Pioneering The Notion of Positive Youth Development


Audrey Breen

Retiring education professor Patrick Tolan helped push the study of adolescent development toward a strengths-based perspective.

While Patrick Tolan was earning his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees, movies featuring the risky behavior of teenagers such as Grease and The Outsiders were big hits across the country. Images of adolescents involved in risky behaviors and making poor decisions were pervasive, and the focus of researchers in the fledgling field of adolescent development was on how best to prevent such delinquency. Four decades later, however, a thriving body of knowledge and an active portfolio of research nation-wide instead elevates the idea that adolescence is a time of great promise and potential.

Tolan, who is the Charles S. Robb Professor of Education at the UVA School of Education and Human Development and founding director of Youth-Nex: The UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, was among those early researchers beginning to flip the understanding of adolescent development from preventing problems to promoting youth success. Many researchers active in this field are now focusing their attention on the strengths adolescents possess and how those strengths can foster positive youth development.

“I was always curious about why some people succeeded and other people didn’t, especially kids who were at risk,” said Tolan, who is retiring from the University of Virginia at the end of this academic year. “I was at risk a bit, too.”

Though his father was college educated, Tolan grew up in a blue-collar family that planted a seed of class consciousness in him at an early age.

“I grew up with this idea that you might go to college after high school; but more importantly, you got a job, got married and had kids,” he said. “I could see early on that there was a big difference between what opportunities and expectations people had.”

Those opportunities were often limited for those in the lower economic groups.

It was only once Tolan began studying psychology in college that he learned what it meant to go to graduate school and what it took to get that opportunity. And so he went, ultimately doing a post-doctoral fellowship with one of the early leaders of the adolescent development field at the University of Chicago. There, Tolan was exposed to the idea that one can’t understand adolescent pathology without understanding “normal” adolescent development.

“It turns out, most adolescents are quite well adjusted with positive relationships with their families, friends, and schools,” Tolan said.

Uncovering what was “normal” youth development was a formative idea for Tolan. And when he paired that idea with the notion that preventing deviant adolescent behavior is better than intervening in the lives of youth who are already in trouble, Tolan’s career trajectory took shape. About this time, Tolan also realized that while he enjoyed his clinical experiences working directly with youth, he was filling his time with research.

Adolescent Research in Chicago

Based at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Juvenile Research, Tolan and his colleagues began applying for grants that first focused on what predicted delinquency in a normal population of youth.

“I was interested in that work in a bit of a different way than my colleagues, as I understood how that related to the way you grew up and the local community conditions,” Tolan said.

The team studied a group of adolescent boys growing up in inner-city Chicago, asking questions like: What were the different pathways through adolescence for these kids? Who among these young men would grow up exhibiting delinquent behavior and who wouldn’t?

Ultimately the researchers realized that these families faced complex challenges that strained their capabilities more so than possessing less interest in their children’s success. The researchers came to appreciate that the greater environment was critical to the experiences of the youth, more so than what was happening with particular individuals or families.

They found the differences in risk were not explained by parenting deficits or youth impulsivity and low motivation, as was the prevalent thinking in the early 1990s.

“As we got scientific data we saw that there might be more understanding in focusing on how families and youth managed extraordinary challenges with limited resources than in documenting limitations or individual risk factors,” Tolan noted. “This realization led us to a strengths and capabilities perspective.

“We—white, middle class university professors—needed to restructure our view of the families in these neighborhoods to appreciate strengths and capabilities within consideration of extra risk and limited resources.”

Tolan started as research director and then directed the Institute for Juvenile Research for 10 years, growing the organization in size and influence, leading it to national renown. The institute organized studies and clinical services to support youth from normality through serious pathology with a focus on mental health. During this time, Tolan became more fully committed to the strengths-based understanding of youth development. It was also during this time a colleague reached out to Tolan about the University of Virginia starting a new center focused on positive youth development.

Founding Youth-Nex

In 2009, Tolan joined the UVA School of Education and Human Development faculty as professor of education, with a joint appointment in the UVA Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. He also came as founding director of Youth-Nex, a multidisciplinary center focused on the study of positive youth development.

“Our work focuses on the science of how to understand positive youth development across disciplines,” Tolan said. “For example, our annual conferences bring together policymakers, practitioners—both those based in and out of school, and researchers. Connecting these cross-discipline and cross-sector conversations to scientific studies has been especially important.”

Connecting with colleagues from medicine, public health, and architecture, as well as members of the community, Tolan extended the work of Youth-Nex beyond the traditional confines of a university to partner with local leaders and  existing initiatives.

Another voice that has become increasingly critical to the work of Youth-Nex is from youth themselves.

“Asking kids about their lives is an important way to inform our work,” Tolan said. “The work would be impoverished if we didn’t.”

And when they ask youth about their lives, students often frame their lives through the asset-based lens Youth-Nex has adopted: They talk more about how they can make things work and  how they manage problems, less about how they are suffering or not able to manage challenges.

“At Youth-Nex, adolescents are now at the table as a fully engaged, meaningful partner in the work,” Tolan said.

Youth are not just partnering in the work of Youth-Nex. They are taking the lead on a number of important national issues – and that gives Tolan hope.

“Whether it’s what they’ve learned from growing up in a pandemic or their awareness of the environmental crisis, I think they have a sense of urgency about things that need to get done ASAP,” he said. “Youth are motivated both by the threat and by a reshaping of their understanding of their role and their voice. They are aware of the interconnectivity of problems and needs.”

In 2017, Tolan stepped down as director of Youth-Nex. He has been bringing a number of projects to their completion before officially retiring at the end of this academic year, including the Compassionate Schools Project, a comprehensive study of a health and wellness curriculum in elementary and secondary school settings.

Having successfully transitioned the leadership of Youth-Nex to Nancy Deutsch, Linda K. Bunker Professor of Education, Tolan hopes to reframe his time after retiring as less linear and more about “doing the things you want to do and the things you can do.”