Positive Youth Development

students at a boarding school in a club

Positive Youth Development In Depth: The Theory, Research, and Results

Adolescents need guidance, structure, and support to develop the responsibility, empathy, and competence necessary for adulthood. Adolescent development has been studied extensively over the years, with research attempting to answer the question of how to best raise healthy young adults. One of the most successful and research-backed approaches towards raising adolescents is Positive Youth Development. Positive Youth Development, or PYD, is a philosophy that is based around developing young people’s natural strengths through a focus on positive relationships, environments, and support.

Defining Positive Youth Development

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that PYD is about “viewing the adolescent years as full of potential rather than rife with problems to be solved. Instead of merely encouraging adolescents to avoid risky behaviors, PYD emphasizes strategies that enhance positive qualities that adolescents already possess.”[i]

Positive Youth Development differs from many models of adolescent development by focusing on an adolescent’s strengths rather than perceived deficits or problems. Many older models of adolescence viewed “positive” development as a simple lack of behavioral problems, ignoring the fact that adolescents are growing individuals with their own strengths.[ii] By building on these strengths, PYD helps adolescents develop values and responsibility which can be transferred into other avenues of life as they grow into young adults.

What Traits Does PYD Help Adolescents Build?

Theorists have developed different conceptions of PYD. These have highlighted many different character traits and qualities that PYD works to build. For instance, various frameworks for PYD have emphasized a commitment to learning and the development of a positive identity; external factors like support and boundaries; the development of competence, character, and compassion; a focus on bonding, resilience, and self-determination; and finding self-awareness, social awareness, and responsible decision-making skills. These traits are hallmarks of healthy, well-adjusted adults, and have been shown to act as “strong buffers against a variety of adolescent psychosocial problems.”[iii] Specifically, success in the development of PYD traits has been associated with “lower risk-taking and problem behaviors, such as bullying, substance use, delinquency, and depression.”[iv]

PYD is not about permitting or excusing bad behavior. It is a framework with a focus on the positive, but it does not encourage an “anything goes” attitude. On the contrary, high expectations for adolescent character and behavior are a cornerstone of PYD. A PYD approach may emphasize the modeling of healthy conflict resolution, role-play of difficult scenarios to teach appropriate behavior, and the importance of setting healthy boundaries.[v]

How Can Adolescents Integrate PYD Into Their Lives?

PYD emphasizes a holistic approach in which adolescents are given structure, support, and a healthy environment across different areas of life. School, home, and work can all provide opportunities for growth and the implementation of PYD principles. The goal of PYD is that skills learned in one area are easily transferable to others. For instance, a student who spends time developing relationships, organizing meetings or outings for a school club, and honing their knowledge base in school will inevitably feel the confidence and competence “spill over” into their work and home lives.

Many adolescents feel that they have no strengths due to a lack of self-esteem and past instances where their creativity or individuality was stifled. However, a PYD approach demonstrates this to be false. Because PYD focuses on honing strengths and using them as a base to grow in other areas, adolescents can build confidence in themselves and develop the healthy self-image and identity they can carry with them wherever they go.

What Does PYD Look Like In Practice?

 In practice, PYD may incorporate collaborative goal-setting with adolescents, as well as a structure of pro-social activities that help adolescents work on skills, practice leadership, build relationships, and develop character through helping a community.[vi]

PYD programs can take many forms and differ greatly. PYD is often used as a basis for adolescent programs in schools and community settings. It is also used by youth workers, helping adolescents find their strengths and areas of struggle so they can work on them together. All of these settings ground their PYD approach in similar core principles: the building of adolescent-to-adult and adolescent-to-peer relationships, the learning of life skills, and the transferring of those skills into broader community settings.

School programs, such as our, based around PYD may offer individualized consultations for each student with a counselor or therapist who can get to know the student, their strengths, their challenges, and any personal or academic goals they may have. A PYD approach to setting goals emphasizes the building of skills and confidence through participation in extracurricular activities and friendships with other students. This is based on a student’s individual strengths. For instance, a student who excels in organizational skills may go on to hold a leadership role within a student club or council. Another student, who struggles with organization but excels in creative skills, could design materials for school activities or events.

A PYD program identifies areas where students shine, and capitalizes on them to boost confidence while helping students grow in areas where other approaches might find problems to solve. All of this occurs in environments – classroom and otherwise – where students are presented with opportunities to form healthy relationships with adults and peers, are presented with gradually increasing expectations and responsibilities, and have the support they need to work past any emotional issues or other roadblocks to progress.

Designing a program around PYD may require shifting away from traditional models, where policy can take an oppositional or punishing attitude towards students. By meeting adolescents where they are, and by focusing on growth, PYD provides the internally-motivated drive that can naturally help adolescents overcome or avoid many problem behaviors in the first place. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, PYD is adaptable, and is easily combined with other teaching or growth philosophies. With proper implementation, PYD can help any adolescent develop a healthy self-image, acquire valuable life skills, and reach their full potential as they grow.

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