Chapter One: What is Positive Youth Development?

Understanding adolescents can seem like a full-time job. They talk back. Cut school. Break rules. All in an effort to find their places in the adult world. In response, parents, teachers, and communities are learning that they must take extra care during this crucial time to reinforce positive values in young people.

But it hasn't always been that way. The concept of adolescence as a distinct developmental stage is relatively recent. In fact, it wasn't until after the turn of the 20th century that society began to recognize that youth need special support to transition successfully into adulthood. Since then, America's thinking about youth development has gone through a variety of phases. Positive Youth Development, the framework discussed in this chapter, is the latest stage in the growing understanding of what youth need to succeed.

Youth development concepts reached the national political agenda in the 1950s, when Americans grew concerned about increases in juvenile delinquency and other problems brought on by changes in the post-war social fabric. Early interventions focused on crisis management, targeting the immediate problems of runaways, dropouts, teenage parents, and delinquents. As the field evolved, however, youth services practitioners turned their attention to prevention in an attempt to head off adolescent problems before they could surface. Starting in the 1970s, dedicated prevention programs proliferated for drug abuse, smoking, truancy, and teen pregnancy, among others.

Around the same time, youth development concepts began to germinate. Some of the earliest work on the subject came from the Youth Development and Delinquency Prevention Administration (YDDPA), the predecessor to the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB). In developing its delinquency prevention strategy, the YDDPA sought to identify the characteristics that "protected" youth from engaging in risky behaviors. What it found was that youth who developed in a positive way felt a sense of:

  • competence
  • usefulness
  • power
  • belonging

YDDPA, and later, FYSB, sought to reinforce each of the four qualities in the youth they served by building programs that focused on the strengths rather than the potential weaknesses of young people.

Youth development gained a much greater following in the 1980s, though, when it became clear that prevention programs targeting specific "risky" behaviors were either not achieving significant positive results or were not doing enough to help youth become healthy, productive members of society. As Karen Pittman, a noted youth researcher, famously observed: "Problem-free is not fully prepared." She advocated for a massive conceptual shift "from thinking that youth problems are merely the principal barrier to youth development to thinking that youth development serves as the most effective strategy for the prevention of youth problems."

So what do youth need to be fully prepared for life's challenges? Research in recent years has provided a number of valuable findings. One of the most comprehensive, and frequently cited, works comes from the Search Institute, which put forward in 1990 a list of the 40 developmental assets" it believes are critical to the positive development of young people. Twenty assets come from the outside world of community and family, and 20 come from inside the youth themselves.

The Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets®


1. Family support—Family life provides high levels of love and support.

2. Positive family communication—Young person and her or his parent(s) communicate positively, and young person is willing to seek parent(s) advice and counsel.

3. Other adult relationships—Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults.

4. Caring neighborhood—Young person experiences caring neighbors.

5. Caring school climate—School provides a caring, encouraging environment.

6. Parent involvement in schooling—Parent(s) are actively involved in helping young person succeed in school.


7. Community values youth—Young person perceives that adults in the community value youth.

8. Youth as resources—Young people are given useful roles in the community.

9. Service to others—Young person serves in the community one hour or more per week.

10. Safety—Young 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 responsibility for monitoring young people's behavior.

14. Adult role models—Parent(s) and other adults model positive, responsible behavior.

15. Positive peer influence—Young person's best friends model responsible behavior.

16. High expectations—Both parent(s) and teachers encourage the young person to do well.

Constructive Use of Time

17. Creative activities—Young person spends three or more hours per week in lessons or practice in music, theater, or other arts.

18. Youth programs—Young person spends three or more hours per week in sports, clubs, or organizations at school and/or in community organizations.

19. Religious community—Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities in religious institution.

20. Time at home—Young person is out with friends "with nothing special to do," two or fewer nights.


Commitment to Learning

21. Achievement motivation—Young person is motivated to do well in school.

22. School engagement—Young person is actively engaged in learning.

23. Homework—Young person reports doing at least one hour of homework every school day.

24. Bonding to school—Young person cares about his or her school.

25. Reading for pleasure—Young person reads for pleasure three or more hours per week.

Positive Values

26. Caring—Young person places high values on helping other people.

27. Equality and social justice—Young person places high value on promoting equality and reducing hunger and poverty.

28. Integrity—Young person acts on convictions and stands up for his or her beliefs.

29. Honesty—Young person "tells the truth even when it is not easy."

30. Responsibility—Young person accepts and takes personal responsibility.

31. Restraint—Young person believes it is important not to be sexually active or to use alcohol or drugs.

Special Competencies

32. Planning and decision-making—Young person knows how to plan ahead and make choices.

33. Interpersonal competence—Young person has empathy, sensitivity, and friendship skills.

34. Cultural competence—Young person has knowledge of and comfort with people of different cultural/racial/ethnic backgrounds.

