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Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications

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This chapter describes positive youth development (PYD) as an emerging arena of applied developmental science. We show how PYD is both rooted in the theoretical traditions of developmental psychology, and fueled by newer emphases on nurturing the potentialities of youth more than addressing their supposed deficits, and on addressing and helping to shape the roles of developmental contexts, especially that of the community, and youth themselves as agents of their own development. We begin with an historical overview and a presentation on major conceptual frameworks, including the framework of developmental assets, which have significantly influenced PYD theory, research, and programs. The following section of the chapter poses seven broad hypotheses that represent the scientific foundation of PYD (e.g., contexts can be intentionally altered to enhance developmental success and changes in the context change the person), and reviews a wide array of studies that lends support to the hypotheses. After demonstrating the general utility of these hypotheses for understanding and promoting positive development in all youth, we review research that illustrates differences in developmental paths and outcomes across youth diversity in gender, age, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The chapter ends by suggesting those areas of youth development knowledge where the field is relatively strong (e.g., taxonomies of factors that are correlated with positive outcomes), and those areas where significantly more research is needed (e.g., theories of change that articulate how youth, adults, and community systems move toward greater developmental attentiveness). We conclude by posing a number of theoretical questions, research challenges, and applied needs to be addressed if the promise of PYD as both a scientific and applied field is to be fully realized.
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Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research,
and Applications
Human Development 902
Conceptual Models of Positive Development 905
The Theory of Context and Community Inf luence 910
The Theory of Context and Community Change 913
Overview of Positive Youth Development Research 915
How Much Explanatory Power Is Reasonable
to Expect? 915
Hypothesis One 916
Hypothesis Two 917
Hypothesis Three 920
Hypothesis Four 921
Hypothesis Five 923
Hypothesis Six 926
Hypothesis Seven 928
Gender 928
Age 928
Race/ Ethnicity and SES 929
Positive youth development is simultaneously a field
of research and an arena of practice. Linked more by
shared ideals than by formal membership or credentials,
positive youth development includes a growing number of
programs, agencies, foundations, federal grant programs,
policy initiatives, researchers, and youth-serving profes-
sionals committed to promoting competent, healthy, and
successful youth. Collectively, they have generated ideas,
data, and resources. At the same time, they have un-
leashed a wave of energy and action not unlike that of a
social movement, with a multitude of community actors
connecting to a broad set of principles, concepts, and
strategies for increasing youth access to the kinds of rela-
tionships, programs, settings, and activities known (or as-
sumed) to promote healthy development.
Positive youth development is an umbrella term that
covers many streams of work. It is variously a field of
The writing of this chapter was supported by a grant to
Search Inst itute from The Lilly Endowment.
interdisciplinary research, a policy approach, a philoso-
phy, an academic major, a program description, and a
professional identity (e.g., youth development worker).
The “idea” of positive youth development reaches into a
number of fields, including child and adolescent devel-
opmental psychology, public health, health promotion,
prevention, sociology, social work, medicine, and educa-
tion. Within the past few years, positive youth develop-
ment has been a focal topic in a wide range of scholarly
journals, including The Annals of the American Academy
of Political and Social Science (January, 2004), Preve n-
tion and Treatment (June, 2002), The Prevention Re-
searcher (April, 2004), and the American Journal of
Health Behavior (July, 2003). Two established research
journals, Applied Developmental Science and New Direc-
tions in Youth Development, help to ground the field.
Undergirding positive youth development is an im-
portant and growing line of scientific inquiry, includ-
ing theory, research, and a set of conceptual models
and frameworks that both guide and emerge from the
Defining Positive Youth Development 895
research. This chapter: (a) def ines the concept of posi-
tive youth development; (b) presents a broad theory of
this sphere of human development; (c) examines empir-
ical support for a series of theor y-driven hypotheses;
and (d) proposes implications for theory reformulation,
future research, and applications.
As noted, the field of positive youth development en-
compasses a vast territory of disciplines, concepts, and
strategies. One recent review of positive youth develop-
ment (Benson & Pittman, 2001a) suggests four distin-
guishing features of this field. It is comprehensive in its
scope, linking a variety of: (1) ecological contexts (e.g.,
relationships, programs, families, schools, neighbor-
hoods, congregations, communities) to (2) the produc-
tion of experiences, supports, and opportunities known
to (3) enhance positive developmental outcomes. Its pri-
mary organizing principle is promotion (of youth access
to positive experiences, resources and opportunities,
and of developmental outcomes useful to both self and
society). It is, as the term implies, developmental, with
emphasis on growth and an increasing recognition that
youth can (and should be) deliberate actors in the pro-
duction of positive development. And it is symbiotic,
drawing into its orbit ideas, strategies, and pract ices
from many lines of inquiry (e.g., resiliency, prevention,
public health, community organizing, developmental
Damon (2004; Damon & Gregory, 2003) argues that
positive youth development represents a sea change in
psychological theory and research, with observable con-
sequences for a variety of f ields including education and
social policy. Three central themes are noted here. In
Damon’s view, positive youth development takes a
strength-based approach to defining and understanding
the developmental process. More precisely, it “empha-
sizes the manifest potentialities rather than the sup-
posed incapacit ies of young people... (2004, p. 15).
There is more to this statement than initially meets the
eye. It connotes a significant critique of mainstream
psychological inquiry that is quite ubiquitous in the pos-
itive youth development literature. This critique is that
understandings of child and adolescent development
have been so dominated by the exploration and remedia-
tion of pathology and deficit that we have an incom-
plete—if not distorted—view of how organisms develop.
This ongoing debate is addressed in more detail in the
next section.
Second, Damon, like many other positive youth de-
velopment advocates, holds up the centrality of com-
munity as both an incubator of positive development as
well as a multifaceted setting in which young people
canexercise agency and inform the settings, places,
people, and policies that in turn impact their develop-
ment. Finally, Damon notes that posit ive youth devel-
opment, in its efforts to identify the positive att itudes
andcompetencies that energize healthy developmental
trajectories, is not afraid to identify values, moral per-
spectives, and religious worldviews as constructive de-
velopmental resources even though this “f lies in the
face of our predominantly secular social-science tradi-
tions” (2004, p. 21).
Several other accents or themes are increasingly
prominent in the youth development literature. Two are
part icularly germane for positioning this field in intel-
lectual and scientif ic space. A number of scholars
argue that the definition of developmental success most
deeply entrenched in public policy and practice con-
ceives of health as the absence of disease or pathology.
In recent decades, the dominant framework driving
federal, state, and local interventions with youth has
been that of risk behaviors, including alcohol use,
tobacco use, other drug use, nonmarital pregnancy,
suicide, antisocial behavior, violence, and school drop
out (Benson, 1997; Hein, 2003; National Research
Council & Institute of Medicine [NRCIM], 2002;
Takanishi, 1993). While positive youth development
advocates readily accept that reductions in these
health-compromising behaviors are important markers
of developmental success, there is simultaneously a
growing interest in defining “the other side of the
coin”—that is, the attributes, sk ills, competencies, and
potentials needed to succeed in the spheres of work,
family, and civic life. This dichotomy is well captured
in the youth development mantra “problem free” is not
fully prepared (Pittman & Fleming, 1991). Accord-
ingly, an important aspect of current positive youth
development science is the conceptualization and mea-
surement of dimensions of positive developmental suc-
cess. Among these areas of work are efforts to define
indicators of child well-being (Moore, 1997; Moore,
Lippman, & Brown, 2004), thriving (Benson, 2003a;
Lerner, 2004; Lerner et al., in press; Scales & Benson,
2004; Theokas et al., 2004), and flourishing (Keyes,
896 Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
2003). Within this inquiry on positive markers of
success, an emerging issue has to do with expanding
the conceptualization of developmental success to in-
clude not only what promotes individual well-being but
also what promotes the social good (Benson & Leffert,
2001; Benson, Mannes, Pittman, & Ferber, 2004;
Damon, 1997; Lerner, 2004).
In turn, this interest in positive indicators covaries
with an emerging accent on reconceptualizing the pop-
ulation target for improving the lives of children and
youth. This is the debate about “at-risk youth” versus
“all youth.” In the early stages of the term’s emer-
gence, positive youth development tended to be posi-
tioned as a strategy—complementary to reducing
risks—for preventing high-risk behaviors, par ticularly
among that subset of youth particularly susceptible to
the potential harm of poverty and dysfunctional fami-
lies and/or communities. As work moves forward to
expand the notions of health, well-being, and develop-
mental success, and as these ideas merge with histori-
cal and sociological insights about pervasive societal
changes, the positive youth development field increas-
ingly calls for strategic national and community
investments to strengthen the developmental land-
scape more generally (Bumbarger & Greenberg, 2002;
Lerner, 2000; Lorion & Sokoloff, 2003). Ultimately,
we might characterize this issue as whether the na-
tional priority should be to promote “good enough” de-
velopment or to promote optimal development. In more
poetic language, Lorion and Sokoloff (2003) offer that
this choice is between “fixing” troubled youth and the
view that “all soil can be enriched and all moisture
and sunlight maximally used to nourish all flowers”
(p. 137).
Several attempts have been made to articulate the
core concepts and principles in the positive youth devel-
opment field (Benson & Pittman, 2001a, 2001b; Cata-
lano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 1999;
Hamilton, Hamilton, & Pittman, 2004; NRCIM, 2002).
A synthesis of these reviews suggests considerable con-
sensus on these six principles:
1. All youth have the inherent capacity for positive
growth and development.
2. A positive developmental trajectory is enabled when
youth are embedded in relationships, contexts, and
ecologies that nurture their development.
3. The promotion of positive development is further en-
abled when youth participate in multiple, nutrient-
rich relationships, contexts, and ecologies.
4. Allyouth benefit from these relationships, contexts,
andecologies. Support, empowerment, and engage-
ment are, for example, important developmental as-
sets for all youth, generalizing across race, ethnicity,
gender, and family income. However, the strategies
andtactics for promoting these developmental assets
can vary considerably as a function of social locat ion.
5. Community is a viable and critical “delivery system”
for positive youth development.
6. Yo uth are major actors in their own development and
are significant (and underutilized) resources for creat-
ing the kinds of relationships, contexts, ecologies, and
communities that enable positive youth development.
There are many published definitions of positive
youth development. Indeed, most reviewers of the liter-
ature and many authors of positive youth development
research articles generate new definitions. This prolif-
eration of many definitions—as well as concomitant
lack of consensus on a particular def inition—ref lects
both the relative newness of the field as well as its pro-
foundly interdisciplinary nature. Each definit ion fo-
cuses on some combination (and the interactions among
them) of the core constructs displayed in Figure 16.1.
