Theories & Approaches
What Does a Youth Development Program Look Like?
In addition to focusing on young people's potential (instead of their problems), several other features of youth development approaches distinguish them from more traditional problem-focused programs:
- Youth development approaches emphasize substantive youth involvement – not just "input" or feedback from youth, but actual decision-making power that shapes the content and scope of programs and activities.
- Youth development approaches recognize that they are intervening in a long, tumultuous process of adolescence, and that it is important to be there for the long haul – to be committed not just at times of crisis, but constantly. After all, the goal is to make the long developmental process of adolescence a safe passage rather than an obstacle course.
- Youth development approaches try to build connections and a sense of belonging for young people by connecting them to other adults and to the community. Some researchers and practitioners believe that this feature of youth development (or any other type of program) is in fact the most critical:
"If school and family systems can learn how to help all kids feel included and of value to significant others in their lives, one of this country’s main concerns, anti-social youth behavior, will be turned around."10
Similarly, a 1995 study of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program found that regular and intensive adult mentoring, friendship, and guidance had a more significant effect on first-time drug use, school absenteeism, and fighting than tutoring, anti-drug counseling, or other "problem-focused" services.11
- Youth development programs articulate and pursue desirable outcomes for youth. As Karen Pittman of the International Youth Foundation has observed, these outcomes can include attributes such as confidence, character, connection, and competence in a number of areas: civic and social, cultural, physical and emotional health, intellectual curiosity and learning, and employability.12
Specific features of youth development programs
Karen Pittman has suggested that youth development programs can put in place seven key inputs or ingredients that yield positive outcomes for young people.13 These inputs are consistent with research from the resiliency field as well as more recent efforts to define developmental assets. They are:
- A safe, stable place where young people feel comfortable and unconditionally supported. Ideally, this place is their home, but it can also be another physical location – a school, church, or community center – that offers nurturing and stability.
- Access to basic care and services. These should be developmentally appropriate, affordable, and, in some cases, confidential.
- Healthy relationships with peers and with the adults around young people.
- High expectations and standards. In order to be meaningful and lasting, self-esteem must be earned and based on real achievement.
- Role models, resources, and social networks. Like adults, young people respond to the richness of the examples and supports around them.
- Challenging experiences and opportunities to participate and contribute. Being engaged in one’s surroundings and community can be a lifetime source of satisfaction. However, these experiences should be meaningful – such as service learning opportunities – rather than "make work" (picking up trash). (For more on service learning, see the Resources section.)
- High quality instruction and training. In order for young people to develop the competencies they need to mature and thrive, we must put in place high caliber opportunities for them to build their skills (including the option of a safe place to make mistakes along the way).
How to Incorporate Youth Development into Your Setting
As the examples above illustrate, youth development approaches are really a philosophy rather than a specific set of activities or programs. This means they can, and should, take different forms, adapting to the needs of youth (indeed, with their active involvement) and to the different contours of each community.
Incorporating youth development approaches into your particular setting may require some adjustments. Even though many service providers moan and groan about the drawbacks of a "fix-the-problem" approach, the truth is that careers, funding streams, and indeed entire organizations are often quite invested in this approach.
The Administration on Children, Youth, and Families suggests that shifting to a youth development approach will require the following types of changes:
- Becoming knowledgeable about the challenges and benefits of moving toward a youth development approach. (See Challenges and Benefits section.)
- Helping policymakers, practitioners, and community members value youth as cultural and economic resources. (See the Organizational Assessment Questionnaire for some suggestions.)
- Accepting that youth input is not youth involvement or empowerment.
- Focusing on systemic changes in youth policy.
- Becoming flexible in thinking about new strategies and applying existing resources in new ways.
- Partnering with other youth agencies to design new ways to solicit funding, provide services, and develop and promote improved policies for young people.
- Viewing youth, families, and communities as partners in change, working toward common goals.
- Re-engineering or reinventing (rather than simply reorganizing) the business of youth work.14
If you and your colleagues are interested in creating or enhancing a youth development approach that you have already launched, consider the following questions together:
- How do we define youth development, both generically and in this community?
- What are our objectives in implementing a youth development approach?
- What are the benefits of implementing a youth development approach?
- What are the possible negative consequences of implementing a youth development approach?
- Is there support for the approach within the community? If so, how can we effectively leverage existing support? If not, how can we begin to build that support?
- What systems already exist that operate on a youth development model, and how can we access the resulting expertise and experience or build on those efforts?
- Within the organization, should we implement the youth development approach through existing programs and services or consider a new structure?
- What will we need to do to move the organization from its current focus to a youth development approach without losing the successful elements of the current structure or operation?
- How will we involve youth and the community in moving to a youth development approach?
- How will we assess whether the new approach truly benefits young people and the community?15
See the Organizational Assessment Questionnaire for a more detailed set of questions.