Positive Youth Development: Changing the Way We Do Youth Development

Positive Youth Development (PYD) is both a philosophy and an approach. It is a way of understanding young people that helps guide the design of youth-serving programs and the creation of youth opportunities. In contrast to conventional approaches to youth development, which rely on reducing youth risk factors and behaviors, PYD focuses on increasing youth assets and strengthening protective factors. Programs that utilize a PYD approach have increasingly demonstrated that building the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional competence of youth is a more effective development strategy than one that focuses solely on correcting problems.

PYD represents a paradigm shift in how we look at and provide youth services. It moves us from fixing problems to building on strengths; from reacting to risky behavior to proactively building positive outcomes; from targeting troubled youth to engaging all youth; and from regarding youth as recipients of services to treating youth as resources and active partners. With PYD, youth development is no longer just about programs and interventions – it is about relationships. By emphasizing the importance of relationships, young people become not just the business of aid workers, but of everyone in their community.

The National Research Council at the Institute of Medicine conducted a two-year review of PYD programs and found that they were most successful if they included the components or features listed below. Each of these items connects in some way with virtually all PYD frameworks. The top four components of the list were:

  1. Physical and psychological safety

  2. Supportive adult relationships

  3. Skill-building

  4. Engagement not only in community activities, but in program design, implementation, and evaluation

Additional reviews of PYD programs conducted by University of Washington’s Dr. Richard Catalano and other leading youth development experts indicate that PYD programs positively affect behavioral outcomes, improving emotional, social, cognitive, behavioral, and academic competencies. These outcomes define the concepts of PYD as well as the range of influence of PYD programs:

In sum, PYD programs result in youth who have assets, the ability to leverage those assets (agency), an enabling environment that supports their agency, and the ability to contribute to positive change for themselves and their communities.

Some programs employ the PYD approach to achieve one important objective or outcome (e.g. crime prevention), but PYD has actually demonstrated positive impact on other important youth outcomes that programs did not initially target, or that they considered ‘secondary.’ PYD approaches using the right components have proven to improve multi-sector outcomes regardless of the original program goal. For example, crime prevention programs using the PYD approach have been associated with both enhanced academic skills and delays in sexual activity. This occurrence was consistent across programs, regardless of youth gender or ethnic group.

Definition of Positive Youth Development

USAID’s YouthPower initiative is building on this body of research and experience to apply a PYD approach internationally. To guide this effort, the YouthPower Learning project led by Making Cents International developed a PYD definition drawing upon the original definition from the YouthPower solicitation and the inputs from PYD leaders on our team. We also consulted other available definitions, such as the one put forward by the Interagency Working Group on Youth (www.youth.gov), and the academic and programmatic literature. We refined it with feedback from USAID and other YouthPower contract holders. It is intended to be a visionary, mission-oriented definition:

Positive Youth Development (PYD) engages youth along with their families, communities, and/or governments so that youth are empowered to reach their full potential. PYD approaches build skills, assets, and competencies; foster healthy relationships; strengthen the environment; and transform systems.

One can broadly apply this definition across youth age groups (10 to 29), although it should be noted that youth have different developmental stages and rapidly changing social, emotional, and cognitive skills across these age ranges. This definition is also relevant to various settings. As this definition is intended to be visionary, implementers should interpret terms like “skills,” “relationships,” “environment” and “systems” broadly. The terms “families, communities, and governments” are also broad and encompass systems such as peer networks and educational and workplace settings.

YouthPower Learning: A Game Changer

Making Cents International is the prime contractor for the USAID YouthPower Learning project, which advances the knowledge and application of PYD to transform the lives of young people. The project will foster an inclusive, demand-driven learning network to improve skills and practices around international, cross-sectoral PYD; create and manage YouthPower.org, the premier learning hub for knowledge sharing on PYD programming; develop indicators and tools to bridge gaps across sectors and establish common measures to contribute to a comprehensive PYD framework; and provide evidence and evaluation support to USAID in the form of assessments, research, learning, and technical program design.

At the center of YouthPower’s Learning Network are its Communities of Practice (social networks of individuals committed to exploring what works in PYD), which drive the discovery of new practices to improve youth development outcomes, and which support YouthPower’s mission to enable youth to reach their full potential. The Network currently hosts the following Communities of Practice: Soft Skills and Their Relationship to Advancing Cross-sectoral Goals; PYD Approaches to Youth Programs in Conflict and Crime; Gender/Adolescent Girls and PYD; and Youth Engagement in PYD Program Design and Implementation. To join or learn more about the Communities of Practice, please email comms@youthpower.org.

To learn more about PYD, register for the Youth Power Learning Webinar: Perspectives on Positive Youth Development at http://ow.ly/YHCYS