Figure 16.1 suggests that the core ideas in positive
youth development include (A) developmental contexts
(i.e., places, sett ings, ecologies, and relationships with
the potential to generate supports, opportunities, and re-
sources); (B) the nature of the child with accents on in-
herent capacity to grow and thrive (and actively engage
with support ive contexts); (C) developmental strengths
(attributes of the person, including skills, competencies,
values, and dispositions important for successful en-
gagement in the world); and two complimentary concep-
tualizations of developmental success; (D) the reduction
of high-risk behavior; and (E) the promotion of thriving.
The bidirectional arrows intend to convey the dynamic
nature of person-ecology interactions prominent in re-
cent exposit ions of positive youth development (Lerner,
2003, 2004).
We k now o f no definition that encompasses all of this
conceptual territory. But the fullness of these constructs
is evident when integrating a representat ive sample of
published definitions. Several accent the nature of the
child (B). Damon (2004), for example, offers that “the
positive youth development perspective emphasizes the
manifest potentialities rather than the supposed inca-
pacities of young people—including young people from
the most disadvantaged backgrounds and those with the
most troubled histories” (p. 17).
Defining Positive Youth Development 897
Figure 16.1 Core positive youth development constructs.
Work Place
Contexts Person Developmental Success
(a) (b) (d)
(c) (e)
View of
the Child
Reduction in
of Health
Hamilton (1999; Hamilton et al., 2004) noted that
the term has been used in three ways. His first defini-
tion reflects, like Damon, an articulation of the nature
of the child (B in Figure 16.1): “ youth development has
traditionally been and is still most widely used to mean
a natural process: the growing capacity of a young per-
son to understand and act on the environment” (Hamil-
ton et al., 2004, p. 3). His second definit ion picks up the
role of contexts (A in Figure 16.1) in the development of
strengths (C): “in the 1990s the term youth develop-
ment came to be applied to a set of principles, a philoso-
phy or approach emphasizing active support for the
growing capacity of young people by individuals, organ-
izations and institutions, especially at the community
level” (Hamilton et al., 2004, p. 4). Finally, youth de-
velopment also refers to a “planned set of practices, or
activities, that foster the developmental process in
young people” (Hamilton et al., 2004, p. 4). These prac-
tices occur within the context portion (A) of Figure
16.1 and can be delivered via programs, organizations,
or community initiatives.
Catalano et al. (1999, 2004) conducted a major re-
view of the positive youth development field with sup-
port from the National Institute of Child Health and
Human Development (NICHD). Among its purposes
were to “research and establish both theoret ical and
empirical def initions of positive youth development
(Catalano et al., 1999, p. ii ). Arguing that no compre-
hensive definition of the term could be found, they cre-
ated a definition that named the objectives of positive
youth development approaches. Hence, positive youth
development seeks to promote one or more of the fol-
lowing: bonding, resilience, social competence, emo-
tional competence, cognitive competence, behavioral
competence, moral competence, self-determination,
spirituality, self-efficacy, positive identity, belief in
the future, recognition for positive behavior, opportu-
nities for prosocial involvement, and prosocial norms.
This definition, then, focuses on describing the territo-
ries of (C) developmental strengths and (E) well-being
in Figure 16.1.
In 2002, the National Research Council and Institute
of Medicine released the influential repor t, Community
Programs to Promote Youth Development (NRCIM,
2002). Though this report did not offer a clear definition
of the term, its focus was on defining (and advocating
for) two of the constructs in Figure 16.1: “ the personal
and social assets” young people need “ to function well
during adolescence and adulthood” (p. 3) and the fea-
tures of positive developmental settings. These two rep-
resent constructs C and A in Figure 16.1.
Larson (2000) contrasts positive youth development
with developmental psychopathology and suggests the
former is about “how things go right” while the latter
focuses on “ how things go wrong.” Hence, his focus is
on positive youth development as a line of inquiry re-
garding “ the pathways whereby children and adoles-
cents become motivated, directed, socially competent,
898 Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
compassionate and psycholocally vigorous adults”
(p. 170). The pathways organically link contexts (A), de-
velopmental strengths (C ) and developmental success
(D and E). In a similar vein, Lerner’s definition
(Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000) contrasts pathol-
ogy—reducing and asset-building approaches. “Prevent-
ing the actualizat ion of youth risk behaviors is not the
same thing as taking actions to promote positive youth
development (e.g., the inculcation of attributes such as
caring/compassion, competence, character, connection,
and confidence). Similarly, programs and policies that
prevent youth problems do not necessarily prepare youth
to contribute to civil society ” (p. 12).
Some recent definitions place additional accent on
the processes and dynamics of designing and mobilizing
developmental contexts (A in Figure 16.1) to enhance
C, D, E, and their intersection. Benson and Saito (2001),
for example, suggested that “ youth development mobi-
lizes programs, organizations, systems and communities
to build developmental strengths in order to promote
health and well-being” (p. 144). Finally, Small and
Memmo (2004) identify a variant on positive youth de-
velopment that places an important accent on mobilizing
youth to shape their contexts and communities. Called
Community Youth Development (Hughes & Curnan,
2000; Perkins, Borden, & Villarruel, 2001; Perkins,
Borden, Keith, Hoppe-Rooney, & Villarruel, 2003), this
approach takes seriously the bidirectional arrow in Fig-
ure 16.1 connecting A with B and C. As we will see in
the section on the theor y of youth development, this
bidirectionality is a central feature of developmental
systems theory and in particular, Lerner’s application of
this theory to positive youth development (Lerner, 2003,
2004; Lerner, Brentano, Dowling, & Anderson, 2002).
Early uses of the term youth development can be found
in the literature on juvenile delinquency. In 1947, the
Texas State Development Council was formed follow-
ing a report from a blue-ribbon commission charging
that the state-run schools for delinquent children were
failing. Embedded in the report was the suggestion that
the causes of delinquency included environmental fac-
tors with the implication that well-entrenched models
of changing behavior by “fixing the child” were in-
sufficient. This new understanding of the contextual
backdrop to individual development gained further mo-
mentum in a series of monographs from the University
of Chicago’s experimental Community Youth Develop-
ment Program, an initiative designed to identify and or-
ganize community resources to better serve youth with
“special problems” or “special abilities” (Havighurst ,
Federal agencies dealing with juvenile delinquency
expanded on their earlier efforts and took another
important conceptual step. In 1970, the Youth Develop-
ment and Delinquency Prevention Administration
(housed in what was then the Department of Health,
Education, and Welfare) developed a delinquency pre-
vention program based on what keeps “good kids on
track” rather than the more prevalent question of the
day (“why do kids get into trouble?”; West, 1974). The
federal answer to the question of why some youth suc-
ceed had four components: a sense of competence, a
sense of usefulness, a sense of belonging, and a sense of
power (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Administration for Children and Families, 1996, p. 4).
In these state and federal approaches to addressing
“troubled and troubling youth,” we see the early signs of
two cornerstones of contemporary youth development
approaches: the primacy of context for shaping develop-
ment and development understood in terms of strength
rather than deficit. Though such ideas hardly seem like
intellectual advances now, it is important to note how
these ideas came to challenge historical and deeply en-
trenched therapeutic models.
Subsequently, a number of prominent foundations en-
tered the picture. In addition to major youth develop-
ment grant programs at the Kellogg Foundation, the
Lilly Endowment, and the Kauffman Foundation, the
Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William T.
Grant Foundation sponsored and broadly disseminated
pivotal reports on the developmental trajectories of
American youth. Moving beyond the question of how so-
ciety best deals with its so-called “at-risk youth,” these
influential reports began to document more persistent
and pervasive issues about health and well-being of
American youth. To some extent, the repor ts expanded
the need for enhancing developmental supports and op-
portunities to include most young people.
In 1985, the Carnegie Corporation launched the
Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. The con-
cluding report, Great Transitions: Preparing Adoles-
cents for a New Century, sought to focus the national
spotlight on adolescence (Carnegie Council on Adoles-
cent Development, 1995). The repor t, like many before
it, lamented not only the high rates of high risk behav-
iors (e.g., alcohol use, illicit drug use, teen pregnancy)
Pos it ive Youth Development in Historical and Social Context 899
and exposure to developmental threats (e.g., physical
and sexual abuse) among adolescents, but the emer-
gence of alarming rates for these phenomena among 10-
to 15-year-olds. Unlike other reports on the health of
youth, however, the Carnegie Council proposed solu-
tions based less on services to and treatment of youth
and more on altering the formative contexts of families,
schools, community organizations, and the media.
Among key recommendations were reengaging families
with their adolescent children, designing developmen-
tally attentive schools, and transforming the media into
a socially constructive resource. And in a reaffirmation
of the Carnegie Council’s early report , A Matter of
Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Non School Hours
(Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1992), this 1995
report called for community investment in and expan-
sion of “safe, growth-promoting settings during the
high-risk, after school time when parents are often not
able to supervise their children and adolescents” (Ham-
burg & Takanishi, 1996, p. 387).
Several years earlier, the William T. Grant Founda-
tion released The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success
for America’s Youth and Young Families (1988). Its
focus was on ages 16 to 24 and the transition from ado-
lescence to adulthood. In its words, “ half of our youth
are in danger of being caught in a massive bind that can
deny them full participation in our society and the full
benefit of their own talents” ( p. 1). Like the Carnegie
Council report, The Forgotten Half focused its recom-
mendations on changing community and societal con-
texts. Among its specific recommendations: closer
adult-youth relationships, opportunities to participate
in the life of community in activities valued by adults
(including community service), and quality work expe-
riences that provide skill-building pathways to sustain-
able work.
In combinat ion, these two highly visible reports chal-
lenged the common assumption that the “ youth prob-
lem” was confined to a small percentage of youth
needing special and targeted services to redeem them.
Instead, portraits of youth emerge which suggested that
the developmental journey was fragile for a much larger
percentage of youth. And both reports made bold calls
for systemic change in how communities and their so-
cialization systems connect with young people.
By the 1990s, three ideas generally important in the
youth development field were gaining momentum. These
are: identifying positive, developmental “ building
blocks” which help youth stay on a successful develop-
mental trajectory; attribut ing causality for “youth prob-
lems” more to environments and contexts than youth
themselves, with a concomitant call for reforming
and/or transforming contexts; and mainstreaming the
need for change (i.e., the percentage of youth needing
change goes far beyond the notion of “at-risk ” youth). A
corollary to these three strands is the oft-repeated idea
that youth are resources to be ut ilized rather than prob-
lems to be fixed.
Several additional events have added direction and
momentum to the positive youth development move-
ment. The f irst was a symbolic and galvanizing histori-
cal moment—the gathering of five living U.S. presidents
(Carter, G. H. W. Bush, Clinton, Ford, and Reagan, rep-
resented by Nancy Reagan) with hundreds of inf luential
delegates—for the President’s Summit on Youth in
Philadelphia. This April, 1997 event offered an accessi-
ble language of positive development—and a passionate
call to action—around five fundamental development re-
sources (or promises). These were: caring adults, safe
places and st ructured activit ies, community service, ed-
ucation for marketable skills, and a healthy star t. This
1997 event became institutionalized with the for mation
of America’s Promise, a not-for-profit community mobi-
lization organization initially led by (Ret.) General
Colin Powell.
