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Author: Richard M. Lerner

Applying Developmental Science to Children and Adolescents: Prevention versus Promoting Positive Youth Development

Parts 1 and 2: Introduction

  1. An Example: How are Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer examples of Positive Youth Development (PYD)?
    1. Despite Tom Sawyer’s and Huck Finn’s perceived mischievousness and criminal activity, both boys are heroic and courageous. Rather than valuing their strengths, the focus of their community members was on their problematic behavior.
    2. Twain makes 2 indirect points: 1) Every youth has strengths, and 2) Using different lenses, we might see “bad” behavior as an asset.
  2. The Emergence of Adolescence as a Period of Storm and Stress
    1. G. Stanley Hall, the first president of Clark University, forwarded the idea that adolescence was a period of deficits and problems. In 1904, Hall published the first text on adolescence.
    2. For Hall, adolescence was a universal and inevitable period of storm and stress.
    3. Building on Darwin’s conceptions of phylogeny (evolutionary history of a species) and ontogeny (growth of individual from birth to death) and Haekel’s recapitulationist theory of embryological developmental , Hall suggested that human development was just a compressed repetition of the history of ancestral adult developmental stages.
    4. Simply put, Hall proposed that ontogeny is a recapitulation of phylogeny.
    5. In ontogeny, adolescence is a period of storm and stress that corresponds to the period when ancestors went from being beast-like to being civilized.
    6. In this view, adolescents were dangerous to self and to others. They struggle to overthrow their uncivilized beast-like heritage and therefore experience “storm and stress.”
    7. Hall’s theory was not accepted for numerous conceptual and empirical reasons.
    8. Nevertheless, Hall began the field of adolescence as a nature-based one, and he depicted adolescence as a period of necessary deficit. This nature-based deficit view shaped the ideas of many scientists who followed him (e.g., Anna Freud and Erik Erikson).
  3. Deficit-Based Strategies for Helping Adolescence
    1. Amelioration: Working to solve or alleviate problems within adolescents
    2. Prevention: Working to prevent problems from developing
    3. Young people were looked at as “problems to be managed”
  4. Early Developers of Strength-Based Approaches: Rick Little
    1. Rick Little was the first person to conceive of PYD from a practitioner’s point of view. After a tragic car accident that left him severely disabled when he was 19, Little was told he would never walk again. Despite this prediction, he regained the ability to walk within a couple of years. Little credits his faith, connections to others, and confidence in himself as providing him with the mental and physical strength to overcome his physical challenges.
    2. Based on his success, Little developed a curriculum to help children positively develop. He also saw a need for an organization that focused on helping other youth development programs promote PYD and not just prevent disorders.
    3. An issue arose about how to define “good programs,” so that they could receive funding.
    4. Little developed the notion of the 4 Cs as a way of guiding what programs should promote.
      1. Competence: This component embodied all areas of competence including social, cultural, vocational, and academic.
      2. Confidence: This component focuses on a child’s ability to believe in himself or herself, to feel that he or she matters, and to have hope for the future.
      3. Connection: This component focuses on positive sustained relations with family members, friends, mentors, etc.
      4. Character: This component emphasizes respect for societal and cultural rules, possession of standards for correct behaviors, a sense of right and wrong, and integrity.
    5. Founded by the Kellogg Foundation, Little launched the International Youth Foundation in 1990.
  5. Early Developers of Strength-Based Approaches: Peter Benson
    1. Trained as a social psychologist, Benson heads the Search Institute, which seeks to identify and to measure the developmental assets present in the lives of youth.
    2. Benson posited that to promote PYD, we had to align community assets with the strengths of youth. Every community and every youth have at least some resources that can be aligned.
    3. Benson hypothesized that there exists a total of 40 assets, 20 internal and 20 external. Examples of internal assets included achievement motivation, caring, and honesty. Examples of external assets included family support, caring school climate, and positive peer influence.
  6. Early Developers of Strength-Based Approaches: Karen Pittman
    1. Pittman approached PYD from a policy-based perspective. She provided several fundamental “mantras” for the PYD movement.
      1. Preventing problems does not promote the attributes we want to see in youth.
      2. Problem-free is not prepared.
      3. Being prepared is not the same as being engaged.
    2. Pittman explained that just because youth had certain potentials or capacities did not mean that they were being engaged.

Parts 3 and 4: The Further Development of the PYD Model

  1. The Fifth C: Caring/Compassion
    1. Evolving out of Little’s 4 Cs, caring/compassion involved the emotions of empathy and sympathy and a sense of social justice.
  2. The Sixth C: Contribution
    1. The original 5 Cs have been embraced as second-order constructs and provided researchers and practitioners with a common language for discussing PYD. People evaluated programs based on their production of these Cs, although no one had yet operationalized and measured the Cs among youth.
    2. Little proposed that if a youth possessed all 5 Cs, a Sixth C, contribution, emerged.
    3. Contribution can be conceived of on many levels. There are contributions to self (e.g., health), to others (e.g., family, community), and to civil society (i.e., the space that exists between individuals and government that allows people freedom, liberty, and autonomy).
  3. Problems with the PYD Model
    1. Benson’s measures of internal assets and 5 Cs are highly related. How can an asset be an antecedent of a C if they are the same?
    2. Benson’s work shows what youth perceive, but perceptions may not align with actual assets.
    3. In addition, behavior cannot be measured in a survey.
    4. If internal assets and the Cs are equivalent, what then can be assessed in youth as attributes that do produce the Cs?
  4. Freund and Baltus: The Selection, Optimization, Compensation (SOC) model
    1. Adaptive interaction in one's context requires the enactment of three functions:
      1. Select goals: Indicates motivations, but does not mean one will reach them.
      2. Optimize probability that one will reach one's goal: Recruit the means necessary to meet one's goals.
      3. Compensation: When faced with an obstacle/failure, one needs to adjust.
    2. SOC represents intentional self-regulation that may contribute to the five Cs.
    3. When SOC is combined with actual ecological assets, PYD can be enhanced.
  5. Measuring a Youth's Ecology
    1. Christina Theokas proposed that Search Institute’s 20 external assets did not necessarily reflect actual ecological assets.
    2. Theokas measured four actual ecological assets: individuals, institutions, collective activity, and access.
    3. Theokas argued that it was important to know a youth’s actual assets as well as his or her perceived assets.

Suggested Readings:

  • Cavet, J., & Sloper, P. (2004). The participation of children and young people in decisions about UK service development. Child: Care, Health & Development, 30, 613-621.
  • Granger, R.C. (2002). Creating the conditions linked to positive youth development. New Directions for Youth Development, 95, 149-164.
  • Lerner, R. M. (2004). Liberty (Chapters 4, 5)