The Science of Helping Children Flourish

Ellen Daniels

In April 2012, Youth-Nex convened 23 scholars — many world-renowned leaders in their fields — to re-examine the best scientific approaches to understanding ways to help youth thrive and fulfill their potential and ways to evaluate what works best to enable success.

Discussions from the gathering generated a special issue, "Positive Youth Development Interventions: Advancing Evaluation Theory and Practice," of the journal, Applied Developmental Science.  (The journal publisher, Taylor & Francis may restrict access.)

This conversation brings a new approach to youth development support, shifting from the predominant emphasis on youth problems and youth as “at risk” to focusing on youth potential and capabilities.

"The issue includes five articles curated from the discussion and focuses on identifying key scientific issues and most promising ways to promote effective youth development through action and advancing program evaluation," Youth-Nex director, Patrick Tolan said. A major focus was on ways to integrate lessons learned from two decades of scientific studies of prevention for at-risk youth to better understand and evaluate efforts arising from the Positive Youth Development (PYD) framework.

According to Tolan, for 20 years prevention science led from a state of little knowledge about what could work to a roster of hundreds of effective programs and new ways of understanding the value of prevention. "PYD is now in a similar state as prevention science was,” said Tolan. “Why not harness those lessons to advance the relatively unexplored approach of promoting health, not just preventing problems."

The PYD framework provides that adolescents have direct agency and personal and social strengths and resources that they rely on to reach goals, to be caring individuals, and to take responsibility for their lives. Unfortunately, this view has been almost absent from study of adolescents until recently. 

"The approach looks at how and why kids turn out well versus how problems can be prevented," said Tolan. "This new framework brings into consideration the great untapped potential of capability. Tapping that potential is why we started the Youth-Nex Center."

Karen Pittman, the Director of the Forum for Youth Investment and one of the founders of the PYD movement, captured this view years ago when she wrote, "Problem-free is not fully prepared."

The tension comes when prevention scientists and PYD advocates attempt to measure the effects of programs. Programs are commonly assessed by their reduction of risky behaviors (e.g., smoking or delinquency). Few focus on changes in positive behavior. As Pittman noted, however, PYD practitioners and researchers have reached consensus that the absence of negative behaviors is an insufficient criterion.

"I think we can all agree that while we may not want our kids to drop out of school or smoke, we wouldn't name those as our overarching goals for successful lives," said Nancy Deutsch, associate professor of education in the Curry School and a Youth-Nex affiliate, who attended the meeting. "Marrying the two approaches can help us better understand what programs promote the more holistic, positive developmental goals we strive for (such as healthy relationships and engaged citizenship), as well as whether and how promoting those positive outcomes can in and of themselves prevent risky behaviors," she said. Challenges remain in measuring such positive outcomes, she noted

The intent of the meeting was not to provide definitive solutions, said Tolan, but rather to spark further discussion on methodological innovations, modeling effective programs and, ultimately, producing more sound scientific information to help promote effective youth development.

"This shift, that is now gaining centrality in human development research, could have dramatic and long-lasting benefits," Tolan said. "Knowing what leads to a problem or which deficits relate to failure does not tell you what the best solutions are. Those probably come more from understanding how people manage to succeed."

Selected Journal Summary and List of Articles (The journal publisher, Taylor & Francis may restrict access.):

Tolan et al compare four main PYD frameworks which practitioners commonly utilize in interventions (Social Competence, Social Emotional Learning, Positive Youth Development, and Positive Psychology.).  The purpose of the article is to identify key shared and distinctive features of each approach and to suggest steps toward a unified framework for positive development and strategies to enable more youth to succeed.
Williams and Deutsch discuss the powerful ways in which race, ethnicity, and culture shape behavior and youth development. They suggest the importance of understanding the critical differences among these factors, which are not simply interchangeable. Importantly, they assert that while most theories acknowledge the importance of race, ethnicity and culture, in shaping positive development the literature largely ignores the how and the why they matter.

Lerner et al explore a relational development system for improving interventions.
The authors propose that this understanding of development as interacting influences over time, with macro and specific influences forming the ecology of youth capabilities and opportunities should be utilized to develop, organize, and evaluate PYD supporting efforts.

Introduction to the Issue:
Positive Youth Development Interventions: Advancing Evaluation Theory and Practice, Patrick Tolan.

The Dimensions Of Successful Young Adult Development: A Conceptual And Measurement Framework, Peter C. Scales, Peter L. Benson, Sabrina Oesterle, Karl G. Hill, J. David Hawkins & Travis J. Pashak.

Evaluating Programs Aimed At Promoting Positive Youth Development: A Relational Development Systems-Based View, Richard M. Lerner, Jacqueline V. Lerner, Jennifer Brown Urban & Jon Zaff.

Evaluating Youth Development Programs: Progress And Promise, Jodie L. Roth & Jeanne Brooks-Gunn.

Beyond Between-Group Differences: Considering Race, Ethnicity, And Culture In Research On Positive Youth Development Programs, Joanna L. Williams & Nancy L. Deutsch.

Toward An Integrated Approach To Positive Development: Implications For Intervention, Patrick Tolan, Katherine Ross, Nora Arkin, Nikki Godine & Erin Clark.