While thisandothermobilization efforts gave im-
petustothe principles of positive youth development, a
series of publications gave greater intellectual and
scientific attention to the youth development idea.
In 1998, the Youth Development Directions Project
(YDDP) was conceived by the Youth Development
Funders Group at a meeting held at the Ewing Marian
Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. The purpose was
to take stock of the youth development field and lay out
suggesteddirection for strengthening science, practice
andpolicy. A number of organizations, including the
Academy for Educational Development (Center for
Yo uth Development and Research), Chapin Hall Center
for Children at theUniversityofChicago,TheForum
for Youth Investment at the International Youth Foun-
dation, Public/Private Ventures, and Search Inst itute
part icipated in a 2-year learning and writing project,
culminating in one of the first efforts to capture the
breadth and status of the field ( Benson & Pittman,
2001b; Public/ Private Ventures, 2000).
Moreover, as already noted, influential federal re-
ports had reviewed the field of positive youth develop-
ment. Both focused on the slice of youth development
having to do with the creation of developmentally atten-
tive programs. One, initiated by the Board on Children,
900 Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
Yo uth and Families of the National Research Council,
created a Committee on Community-Level Programs
for Youth that evaluated and synthesized the science
of adolescent development with research on the quality
and efficiency of community programs designed to pro-
mote healthy development, and resulted in the influen-
tial report, Community Programs to Promote Youth
Development (NRCIM, 2002). The second was the com-
prehensive review of positive youth development pro-
grams evaluations commissioned by the National
Institute for Child Health and Human Development
(Catalano et al., 1999).
Therise of positive youth development as a field of
science and practice has been fueled by two types of so-
cial analysis. The first documents a series of pervasive
societal changesthat inform and shape the processes of
child and adolescent socialization. It is common in pub-
lished treatises on positive youth development strategies
to pinpoint the role of rapid social change in altering
youth access to developmental resources. In this exten-
sive literature, social changes hypothesized to under-
mine the capacity of family and community to generate
developmental resources include: increasing parental ab-
sence as a result of changes in the nature of work and the
dramatic increase in out-of home employment of moth-
ers; the rise of civic disengagement; the loss of shared
ideals about the goals of development; the growing priva-
tization of recreation; increases in age segregation; the
decrease in neighborhood cohesion; teenagers’ discon-
nectionfrom structured programming; the prevalence of
negative stereotypes about youth; and the explosion in
media access by youth (see, e.g., Benson, 1997; Benson,
Leffer t, Scales, & Blyth, 1998; Damon, 1997; Dryfoos,
1990; Furstenberg, 2000; Garbarino, 1995; Lerner,
1995; Mortimer & Larson, 2002; Scales, 1991, 2001). In
aparticularly cogent analysis of these t rends, Bronfen-
brenner and Morris (1998) offered this summary:
The research f indings presented here reveal growing chaos
in the lives of families, in child care settings, schools, peer
groups, youth programs, neighborhoods, workplaces, and
other everyday environments in which human beings live
their lives. Such chaos, in turn, interrupts and undermines
the formation and stability of relationships and activit ies
that are necessary for psychological growth. (p. 1022)
The second social analysis common in the youth de-
velopment literature is a critique of deficit models
prominent in the service professions, policy, and re-
search. Indeed, it is a somewhat common refrain that
models focused primarily on reducing risk behaviors,
for example, are inadequate both theoretically and
strategically. Furthermore, models driven by risk,
deficit, and pathology may unintentionally become part
of the problem (e.g., by negatively labeling youth and/or
fueling unfavorable stereotypes of youth). These ideas
have been discussed in a wide range of positive youth
development publications (Catalano et al., 1999; Lerner,
2004; Pittman, Irby, & Ferber, 2001; Roth & Brooks-
Gunn, 2000; Villarruel, Perkins, Borden, & Keith,
2003). In one particularly important analysis, Larson
(2000) suggests that developmental psychology has
spawned a much stronger tradition for understanding
and treat ing psychopathology than for understanding
and promoting pathways to developmental success. In
this regard, positive youth development advocates are
sympathetic to positive psychology’s critique of the
dominance of pathology-oriented research and practice
within mainstream psychology (Seligman & Csikszent-
mihalyi, 2000).
The premise that positive youth development repre-
sents a categorically different approach than so-called
deficit, pathology, and risk models deserves deeper ex-
ploration. There is consensus that adolescent psychol-
ogy, and applied youth ar eas have been dominated, in
recent decades, by explorations of “ youth problems.”
The social historian, Francis Fukuyama (1999), attri-
butes this, in part , to a logical outgrowth of rapid social
change. When social institutions become less stable—as
in the United States beginning in the 1960s—govern-
ments, he noted, inevitably begin to create and measure
indicators of social upheaval, and craf t policy and pro-
grams to minimize social and personal problems as-
sumed to emerge from social change (e.g., violence,
alcohol, and other drug use).
Sociologist Frank Furstenberg (2000; Furstenberg,
Modell, & Herschberg, 1976), argues that adolescence
becomes culturally def ined as a lifestage when school-
ing replaces work as the major activity during youth.
This, he suggests, occurred in the United States near the
middle of the twentieth century. The advent of full-time
education “establishes a youth-based social world that is
age segregated, partially buffered from adult control,
and relatively turned in on itself ” (2000, p. 897). Not
surprisingly, societies interpret the consequences of this
upheaval in terms of “ youth problems.” Consequently,
and in line with Fukuyama’s analysis, cultural authori-
ties focus major attention on behaviors and styles that
contradict established social norms. And not surpris-
The Theory of Positive Youth Development 901
ingly, social scientific studies of youth follow suit, with
a disproportionate focus on problem behaviors (Dry-
foos, 1998; Larson, 2000; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2000;
Steinberg & Lerner, 2004). This dominating theme in
youth research likely ref lects the dual consequence of
the cultural zeitgeist and the longer term hospitality in
mainline psychology to the study of pathology (Larson,
2000; Moore et al., 2004; Peterson, 2004). Furstenberg
(2000) provided a cogent description of the implications
of these social and scientific trends for the broader pub-
lic perception of youth:
Such an approach inevitably treats successful adolescents
andyoung adults as escape artists who manage to dodge
thehazards of growing up, rather than focusing on the
ways tha t young people acquire and master skills, con-
struct positive identities, and learn how to negotiate so-
cial roles simultaneously in the youth culture and adult
wor ld. (p. 900)
At first glance, it would appear that positive youth de-
velopment represents a theoretical, research and practice
“paradigm shift ” from the prevention field—a multidis-
ciplinary area of inquiry, programming, policy, and
practice with a substantial American history (Wanders-
man & Florin, 2003; Weissberg, Kumpfer, & Seligman,
2003). However, a considerable debate is underway about
the conceptual overlap between prevention and positive
youth development (Benson et al., 2004; Bumbarger &
Greenberg, 2002; Catalano & Hawkins, 2002; Roth &
Brooks-Gunn, 2003; Sesma, Mannes, & Scales, in press;
Small & Memmo, 2004).
Prevention and prevention science are deeply rooted
in public health and epidemiological approaches to dis-
ease prevention (Bloom, 1996; Small & Memmo, 2004),
with a par ticular focus on crafting interventions before
the onset of significant problems, and with a focus on
populations known to be at risk for such onset (Durlak,
1998; Munóz, Mrazek, & Haggerty, 1996). This form of
prevention has been called primary prevention, in con-
trast to secondary and tertiary prevention (Caplan,
1964), or in more contemporary parlance, universal pre-
ventionincontrast to targeted prevention (Weissberg
et al., 2003). At the center of current prevention research
are the concepts of risk factors and protective factors
(Jessor, 1993; Jessor, Turbin, & Costa, 1998; Rutter,
1987). Risk factors are individual and/or environmental
markers which increase the probability of a negative
outcome. Protective factors are safeguards identif ied in
epidemiological research that help individuals cope suc-
cessfully with risk. As noted by Rutter (1987), protec-
tive factors operate only when risk is present.
There are important points of overlap and of differ-
ence when comparing positive youth development with
this major risk and protect ive factor approach to preven-
tion. The two approaches partially agree on develop-
mental goals. That is, both are dedicated to reducing
problem behaviors and negative outcomes. At the same
time, however, positive youth development tends to place
as much or more focus on promoting additional ap-
proaches to health, including thriving skill-building and
competency (Bumbarger & Greenberg, 2002; Pittman &
Fleming, 1991). There is also some overlap in under-
standing the processes and mechanisms involved in the
production of successful development. Some of the so-
called protective factors that buffer risk and reduce neg-
ative outcomes also play a role in the production of
positive outcomes (Catalano, Hawkins, Berglund, Pol-
lard, & Ar thur, 2002). Alternatively, positive youth de-
velopment research also identifies a series of additional
supports, opportunities, and developmental assets
whose identification emerges from investigations of en-
vironmental and individual factors that promote compe-
tence, achievement, growth, and thriving (Benson,
2003a; Lerner, 2004; Scales, Benson, Leffert, & Blyth,
2000). Hence, protective factors and the broader range
of developmental resources central to positive youth de-
velopment are not isomorphic.
At another level, however, prevention and positive
youth development are grounded in quite different theo-
retical orientations and—though yoked by common in-
terest in the health of youth—spring forth from quite
different visions of youth potential and the developmen-
tal, ecological, and social processes at play (Damon &
Gregory, 2003; Lerner, 2004).
A grand theory of positive youth development requires
the integration of multiple theoretical orientations. In
part , this is because positive youth development is a
“bridging” field that touches multiple academic disci-
plines and spheres of practice. Three theoretical strands
central to positive youth development are discussed in
this section, with primary emphasis on the first. These
three are: human development, community organization
and development, and social and community change.
902 Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
Human Development
Central to positive youth development theory is a series
of questions rooted squarely in the discipline of develop-
mental psychology. The overarching goals of this theory
are to explain: the capacity of youth to change and to
change in a direction that fosters both individual well-
being and the social good; how and under what condi-
tions contextual and ecological factors contribute to this
change (and how these factors are informed or influ-
enced by the developing person); and, the principles and
mechanisms that are at play in maximizing the dynamic
and developmentally constructive interplay of context
and individual.
