1990s. Resiliency research helped to shift practice in a positive, strength-based direction, asking "Why do many young people do well despite the risk factors they face? How do young people beat the odds against them?" Researchers have attempted to answer these questions by following groups of individuals from childhood to adulthood (see, for example, the 40-year Kauai study by Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith [2]). Using a risk- and protective-factors framework, resiliency analysis identifies the characteristics that buffer the impact of risk factors, thus increasing the likelihood of positive behaviors. These characteristics may be intrinsic to the child, or part of the child's environment. For example, the presence of caring adults in a young person's life is a key environmental factor that promotes positive outcomes.

Importantly, protective factors have a more profound impact on the life course than do specific risk factors.

Developmental Assets

In the 1990s and 2000s, research began to focus on positive outcomes, addressing the question "What makes young people succeed?" Taking a positive youth development approach, Peter Benson and his colleagues at Search Institute in Minneapolis identified 40 developmental assets that make it possible for young people to thrive [3]. Developmental assets are experiences, values, skills, and opportunities that young people need to develop to their full potential. Two sets of assets are proposed: external -- those traits that communities, schools, and families provide, and internal -- those traits that the individual brings to the table.

More recently, the Search Institute has turned its research focus to developmental relationships, which they define as "trustworthy, purposeful relationships that help young people discover who they are; cultivate the abilities needed for them to shape their own lives; and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them" [4].

One of Search Institute's important contributions to the field has been to demonstrate a relationship between assets and outcomes: the fewer assets a young person experiences, the more likely it is that he will engage in negative behaviors such as alcohol use and violence. Similarly, the more assets a young person has, the more likely he is to succeed in school and make healthy behavior choices.


[1]   Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[2]   Werner, E. & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. New York: Cornell University Press.
[3]   Benson, P. L. (2006). All kids are our kids (Second ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley.
[4]   Search Institute. (2019). Developmental relationships: Helping young people be and become their best selves.
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