Thearticulation of a developmental theory of posi-
tive youth development is itself an ongoing and dy-
namic process emerging several decades after the
birthing of positive youth development as a field of
practice (Benson & Saito, 2001; Hamilton & Hamilton,
2004; Larson, 2000; Zeldin, 2000). Zeldin (2000) pro-
vides an important analysis of how the science of youth
development emerged:
[I]n hindsight, it is clear that posit ive youth development,
as a philosophy of service and as a field of study was initi-
ated and grounded in the expertise of practitioners, pri-
marily those working in nonprofit, community-based,
youth-serving organizations. Research was used primarily
to offer “empir ical justification” for exemplary practice
that was already occurring in communities. (p. 3)
An important step in growing the science of positive
youth development was a “call to action” made by a team
of researchers and leaders of youth development organi-
zations (Zeldin, 1995). Facilitated by the Academy for
Educational Development, this 1995 document chal-
lenged academicians—particularly those engaged in the
study of adolescence—to focus research on strength-
based models of adolescent development, identify and
study positive youth outcomes, and identify “ the day-to-
day developmental opportunities and supports that allow
young people to become competent and compassionate
individuals connected to their communities” (Zeldin,
2000, p. 3).
The “golden age” of positive youth development re-
search began in the mid-1990s, with burgeoning litera-
tures on topics such as civic engagement, service
learning, connectedness, generosity, purpose, empower-
ment, and leadership. In the past few years, work posit-
ing the theoret ical foundations of positive youth
development has begun. This historical progression of
practice, to research, to theory may not be the idealized
scientific progression, but it is important here to iden-
tify how this evolutionary pattern critiques the hereto-
fore irrelevance of developmental psychology to the
massive number of people and organizations trying to
innovate strength-based youth work in the United States.
As Larson (2000) put it , youth development evolved sep-
arately from development psychology “partly because
we psychologists have had little to offer” (p. 171). Al-
ternatively, this progression may be an exemplar of the
kind of citizen-scholar partnership needed to promote
civil society (Lerner et al., 2000).
Essential to posit ive youth development theory is
agenerous view of human capacity and potential.
Grounded initially in the views and values of profes-
sionals and practitioners working with youth,thisvi-
sion of human nature identif ied the possibility of active
andconstructive contribut ion to the development of
self, community, and society. As noted earlier in this
chapter, such a view is often characterized in youth de-
velopment circles by describing young people as re-
sources tobenurturedversusproblemstobemanaged.
This view is an important starting point for a theory of
positive youth development, for it brings to the fore the
not ion that the individual—and not just the environ-
ment—is a prime actor in the shaping of positive devel-
opmental trajector ies.
Damon (2004), in an important essay titled “What Is
Positive Youth Development” argues that this positive
vision of youth potential has implications for research,
education, and social policy. He also sees this human na-
ture assumption supported by three relatively recent
lines of inquiry: the research on resilience (Garmezy,
1983); the capacity of newborns to demonstrate empa-
thy (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998; Hoffman, 2000); and the
universal capacity for moral awareness and prosocial be-
havior (Feshbach, 1983; Madsen, 1971). Damon also as-
serts that this human capacity for competence and
contribution is at play when seeking to explain how
young people “learn and thr ive in the diverse settings
where they live.”
The essence of positive youth development theory is
explaining how such potentiality expresses itself. The
theory requires an appreciation of the dynamic inter-
play of pe rson and context. Accordingly, the theory is
most at home in a family of theoretical approaches con-
stituting the large metatheor y known as developmental
systems theory (Ford & Lerner, 1992; Gottlieb, 1997).
The Theory of Positive Youth Development 903
This metatheor y includes several crucial assumptions
and components that, in combinat ion, positions human
development in relational and contextual space, and that
stand in contrast to earlier developmental theories that
split development into such polarities as nature-nurture,
biology-culture and individual—society (Lerner, 1998;
Overton, 1998).
Although positive youth development theory is predi-
cated on key concepts in developmental systems theory,
it includes several other core ideas having to do with the
orchestration of bidirectional context-person relation-
ships in order to maximize growth and development.
While positive youth development can happen naturally
(as in the adage that “positive youth development is what
happens when families have a good day”), such adaptive
development regulations (Lerner, 1998, 2004) can be en-
couraged and engineered by the ways contexts are de-
signed and the ways youth are engaged in that design.
Central to the theory of positive youth development
are conceptions of the developing person, the contexts in
which the person is embedded and the dynamic inter-
action between the two. Following Lerner’s lead (1984,
1998, 2002, 2003), all of the multiple levels of organiza-
tions engaged in human development—from biology and
personality disposition to relationships, social institu-
tions, culture, and history—are fused into an integrated
system. Development has to do with changes in the rela-
tions among and between these multiple levels of organ-
izations. Consonant with systems thinking in biology,
persons—through their dynamic interaction with devel-
opmental contexts—experience pattern and order via
the process of self-organizing. This key dynamic of self-
organization means that “pattern and order emerge from
the interactions of the components of a complex system
without explicit instructions, either in the organization
itself or from the environment. Self-organizat ion—
processes that by their own activities change them-
selves—is a fundamental property of living things”
(Thelen & Smith, 1998, p. 564). At one level, this pro-
posed dynamic interaction of nature and nurture is a
dramatic departure from earlier models of human devel-
opment which created a split between the two (Lorenz,
1965; Skinner, 1938). At another level, however, the
concept of self-organization introduces, as Lerner sug-
gested (1976, 2003) a “third source” of development:
the organism itself. Schneirla’s (1957, 1959) concepts of
circular functions and self-stimulation were important
illustrations of the organism’s centrality and active par-
ticipation in development.
An articulation of this point suggests that individual
development cannot be explained by heredity or envi-
ronment alone (Gottlieb, Wahlsten, & Lickliter, 1998).
Evidence for this comes from studies where “geneti-
cally identical individuals are reared in unusually uni-
form environments but nonetheless differ markedly in
phenotypic types” (Gottlieb et al., p. 253). While indi-
vidualdifferences—stemming presumably from neither
genesnor contexts—can be a nuisance to theorists pre-
ferring reductionist understandings of development,
such so-called “noise” or “randomness” points to the
“third source”ofdevelopment central in developmental
system theories.
Positive youth development theory includes another
dynamic feature of the organism that is consonant with
the process of self-organization but not readily inferred
from it. And this is the concept of how persons act on
their contexts. Indeed, one of the core tenets in develop-
mental systems theory is the bidirectional nature of in-
fluences on development. That is, the “ individual is both
the active producer and the product of his or her on-
togeny... (Brandtstädter, 1998, p. 800). Action theo-
ries of human development seek to explain these dual
developmental regulation processes of the action of con-
texts on individuals and the act ion of individuals on
their contexts. This process by which organisms engage,
interact with, and alter their developmental contexts
(e.g., peer group, family, school, and neighborhood) is
not only a pivotal theoretical notion for positive youth
development, but is also “ the essential intellectual chal-
lenge for developmental science” (Lerner, 2003, p. 228).
What processes guide how youth engage and act on
their contexts? There are a series of developmental
processes par ticularly salient during adolescence.
Among these are identif y formation and allied issues
around self-appraisal, meaning-making, and autonomy.
Because of the centrality of these issues during adoles-
cence, positive youth development theory argues that
adolescents bring particular energy to their relational
and social world. Their activity—as “co-producers” of
their development—is guided by three intertwined
processes, each of which is rooted in theoretical tradi-
tions from within the broader “ family” of developmen-
tal systems theories. Indeed, we think of these three as
prime features of the “engine” of development. And in
combination, the three make possible a purposeful
search for positive (i.e., developmentally rich) contexts.
Brandtstädter’s action theory of development empha-
sizes the role of intentionality in guiding and regulating
904 Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
one’s engagement with social and symbolic environ-
ments (1998, 1999). His assumption is that persons re-
flect on, learn from, and use feedback from their social
engagements creating behavioral intentions that guide
subsequent behavior. While this proposed dynamic has
currency across the life span, it is a hallmark of adoles-
cence. There are a range of possible constraints on how
the person self-regulates internal engagements with her
or his social and symbolic worlds. As Brandtstädter sug-
gests “ these constraints lie partly or even completely
outsides one’s span of control, but they decisively struc-
ture the range of behavioral and developmental options”
(1998, p. 808).
In addition to intentionality, there are selection and
optimization processes that also inform how persons
interact with their environments. Aligned with Baltes
and his colleagues (Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Baltes,
Dittmann-Kohli, & Dixon, 1984; Baltes, Lindenberger,
& Staudinger, 1998), positive youth development theory
posits that youth select from a range of developmental
supports and opportunities a subset that has psychologi-
cal and social advantage for prioritized personal goals.
Selection, then, has to do with both one’s preferences
(e.g., to learn to play the flute, to find friends, to exper-
iment with drama) and the ecologies one chooses to be
the primary crucibles for development. Optimization is
“the process of acquiring, refining, coordinating, and
applying goal-relevant means or resources” toward the
selected targets ( Lerner, 2002, p. 224). Critical issues in
the applied youth development world include: how well
communities provide meaningful opportunities for opti-
mization; and how well communities make it possible
for youth to create opt imization opportunities (e.g., to
begin a new sports or arts program, or to attach oneself
to an appropriate mentor).
The self-regulation of context engagement—even
when buoyed with an internal press guided by intention-
ality, selection, and optimizat ion—creates something of
a conundrum for those on whom the constraints on ac-
tion appear sizable. These constraints, which are well
articulated in a number of life span and life course the-
ories (e.g., Elder, 1974, 1980, 1998, 1999; Nesselroade,
1977; Schaie, 1965), can have strong salience during
adolescence. Youth, after all, both seek control and are
controlled, with many agents in their lives who, by
virtue of position and power, can either suppress or en-
courage exploration, selection, and optimization.
Among this army of socialization agents are parents,
neighbors, teachers, youth workers, coaches, clergy, em-
ployees, and peers. Positive youth development theory
posits that adolescents will strive to find and/or create
optimizing settings even when their degrees of freedom
are limited. These settings may be countercultural
and/or deemed by society to be out-of-bounds. This
axiom is supported by the work of Heckhausen and her
colleagues (Heckhausen, 1999; Heckhausen & Krueger,
1993; Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995). As in the model of
selection, opt imization, and compensation (Baltes &
Baltes, 1990), she is concerned with the dialectic be-
tween possibility ( i.e., plasticity) and constraint. She ar-
gues that “primary control” (or the process of acting on
the environment in order to make it more congruent with
ones needs) is a dominating human striving, particularly
during adolescence and young adulthood.
Lerner (1998, 2002, 2003, 2004; Lerner, Anderson,
Balsano, Dowling, & Bobek, 2003; Lerner et al., 2002)
has been particularly productive and inf luential in con-
necting core ideas in developmental systems theories to
the emerging field of positive youth development. His
overarching view is that “changes across the life span
are seen as propelled by the dynamic relations between
the individual and the multiple levels of the ecology of
human development (family, peer group, school, com-
munity, culture), all changing interdependently across
time (history)” (Lerner et al., 2002, pp. 13–14). His
thinking about three core concepts—temporal embed-
dedness, plasticity, and developmental regulation—is
central to the formation of positive youth development
theory and deepens the assumptions of person-context
interactions described earlier.
Temporal embeddedness refers to the potentiality,
acrossthe entire life span, for change in person-context
relations. This potentiality—yoked with our earlier dis-
cussion of the principles of self-organization and the ac-
tive participation by the individual in shaping one’s
contexts—liberates us from the idea that biology, envi-
ronment, or the combination of the two, is destiny.
Positive youth development—as theory and practice—
works in the optimistic arena offered by temporal em-
beddedness and by the relative plasticit y (i.e., the
potential for systemic change) that derives from it. That
is, temporality and relative plasticity mean that, “the
potential to enhance human life” always exists (Lerner
et al., 2002, p. 14).
Finally, Lerner links the concept of developmental
regulation to the promise of positive youth development.
By so doing, he gives the theory a way to understand
how individuals manage or shape their relations with
The Theory of Positive Youth Development 905
multiple contexts. Developmental systems theories de-
rive concepts of developmental regulation from the idea
of relative plasticity. As persons actively regulate their
development, developmental change occurs in the mu-
tual exchange between person and context. Adaptive
(healthy) developmental regulation occurs when there is
a balance between individual capacity or strengths and
the “growth-promoting influences of the social world
(Lerner, 2004, p. 44).
Positive youth development, then, occurs in the fu-
sion of an active, engaged, and competent person with
receptive, supportive, and nurturing ecologies. The con-
sequences of these balanced interactions—particularly
when they are frequent and sustained—can be seen at
both the individual and social level. Among these hy-
potheses are the advancement of individual thriving and
the reduction of health-compromising behaviors (Ben-
son, 1997; Benson et al., 1998; Lerner, 2004; Lerner &
Benson, 2003; Scales, Benson, et al., 2000). A common
vocabulary in positive youth development for describing
these effects is the five Cs: competence, conf idence,
connection, character, and caring (or compassion;
NRCIM, 2002; Lerner, 2004; Lerner et al., 2000; Roth &
Brooks-Gunn, 2003) has written extensively about a
“6th C” fueled by adaptive developmental regulations:
contribution. In his frame, the six Cs are essential not
only for individual well-being but also for the creation
of healthy and civil society.
Severa l recent lines of inquiry are congruent with
this thinking. The goodness-of-fit model, for example,
demonstrates the adaptive consequences of good
matches between individual competencies and needs
with the demands, features, and responsiveness of devel-
opmental settings, such as families and schools (Bogen-
schneider, Small, & Tsay, 1997; Chess & Thomas, 1999;
Galambos & Turner, 1999; Thomas & Chess, 1977).
Similarly, Eccles and her colleagues (Eccles, 1997; Ec-
cles & Harold, 1996), employing a stage-environment fit
model, demonstrate how embeddedness in developmen-
tally appropriate environments such as schools influ-
ences motivation and academic achievement.
As we note later in this chapter, the issue of diversity
is central to positive youth development. Spencer and her
colleagues (Spencer, 1995, 1999; Spencer, Dupree, &
Hartmann, 1997) provide a particularly important re-
finement andextension of the kinds of ecological and
systems dynamics shaping the theory of youth develop-
ment. Central to her phenomenological variant of ecolog-
ical systems theory (PVEST), Spencer uses the concept
of identity for mation and of how self-appraisal processes
regarding one’s standing in multiple contexts (e.g.,
schools) inform the processing of bidirectional person-
contexttransactions. Phenomenological var iant of eco-
logical systems th, then, integrates issues of historical
and cultural context (e.g., race and gender stereotypes,
minority status) into normative developmental processes.
This theory has been extensively utilized to understand
thedevelopment of African American youth. New work
is underway to understand the historical and cultural
contexts informing the development of Latino/Latina
youth (Rodriguez & Morrobel, 2004).
Conceptual Models of Positive Development
A series of conceptual models have emerged to identify
the positive developmental experiences that enhance
the fusion of person and context. A rich vocabulary has
developed to describe these development-enhancing in-
gredients. Among these are supports, opportunities,
developmental nutrients, developmental st rengths, and
developmental assets.
One important research-based tradition informing
these conceptualizations is that of resilience. Formal in-
quiry into resilience, or the development of positive adap-
tation in the context of significant adversity (Masten,
2001), took root during the 1960s and 1970s. In an effort
to better understand maladaptive behavior, psychologists
and psychiatrists studied children believed to be at risk
for pathology (e.g., children of a parent with schizophre-
nia), and observed that some children were developing
normally (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998). These early ef-
forts at understanding “invulnerables” (Werner & Smith,
1989) focused on personal qualities of the child, such as
self-esteem or high intelligence (Anthony, 1974). Eventu-
ally researchers came to understand that resilience was
not a trait inherent in the child, but rather was a function
of the child? environment interaction. This more ecologi-
cal approach led to the identification of three broad sets
of protective factors implicated in fostering resilience:
(1) those within a child (cognitive abilities, easy tem-
perament); (2) within the family (organized family envi-
ronment, close parent-child relationships); and (3) within
the broader social ecology (effective schools, relationship
with a car ing adult; Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000;
Masten & Garmezy, 1985).
The primary mechanism through which resilience ap-
proaches attempt to facilitate positive development is via
intervention and prevention programs. One exemplar of
906 Positive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
this approach is Hawkins’ social development model
(Hawkins & Catalano, 1996). This model asserts that
children who experience developmentally appropriate op-
portunities for active involvement in their families,
schools, and communities, and are recognized for their
efforts are more likely to form positive bonds and attach-
ments that inhibit deviant or problem behavior (Catalano
et al., 2003). According to these authors, the following
salient protective factors are necessary for prevention:
Community Protective Factors
•Opportunit ies for prosocial community involvement
•Rewards for prosocial community involvement
School Protective Factors
•Opportunit ies for prosocial school involvement
•Rewards for prosocial school involvement
Family Protective Factors
•Opportunit ies for prosocial family involvement
•Rewards for prosocial family involvement
•Family attachment
Peer and Individual Protective Factors
•Belief in a moral order
•Social Skills
•Prosocial Peer Attachment
•Resilient Temperament
Within the community of scholars self-identifying as
youth development researchers, considerable attention
has been given to defining and conceptualizing develop-
ment-enhancing processes, with a growing number of
publications dedicated to synthesizing the many frame-
works (Benson & Saito, 2001; NRCIM, 2002; Roth &
Brooks-Gunn, 2000; Small & Memmo, 2004). Several
publications have been influential in guiding practice
and policy. Pittman and her colleagues (Pittman, Irby, &
Ferber, 2000; Pittman, Irby, Tolman, Yohalem, & Fer-
ber, 2001) identified seven essential developmental re-
sources: stable programs; basic care and services;
healthy relationships with peers and adults; high expec-
tations and standards; role models, resources and net-
works; challenging experiences and opportunities to
part icipate and contribute; and high-quality instruction
and training. Connell, Gambone, and Smith (2001) posit
three major developmental resources: the ability to be
productive, the ability to connect, and the ability to nav-
igate. Zeldin (1995; Zeldin, Kimball, & Price, 1995)
identifies access to safe places, challenging experiences,
and caring people.
The concept of developmental assets emerged in 1990
(Benson, 1990, 1997, 2002, 2003a) and has t riggered
considerable research and a community change process
used in 700 cities in the United States and Canada. The
framework of developmental assets (see Table 16.1) is a
theory-based model linking features of ecologies (exter-
nal assets) with personal skills and capacities (internal
assets), guided by the hypothesis that external and inter-
nal assts are dynamically interconnected “building
blocks” that, in combination, prevent high risk health
behaviors and enhance many forms of developmental
success (i.e., thriving).
As described in a series of publications (Benson,
1997, 2002; Benson et al., 1998), the framework estab-
lishes a set of developmental experiences and supports
that are hypothesized to have import for all young people
during the 2nd decade of life. However, it has also been
hypothesized that developmental assets reflect develop-
mental processes that have age-related parallels in in-
fancy and childhood (Leffert, Benson, & Roehlkepartain,
1997; Mannes, Benson, Kretzmann, & Norris, 2003;
Scales, Sesma, & Bolstrom, 2004).
Theframework synthesizes research in a number of
fields with the goal of selecting for inclusion those de-
velopmental resources that: (a ) have been demonstrated
to prevent high risk behavior (e.g., substance use, vio-
lence, dropping out of school), enhance thriving, or build
resilience; ( b) have evidence of generalizability across
social locations; (c) contribute balance to the overall
framework (i.e., of ecological and individual-level fac-
tors); and (d) for which it can be demonstrated that com-
munities have the capacity to effect their acquisition.
Because the model, in addition to its theoretical and re-
search purposes, “is also intended to have practical signif-
icance for mobilizing communities” ( Benson, 2002,
p. 127), the assets are placed in categories that have con-
ceptual integrity and that can be described easily to the
people of a community. They are grouped into20external
assets ( health-promoting features of the environment) and
20 that are internal (skills, values, competencies, and self-
perceptions). The external assets are grouped into four
categories: (1) support , (2) empowerment, (3) boundaries
andexpectations, and (4) constructive use of time. The
TABLE 16.1 The Framework of Developmental Assets
Category External Assets Definition
1. Family support Family life provides high levels of love and support.
2. Positive family communication Yo ung person and her or his pa rent(s) communicate positively, and
young person is willing to seek advice and counsel from parents.
3. Other adult relationships Yo u n g p e r s on receives support from three or more nonparent
4. Caring neighborhood Yo ung person experiences ca ring neighbors.
5. Caring school climate School provides a caring, encouraging environment.
6. Parent involvement in schooling Parent(s) are act ively involved in helping young person succeed in
7. Community values youth Yo ung person perceives that adults in the community value youth.
8. Youth as resources Yo ung people are given useful roles in the community.
9. Service to others Yo u n g p e r s on serves in the community one hour or more per week.
10. Safety Yo ung person feels safe at home, school, and in the neighborhood.
Boundaries and expectations
11. Family boundaries Family has clear rules and consequences and monitors the young
person’s whereabouts.
12. School boundaries School provides clear rules and consequences.
13. Neighborhood boundaries Neighbors take responsibilit y for monitoring young people’s
14. Adult role models Parent(s) and other adults model positive, responsible behavior.
15. Positive peer influence Yo ung person’s best fr iends model responsible behavior.
16. High expectations Both parent(s) and teachers encourage the young person to do
Category Internal Assets Definition
Commitment to learning
21. Achievement motivation Yo u n g p e r s on is motivated to do well in school.
22. School engagement Yo ung per son is actively engaged in learning.
23. Homework Yo ung person reports doing at least one hour of homework every
school day.
24. Bonding to school Yo un g p er son cares about her or his school.
25. Reading for pleasure Yo ung person reads for pleasure three or more hours per week.
Positive values
26. Caring Yo ung person places high value on helping other people.
27. Equality and social just ice Yo u n g p e r s on places high value on promoting equality and
reducing hunger and poverty.
28. Integrity Yo ung person acts on convictions and stands up for her or his
29. Honesty Yo ung person “ tells the truth even when it is not easy.”
30. Responsibility Yo ung person accepts and takes personal responsibilit y.
31. Restraint Young person believes it is important not to be sexually active or to
use alcohol or other drugs.
Soci al competencies
32. Planning and decision making Yo ung person knows how to plan ahead and make choices.
33. Interpersonal competence Yo ung person has empathy, sensitivity, and friendship skills.
34. Cultural competence Yo ung person has knowledge of and comfort with people of
different cultural/racial/ethnic backgrounds.
35. Resistance skills Yo ung person can resist negative peer pressure and dangerous
36. Peaceful conflict resolution Yo ung person seeks to resolve conflict nonviolently.
908 Pos itive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
TABLE 16.1 Continu ed
Category External Assets Definition
Positive identit y
37. Personal power Yo ung person feels he or she has control over “ things that happen
to me.”
38. Self-esteem Yo ung person reports having high self-esteem.
39. Sense of purpose Yo ung person reports that “my life has a purpose.”
40. Positive view of personal future You ng pe r s on is optimist ic about her or his personal future.
Source: From All Kids Are Our Kids: What Communities Must Do to Raise Caring and Responsible Children and Adolescents, by P. Benson,
1997, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
internal assets are placed in four categories: (1) commit-
ment to learning, (2) positive values, (3) social competen-
cies, and (4) positive identity. The scientific foundations
for the eight categories and each of the 40 assets are de-
scribed in a series of publications (Scales & Leffer t,
1999, 2004; Scales et al., 2004).
The 2002 report from The National Research Council
and Institute of Medicine, Community Programs to Pro-
mote Positive youth Development (NRCI M, 2002), used
the concept of assets to describe the experiences,
supports, and opportunities “ which facilitate both suc-
cessful passage through” adolescence and “optimal tran-
sition into the next phase of life—adulthood” (p. 67 ).
Parallel to Search Institute’s distinction between exter-
nal and internal assets, this national report used the lan-
guage of “personal” and “social” assets. The authors
used three types of empirical studies to identify assets:
“studies linking the personal and social assets to indica-
tors of positive current development, studies linking
these characteristics to indicators of future positive
adult development, and experimental studies designed to
change the asset under study” ( p. 82).
The committee of scholars charged with creating this
report then identified 28 personal and social assets. Un-
like Search Institute’s developmental asset taxonomy,
the 28 indicators are all personological in nature and do
not include the same balance of contextual factors and
individual-level factors. Nonetheless, there is consider-
able overlap between the two taxonomies. Table 16.2
displays the NRCIM taxonomy of personal and social as-
sets. It should be noted, however, that the committee
also created a conceptual model of the “features of pos-
itive developmental settings.” These provide some paral-
lel thinking to the concept of external assets. These
“features” will be discussed in the next section.
Embedded in both the developmental asset model and
the National Research Council report are three explicit
hypotheses, each of which will be evaluated later in this
chapter. The f irst has to do with the additive or cumula-
tive nature of the elements called assets. The assump-
tion is that “the more assets, the better.” The National
Research Council Report frames it this way: “adoles-
cents with more personal and social assets ...have a
greater chance of both current well-being and future
success” (NRCIM, 2002, p. 42). Benson and his col-
leagues (Benson, 2003a; Benson et al., 1998; Benson,
Scales, & Mannes, 2003) refer to the longitudinal ex-
pression of this principle as the “vertical pile up” of as-
sets. Both streams of thought also contend that this
principle of accumulated assets generalizes to multiple
forms of behavior—from prevention of high risk behav-
ior to the enhancement of positive outcomes such as
school success (Benson et al., 2003; NRCIM, 2002;
Scales & Roehlkepar tain, 2003).
Closely related is the idea of the “pile up” of sup-
portive contexts. That is, positive development is also
enhanced when many settings collaborate—whether in-
tentional or not—in generating the kinds of supports
and opportunities known to promote assets. In the
words of the National Research Council (2002),
Research shows that the more settings that adolescents ex-
perience ref lect ing these features, the more likely they
are to acquire the personal and social assets linked to both
current and future well-being. (p. 43)
Scales and Roehlkepartain (2004) have recently called
this the principle of “horizontal pile up.” This concept is
similar to the idea of developmental redundancy
(Benson, 1997; Benson et al., 1998). Recent work in the
sociology of adolescence also speaks to this dynamic
(Furstenberg, 2000).
Asecond hypothesis addresses the nature of assets
as relevant universally, although often experienced or
expressed differently across diversities. Among youth
development scholars, it is commonly assumed that
the elements in the conceptual models of nutrients/
The Theory of Positive Youth Development 909
TABLE 16.2 Personal and Social As sets That Facilitate Positive
Yo u t h D ev elopment
Physical development:
–Good health habits
–Good health risk management skills
Intellectual development:
–Knowledge of essential life skills
–Knowledge of essential vocational skills
–School success
–Rational habits of mind—crit ical think ing and reasoning skills
–In-depth k nowledge of more than one culture
–Good decision-making skills
–Knowle dge of skills needed to navigate through multiple cultural
Psychological and emotional development:
–Good mental health including positive self-regard
–Good emotional self-regulation skills
–Good coping skills
–Good conflict resolution skills
–Mastery motivation and posit ive achievement motivation
–Confidence in one’s personal eff icacy
–“Planfulness”—planning for the future and future life events
–Sense of personal autonomy/responsibility for self
–Optimism coupled with realism
–Coherent and positive personal and social identit y
–Prosocial and culturally sensitive values
–Spirituality or a sense of a “larger ” pur pose in life
–Strong moral character
–A commitment to good use of time
Social development:
–Connectedness—perceived good relationships and t rust with
parents, peers, and some other adults
–Sense of social plane/integrat ion—being connected and valued by
larger socia l networks
–Attachment to prosocial/conventional institutions, such as school,
church, nonschool youth programs
–Ability to navigate in multiple cultural contexts
–Commitment to civic engagement
Source: From Community Programs to Promote Youth Development: Com-
mittee on Community-Level Programs for Youth, by the National Research
Council and Institute of Medicine, J. Eccles and J. A. Gootman ( Eds),
Board on Children, Youth and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social
Sciences and Educat ion, 2002, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
resources/assets have currency for youth in all social lo-
cations. This claim is particularly clear in both the Na-
tional Research Council report and the research
undergirding the developmental asset model. At the same
time,however, both models testify to the diversity of
methods and procedures for promoting assets, and to the
importance of creating strategies of asset-building that
are crafted with deep sensitivity to the experience, wis-
dom and capacity of people within par ticular racial, eth-
nic, religious, and economic groups (Hamilton et al.,
The third assumption is one that arguably is the
strongest point of theoretical consensus across scholars,
research programs, and practitioners within the positive
youth development field. This is the belief that assets
are enhanced when contexts and settings are configured
910 Pos itive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
Figure 16.2 A comprehensive theory of positive youth
Theory of
Theory of
Context and
Theory of
Context and
and organized in specific ways. Context matters and
contexts can be changed. This principle can be suc-
cinctly stated as:
personal and social assets are enhanced by positive devel-
opmental settings. (NRCIM, 2002, p. 43)
Notsurpr isingly, then, there is a considerable re-
search tradition on how, and under what conditions,
contexts andecologies promote positive development.
This body of work shifts the unit of analysis from the
person to contexts, environments, and communities.
Accordingly, it draws us into a number of fields beyond
developmental psychology in which such inquiry is
more at home. We suggest thatatheoryofperson, con-
text, and their intersection such as suggested ear lier
in this chapter is a necessary but not sufficient set
of ideas for delineating the territory, scope, and
uniqueness of positive youth development. The major
lacuna in our discussion to this point is the idea of in-
tentional change. At the heart of positive youth devel-
opment thinking and research isthequestion of how
the healthy/balanced /adaptive fusion of person and
contextcan be enhanced. It is this idea—this possibil-
ity of creating change—that has fueled practice for
several decades and, more recently, is fueling research
and policy.
A theory of positive youth development, then, is in-
complete wit hout incorporating the concept of inten-
tional change. Without doing so, we have a theory of
adolescent development—not positive youth develop-
ment. Intentional change is the purposeful effort to en-
hance the fusion of person and context in a healthy
direction. Because of the dynamic bidirectionality of
this interaction, there are three major points of potential
intervention. The three of these, in combination, in-
crease the probability of adaptive developmental regula-
tion. These are:
1. Increasing the developmental-attentiveness of contexts
(to increase their capacity to nurture, support, and
constructively challenge the developing person).
2. Enhancing the skills and competencies of youth (to fur-
ther enable their “natural” capacity to engage with,
connect, change, and learn from their social contexts).
3. Creating processes and opportunit ies to invi te yout h to
actively exercise and utilize their capacit y to engage
with and change their social contexts. In practice and
research, thisformofintentionalchange travels under
such concepts as youth leadership, service learning,
youth empower ment, and youth engagement.
A comprehensive approach to positive youth-develop-
ment requires the integration of three theories: of human
development (which is the primary focus of this chap-
ter), of context and community influence, and of how
contexts and communities change. These three are dis-
played in Figure 16.2.
The Theory of Context and Community Inf luence
There is an extensive and growing literature on the fea-
tures and dynamics of developmentally supportive con-
texts. It is here that we reference the major contributions
of Bronfenbrenner (1979; Bronfenbrenner & Morris,
1998). His ecological theory of development has been
instrumental in shaping the theory, research, and prac-
tice of positive youth development. If we were to posit
the canon of youth development, the list would begin
with The Ecology of Human Development (1979). In this
work, he provides a highly influential definition that not
only supports a cr itical notion in current developmental
systems theor y but also shaped a generation of scholar-
ship. In his words:
The ecology of human development involves the scientific
study of progressive, mutual accommodation between an
active, growing human being and the changing properties
of the immediate settings in which the developing person
lives, as this process is affected by relations between
these settings, and by the larger contexts in which the set-
tings are embedded. ( p. 21)
The Theory of Positive Youth Development 911
Among Bronfenbrenner’s many contributions is his
conceptual formulation of the nature and dynamics of
developmental contexts. He portrays the nested systems
that inf luence development as interdependent; their in-
fluence is interactive; none stands or has its effects
alone. What happens in a microsystem, such as a class-
room, is influenced by tax policies and by the media, but
those elements of the macrosystem are themselves inter-
preted through and influenced by microsystems. An
important implication for youth development is that ef-
fective efforts to enhance assets must change more than
one system and level of system. Changing schools or
even families will be less effective than changing multi-
ple systems (or sett ings).
Wynn (1997) and her colleagues conceive of the com-
munity institutions influencing youth development as
“sectors” and focus on “primary supports” as a strong
but under-appreciated inf luence. Primary supports are
voluntary; youth choose to participate and make choices
about what they will do and how. Primary supports af-
ford young people opportunities to take initiative and to
part icipate actively, in contrast to the passivity charac-
terizing the role of student. Exemplars of primary sup-
ports include “arts and after school programs; organized
sports; community service and youth entrepreneurship
opportunit ies; and the offerings of parks, libraries, mu-
seums, and community centers” (p. 1).
Consistent with Bronfenbrenner’s idea of the impor-
tance of links among systems, Wynn (1997) claims that
primary supports function best when they reinforce and
link other sectors, especially families, schools, health-
care, and other services. Critical to effect ive primary
supports are: high expectations; group problem solving;
concrete products and performances; prospects for ad-
vancement and expanded opportunities; adults acting as
caregivers, catalysts and coaches; membership; avail-
ability and continuity; respect and reciprocity; and adult
investment (pp. 5–7 ).
Thereareagrowing number of such conceptual models
for identifying developmental contexts that are potential
sources for positive youth development (see, e.g., Benson
&Saito, 2001; Benson et al., 2003; Gambone, Klem, &
Connell, 2002; Hamilton & Hamilton, 2004; Pittman
et al., 2000). An important line of theory and research is
also emerging to explain how, and under what conditions,
such contexts inform positive development. Several
themes are particularly central to positive youth develop-
ment theory. Bronfenbrenner and Morris (1998) identify
twoofthese themes. Development occurs as a person in-
teracts with “people, objects and symbols” in what they
call “proximal processes,” which are “the primary en-
ginesofdevelopment” (p. 996). Caring relationships are
critical, not only in the family, but in all the settings youth
occupy. Likewise, youth need a range of challenging ac-
tivities in multiple settings. Both the people and the activ-
ities foster development best when they provide an
optimum balance of challenge and support. According to
Bronfenbrenner and Morris, the most powerful activities
andrelationships are predictable and enduring.
The classic account of how relationships promote de-
velopment and learning is Vygotsky’s (1978) “zone of
proximal development.” According to Vygotsky, devel-
opment, in the sense of growing competence, occurs
when the developing person is assisted by someone who
is already competent in accomplishing tasks she or he
cannot do unaided. With experience, this assistance be-
comes unnecessary and the person can perfor m indepen-
dently. Several cognitive scientists have elaborated this
notion, using the metaphor of “scaffolding” that is grad-
ually withdrawn (e.g., Bruner, 1983; Rogoff, 1990). Al-
though the metaphor is faulty (implying that scaffolding
holds up a building until it is capable of standing on its
own), the idea is sound: the assistance of someone who
is more advanced enables youth to gain competence, es-
pecially if that person is skilled at knowing when to help
and when not to. Bronfenbrenner (1979), acknowledging
Vygotsky, hypothesized that:
Learning and development are facilitated by the participa-
tion of the developing person in progressively more com-
plex patte rns of reciprocal activity with someone with
whom that person has developed a strong and enduring
emotional attachment and when the balance of power
gradually shifts in favor of the developing person. (p. 60)
Benson et al. (2003) enumerated five aspects of rela-
tionships germane to positive youth development. First,
supportive relationships with both immediate and ex-
tended family members have been shown, in multiple
studies and multiple demographic settings, to enhance
developmental strengths and provide a protective buffer
against risk (Rhodes & Roffman, 2003). Second, sup-
portive relationships with nonparental adults can be
equally compelling in advancing positive development,
part icularly during adolescence (Scales, Benson, &
Mannes, 2002; Scales & Leffert, 2004; Scales, Leffert,
& Vraa, 2003). Third, the number of supportive adult
relationships may provide an additive impact: As the
912 Pos itive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
number of nurturing relationships increase, probabili-
ties for the presence of developmental strengths such as
caring values, self-esteem, and a positive view of one’s
future also may increase ( Benson, 1997). An additional
axiom about nonparental adults has to do with the sus-
tainability of relationships. It is reasonable to hypothe-
size that the strength-building capacity of nonparental
adult connections increases proportionately with the
length of the relationship.
Fourth, exposure to positive peer influence—de-
fined, for example, as peer modeling of prosocial and
achievement values—can both advance developmental
strengths and inhibit risk behaviors (Leffert et al., 1998;
Scales, Benson, et al., 2000). Finally, the developmental
advantage of relationships is enhanced by three factors:
their quality, their quantity, and their sustainability.
The second theme identified by Bronfenbrenner and
Morris (1998) has to do with the importance and cer-
tainty of activity. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has com-
pellingly made the case that certain kinds of activities
instigate development in his work on “flow” or “the psy-
chology of optimal perfor mance.” Csikszentmihalyi has
documented the phenomenon of flow in people like rock
climbers, dancers, and others who engage in highly
challenging activities that reward them with a sense of
successfully negotiating challenges that require intense
concentration. This work helps to explain why some ac-
tivities contribute more to building youths’ assets than
others. Act ivities such as playing chess, playing a musi-
cal instrument, or planning and carrying out a commu-
nity service project build developmental assets more
than watching television or gossiping with friends.
In another important statement of how activity con-
tributes to positive development, Larson (2000) posits
that the development of initiative is critical. Combining
intrinsic motivation and deep attention, initiative can
emerge from well-designed structured act ivities within
sports, arts, and related youth development programs.
Thethemes of relationships and developmentally ap-
propriate activity are “ front and center” in most concep-
tual models seeking to describe the essential features of
positive developmental contexts (Gambone & Arbreton,
1997; McLaughlin, Irby, & Langman, 1994; Quinn,
1999; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2000, 2003). In a synthesis
of this research, NRCIM (2002) identified eight features
of programs, hypothesized to “expand the opportunities
for youth to acquire personal and social assets” (p. 8).
These are listed in Table 16.3. As noted earlier, these
TABLE 16.3 Features of Positive Developmental Sett ings
Feat ur eDescriptors
Physical and Safe and health-promoting facilities, practice that increases safe peer group interaction and decreases unsafe
psychological safety or confrontational peer interactions
Appropriate structure Limit setting, clear and consistent rules and expect ations, f irm-enough control, continuity and predictability,
clear boundaries, and age-appropriate monitoring
Supportive relationships Warmth, closeness, connectedness, good communication, caring, support , guidance, secure att achment, and
Opportunit ies to belong Opportunit ies for meaningful inclusion, regardless of one’s gender, ethnicit y, sexual orientation or
disabilities; social inclusion, social engagement and integration; opportunities for sociocultural identity
formation; and support for cultural and bicultural competence
Positive social norms Rules of behavior, expectat ions, injunctions, ways of doing things, values and morals, and obligations for
Support for efficacy Youth-based, empowerment practices that support autonomy, making a real difference in one’s community,
and matter ing and being taken seriously; practices that include enabling, responsibility granting, and meaningful challenge;
practices that focus on improvement rather than on relative cur rent perfor mance levels
Opportunity for Opportunities to lear n physical, intellect ual, psychological, emotional, and social skills; exposure to
skill building intentional learning experiences; opportunities to learn cultural literacies, media literacy, communication
skills, and good habits of mind; preparation for adult employment and opportunities to develop social and
cultural capital
Integration of family, school, Concordance; coordination and synergy among family, school and community.
and community efforts
Source: From Community Programs to Promote Youth Development: Committee on Community-Level Programs for Youth, by the National Re-
search Council and Institute of Medicine, J. Eccles and J. A. Gootman ( Eds), Board on Children, Youth and Families, Division of Behavioral
and Social Sciences and Education, 2002, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
The Theory of Positive Youth Development 913
eight features of positive development settings have
some conceptual overlap with the external assets in the
developmental asset framework (Benson, 1997; Benson
et al., 2003; Scales & Leffert, 1999, 2004).
The theory of positive youth development posits that
development is enhanced when contexts are configured
and organized in ways consonant with these develop-
mental principles. As already suggested, closely
aligned with the “contexts can be changed” axiom is
the principle of “horizontal pile-up.” This latter con-
cept refers to the reinforcing, simultaneous experience
of ecological assets across the different context of a
young person’s total ecology, such as family, neighbor-
hood, school, peer group, after-school programs, and
other co-curricular organizations. As suggested by
Benson et al. (2003):
Such mult iple and redundant exposure to developmentally
rich ecologies for tifies the social space within which
young people can perceive themselves to be safe, sup-
ported and capable. Young people who experience such re-
dundancy ought to be even more likely than young people
without such a horizontal pile-up of assets to enjoy protec-
tion from risk and to thr ive. (p. 387)
This idea of “developmental redundancy” helps to
fuel an additional and important concept in positive
youth development: the viability of community as a set-
ting for generating both ecological and internal assets.
This question of how communities inform development
has become a vibrant area of inquiry (Benson et al.,
1998; Blyth, 2001; Booth & Crouter, 2001; Comer,
1980; Comer, Haynes, Joyner, & Ben-Avie, 1996; Con-
nell et al., 2001; Earls & Carlson, 2001; Hughes & Cur-
nan, 2000; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; Mannes
et al., 2003; Sampson, 2001; Spencer, 2001).
Using community as a unit of analysis, researchers
have posited a number of community processes and dy-
namics inferred to be important for creating the kinds of
relationships and developmentally rich contexts that
promote positive development. Scales and his colleagues
(Scales et al., 2001, 2002, 2003) identify pro-child so-
cial norms in which engagement with children and ado-
lescents is expected and supported. Some theorists posit
the viability of shared ideals and expectations that unite
multiple socializing systems in common purpose (Ben-
son, 1997; Damon, 1997). Zeldin (2002) points to the
role of adults’ sense of community as an important pre-
cursor to engagement with youth. And several identify
the role of strategic alignment among community ser-
vices delivery systems (Dorgan & Ferguson, 2004; Dry-
foos, 1990; Mannes et al., 2003).
The construct of social capital elucidates why com-
munity mobilization is important and points to some av-
enues for action. Coleman (1990, p. 304) describes
social capital as contained in human relationships.
Human capital includes a person’s competencies. Just
like human capital and financial capital, social capital
makes it possible for people to be productive, to accom-
plish tasks. Coleman points out that social capital is
greater in social networks with a high degree of “clo-
sure,” meaning that many people know each other, com-
municate, and trust each other (pp. 319–320).
Sampson and his colleagues (Sampson, 2001; Samp-
son, Morenoff, & Earls, 1999; Sampson, Raudenbush, &
Earls, 1997 ) have identified community mechanisms
that facilitate the generation of social capital. Chief
among these is the idea of collective efficacy, which sig-
nifies “an emphasis on shared beliefs in a neighbor-
hood’s conjoint capability for action to achieve an
intended effect , and hence an active sense of engage-
ment on the part of residents” (Sampson, 2001, p. 10).
Benson and his colleagues (Benson, 1997; Benson et al.,
1998) have suggested that one important source of col-
lective efficacy is a shared community vocabulary of
developmental assets aligned with a publicly shared un-
derstanding of the capacity of social contexts to effect
their acquisition.
The Theory of Context and Community Change
Thethird formulation in a comprehensive theory of pos-
itiveyouth-development focuses on the processes,
strategies, and tactics that can directly or indirectly alter
contexts andcommunity. This is the least developed of
the three theoretical foundations of the theory we envi-
sion. One recent review of the science on “how change
occurs” has argued that a compelling question emerging
from newdiscoveries about the dynamic and bidirec-
tional sources of positive development has to do with:
the processes and procedures of increasing access to de-
velopmental nutrients/assets on a rather massive scale.
And truth be told, though all architects of developmental
nutrient models are deeply interested in application, the
science of how change occurs is in its infancy. We have in-
vest ed much more intellectual and research energy in
naming the positive building blocks of development and
demonstrat ing their predictive utility for enhancing health
and academic outcomes than in studying the complex
914 Pos itive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
array of strategies and procedures for moving the develop-
mental needle forward. ( Benson, 2003b, p. 214)
Thinking about such change is a complex enterprise.
Because positive youth-development has a pronounced
interest in application, a comprehensive theory of change
is needed to guide both research and the change-making
efforts already underway in hundreds of communities,
organizations, and systems. Tying this theory and re-
search agenda to the previous section on context and
community influences suggests some of the concepts hy-
pothesized to be central to this inquiry. Among these are
building shared vision; activating collective and per-
sonal eff icacy; promoting social trust; reframing how
citizens view youth; mobilizing adult-youth relation-
ships; creating effective cross-sector collaborations; and
enhancing relationships and developmentally appropri-
ate activities within socializing systems and programs.
Many points of entry into this complex arena of
change have been proposed. Among these are social
policy (Blum & Ellen, 2002; Halfon, 2003); social
norms (Scales et al., 2003); community building
(Hyman, 2002; Mannes et al., 2003); schools (Gambone
et al., 2002); neighborhoods (Sampson, 2001); families
(Simpson & Roehlkepartain, 2003); the mobilization of
adults as change activists (Rhodes & Roffman, 2003);
and the mobilization of youth as change activists ( Earls
& Carlson, 2002).
Recently, two conceptual frames have been proposed
to help guide theory and research on change. First,
Granger (2002) suggested two overarching constructs:
intervention st rategies to enhance the will to change and
intervention st rategies to enhance the capacity to
change. For the latter, he posits f ive key strategies:
human capital creation, redistribution strategies, in-
vestment strategies, social capital creation, and effi-
ciency strategies.
Second, Benson et al. (2003) proposed f ive interlock-
ing spheres of intervention. Grounded in organizational
systems theory, this model suggests that change in any
one sphere impacts each of the others. This assertion
bears theoretical affinity with core tenets in develop-
mental systems theory. This five-fold model is in the
service, theoretically, of creating a “developmentally at-
tentive community” (p. 389). Such a community is
envisioned as one that marshals and activates the asset-
building capacity of its residents (both adults and
youth), and sectors (family, neighborhoods, schools,
youth organizations, laces of work, congregations). A de-
velopmentally attentive community is also characterized
by indirect influences that support and sustain these
more direct resident and sector influences. These inf lu-
ences include policy, financial resources, and social
norms that promote adult engagement with the young
(Scales et al., 2001, 2003).
In turn, Benson et al. (2003) propose that the strate-
gic targets for such communities are vertical pileup (in
which youth develop many developmental assets), hori-
zontal pileup (in which youth experience asset-building
in multiple contexts), and developmental breadth (ex-
tending, by purpose and design, the reach of asset-build-
ing energy to all children and adolescents, not only those
judged to be at “r isk ” and served by traditional “preven-
tion” programs).
Accordingly, the five synergistic st rategies they posit
for community change are:
1. Engage adults: Community adults build sustained,
asset-building relationships with children and youth,
both within and beyond family.
2. Mobilize youth engagement: Adolescents use their
asset-building capacities with peers and with younger
children and in activities that help enhance the qual-
ity of their community.
3. Activate sectors: Families, neighborhoods, schools,
congregations, and youth organizations activate their
asset-building potential.
Invigorate programs: Acommunityinfrastructure of
qualityearly childhood, after-school, weekend, and
summerprograms is available and used by children
and youth.
Inf luence civic decisions: Financial, leadership, media,
and policy resources are mobilized to support and sus-
tain the transformation needed for areas 1, 2, 3, and 4
to emerge.
The theory and practice of positive youth development
suggests several of key hypotheses. Later in this section,
we introduce and examine empirical support for seven
hypotheses, and offer perspectives on the implications
of these principles both for understanding and promot-
ing positive youth development. Here, however, it is im-
portant to provide an overview of the nature and power
of the research base pertinent to these hypotheses.
Research Support for Key Positive Youth Development Hypotheses 915
Overview of Positive Youth Development Research
The research base supporting these hypotheses is plen-
tiful, although uneven. The literature measuring devel-
opmental resources is typified by variable-centered
methods, a focus on isolated variables, use of cross-sec-
tional samples, and linear-additive theor y and analytic
strategies. What is needed are person-centered meth-
ods, a focus on patterns or clusters of variables, use of
longitudinal samples, and dynamic nonlinear theory
and analytic strategies (Lerner, Lerner, De Stefanis, &
Apfel, 2001).
Developmental outcomes for youth also encompass
processes that are as important as if not more important
than outcomes reflecting status points in time (e.g., cur-
rent use of alcohol, how much community service one
contributes). Processes include reorganization (Sroufe,
1979), being able to permanently make transitions
(Baltes & Freund, 2003), and being on a path to a hope-
ful future (Lerner et al., 2002; Scales & Benson, 2004).
Status outcomes may not adequately capture the nested
interactions of person and contexts over time, for exam-
ple, person-family and family community (Lerner, Fre-
und, De Stefanis, & Habermas, 2001).
Further, the literature says relatively little about the
interaction of the combination of nutrients or resources
young people experience. Most studies focus on just a
handful of assets (especially parental/family assets and
school orientation assets, with some emphasis on peers,
and more recently, on extracurricular and positive youth
development program activities), and at best, how this
handful may interact.
We illuminate the research support for the positive
youth development hypotheses by focusing on a small
number of outcomes for which positive youth develop-
ment theory is best explicated, and that appear to have
strong research bases and broad constituencies of re-
searchers, practitioners, and policymakers dealing with
them: Alcohol and other drug use; violence/anti-social
behavior; school success; and civic engagement. Much
but not all of the research cited herein pertains to those
four exemplar outcomes.
How Much Explanatory Power Is
Reasonable to Expect?
Hundreds of studies, cited in this chapter and in compre-
hensive reviews (Scales & Leffert , 2004; Scales et al.,
2004), provide persuasive evidence (Miller & Thoresen,
2003) for the broad theoretical connection between de-
velopmental assets and developmental outcomes, both
concurrently and longitudinally. This is especially true
when considering as an independent variable the cumu-
lative number of assets young people experience, or
comparing those young people with relatively higher
and lower levels of assets.
There is relative persuasiveness and consistency of
positive findings in the literature on the explanatory
power of positive youth development concepts. But
what level of explanation is reasonable to expect devel-
opmental assets or nutrients to provide for complex
outcomes? Luthar et al. (2000), for example, observe
that studies whose findings rest on main effects often
report effects of 10% to 20% for individual protective
factors. When interaction effects are necessary to ex-
plain the workings of such assets, effect sizes are far
smaller, in the 2% to 5% range. With both advocacy
and empirical work in recent years ref lect ing a shift
from merely documenting the impact of developmental
nutrients to studying the processes and interactions
that suggest how those nutrients contr ibute to out-
comes (Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, Heatherington, &
Bornstein, 2000; Davey, Eaker, & Walters, 2003;
Luthar et al., 2000), it may be expected that the size of
many reported ef fects will be disappointingly, but un-
derstandably, limited.
Ecological and developmental systems theory have
become the predominant frames of theoretical reference
for the study of child and adolescent development
(Lerner et al., 2002). Moreover, individual development
and broader community and social change processes in-
creasingly are linked in positive youth development
frameworks ( Benson et al., 1998, 2003; Connell & Ku-
bisch, 2001; Hawkins & Catalano, 1996). These theoret-
ical formulations imply that effects derived from
studies shaped by those theories and frameworks may be
quite modest, a conclusion supported in a recent review
by Wa ndersman and Florin (2003). All these factors
make it quite challenging scientif ically to capture broad
community change in the service of positive youth de-
velopment (Berkowitz, 2001).
With the preceding comments providing perspective
on the state-of-the-art in positive youth development re-
search, we turn now to illustrating the evidence for each
of the major positive youth development hypotheses, we
can derive from our prior discussion of the theoretical
and practitioner bases of the concept of positive youth
916 Pos itive Youth Development: Theory, Research, and Applications
Hypothesis One
The first hypothesis is termed the contextual change hy-
pothesis, and consists of two assumptions. First, contexts
can be intentionally altered to enhance developmental
success. And second, changes in these contexts change
the person.
There is abundant evidence that ecological contexts
can be changed to promote positive youth development,
as well as a wealth of data about why such approaches
have those positive effects. In most of this research, re-
searchers have documented (usually, but not always) the
efficacy of intervention or prevention programs in pro-
viding youth with experiences that facilitate develop-
mental outcomes. For example, from their review of 60
evaluations of youth development programs, Roth,
Brooks-Gunn, Murray, and Foster (1998) concluded:
[Y]outh development programs are best characterized by
their approach to youth as resources to be developed rather
than as problems to be managed, and their effor ts to help
youth become healthy, happy, and productive by increasing
youths’ exposure to the external assets, opportunities and
supports. ( p. 427)
The Social Development Research Group at the Uni-
versity of Washington conducted one of the most wide-
ranging reviews of positive youth development programs
(Catalano et al., 2004). They identified 161 programs
and discussed in detail 25 that were well-evaluated and
showed significant effects on behavioral outcomes. The
programs had to have one or more of the following ob-
jectives about building developmental assets or nutri-
ents: Promote bonding; foster resilience; promote social
competence; promote emotional competence; promote
cognitive competence; promote behavioral competence;
promote moral competence; foster self-determination;
foster spir ituality; foster self-eff icacy; foster clear and
positive identity; foster belief in the future; provide
recognition for positive behavior; provide opportunities
for prosocial involvement; and foster prosocial norms. In
addition, the programs had to address either multiple as-
sets, or a single nutrient but across the multiple social
domains of family, school, or community. Programs that
addressed only a single asset in a single domain were ex-
cluded. Competence, self-efficacy, and prosocial norms
were addressed in all 25 programs, and most programs
dealt with at least 8 of the 15 nutrients. Most programs
used positive outcome measures as well as reduction of
problem behavior in their evaluations. Nineteen of the
25 prog rams demonstrated significant effects on posi-
tive youth development outcomes, including improve-
ments in interpersonal skills, quality of peer and adult
relationships, self-control, problem solving, cognitive
competence, self-efficacy, commitment to school, and
academic achievement. In addition, 24 of the 25 showed
significant reductions in problem behaviors such as alco-