35. Resistance skills—Young person can resist negative peer pressure and dangerous situations.

36. Peaceful conflict resolution—Young person seeks to resolve conflict nonviolently.

Positive Identity

37. Personal power—Young person feels he or she has control over "things that happen to me."

38. Self-esteem—Young person reports having high self-esteem.

39. Sense of purpose—Young person reports that "my life has a purpose."

40. Positive view of personal future—Young person is optimistic about her or his personal future.

The 40 Developmental Assets may be reproduced for educational, noncommercial uses only. Copyright© 1997, 2006 Search Institute, 615 First Avenue NE, Suite 125, Minneapolis, MN 55413; (800) 888-7828; All Rights Reserved. The following are registered trademarks of Search Institute: Search Institute® and Developmental Assets®.

Research by the Search Institute has shown that having a greater number of these developmental assets reduces a young person’s tendency toward alcohol use, tobacco use, illicit drug use, antisocial behavior, violence, school failure, sexual activity, attempted suicide, and gambling. Beyond simple prevention, developmental assets have also been shown to help youth "thrive" – to overcome adversity, delay gratification, succeed in school, value diversity, help others, demonstrate leadership, and be physically healthy.

To many researchers, "thriving" is a critical measure of Positive Youth Development. In his book, Liberty, youth development expert Richard Lerner theorizes that young people will thrive if they develop certain behaviors, dubbed the "five Cs," over the course of childhood and early adolescence: competence, connection, character, confidence, and caring/compassion.


COMPETENCE: intellectual ability and social and behavioral skills

CONNECTION: positive bonds with people and institutions

CHARACTER: integrity and moral centeredness

CONFIDENCE: positive self-regard, a sense of self-efficacy, and courage

CARING/COMPASSION: humane values, empathy, and a sense of social justice

According to Lerner, a youth with the five thriving behaviors is on the path to attaining a sixth C: contribution – to self, family, community, and civil society. It is the sixth C that leads to positive adulthood. "Committed—behaviorally, morally, and spiritually—to a better world beyond themselves," he writes, "they will act to sustain for future generations a society marked by social justice, equity, and democracy and a world wherein all young people may thrive."

It's the focus on community that informs the Positive Youth Development framework for the America's Promise alliance. According to the alliance, young people need five elements, or Promises, in their lives to thrive: Caring Adults, Safe Places, A Healthy Start and Future, Effective Education, and Opportunities to Help Others. Youth with the Promises do better in school, are more likely to pursue higher education, and enjoy better relationships with their peers and families. They are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, and are 5 to 10 times more likely to become productive citizens in their communities.


1. Caring Adults:  Ongoing relationships with caring adults—parents, mentors, tutors or coaches—offer youth support, care and guidance.

2. Safe Places:  Safe places with structured activities provide a place for youth to learn and grow.

3. A Healthy Start and Future:  Adequate nutrition, exercise, and health care pave the way for healthy bodies, healthy minds, and smart habits for adulthood.

4. Effective Education:  Marketable skills through effective education help youth navigate the transition from school to work successfully.

5. Opportunities to Help Others:  Opportunities to give back to the community through service enhance self-esteem, boost confidence and heighten a sense of responsibility to the community.

Developing theories that guide and measure Positive Youth Development is only the first step in creating an environment in which young people thrive, however. In a recent Search Institute survey of more than a million students in grades 6 through 12, American 6th graders reported having an average of only 21.5 of the 40 Developmental Assets. What’s more, the number of assets declined steadily over the school years: High school seniors reported having an average of only 17.2.

Though young Americans have serious concerns about their ability to achieve their goals in life, they have a high degree of optimism about their futures, according to an America’s Promise poll of about 1,200 young people ages 10 to 17. In order to provide them with the best possible chance of success, adults throughout each community need to think purposefully about how to create environments that build on the strengths of all young people. Chapter two provides some guidance on putting PYD into practice.

Youth Development Resources

Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. Author: National Research Council, Institute of Medicine. 2002. Available from National Academy Press, 2001 Constitution Ave. NW, Box 285, Washington, DC 20055; (800) 624-6242;

Developmental Assets: A Synthesis of the Scientific Research on Adolescent Development. Authors: P. Scales, N. Leffert, and R. Lerner. 1999. Available from Search Institute, Banks Building, 615 First Avenue, N.E., Suite 125, Minneapolis, MN 55413; (800) 888-7828;;

Developmental Assets and Asset-Building Communities: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice. Authors: R. Lerner and P. Benson. 2002. Available from Search Institute, Banks Building, 615 First Avenue, N.E., Suite 125, Minneapolis, MN 55413; (800) 888-7828;;

Liberty: Thriving and Civic Engagement Among America’s Youth. Author: R. Lerner. 2004. Available from Sage Publications, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91320; (800) 818-7243; fax: (800) 583-2665;

Trends in Youth Development: Visions, Realities, and Challenges. Editors: P. Benson and K. Pittman. 2001. Available from Springer, 233 Spring Street, New York, NY 10013; (800) SPRINGER; fax: (212) 460-1575;;

The Youth Development Handbook: Coming of Age in American Communities. Editors: M. Hamilton and S. Hamilton. 2004. Available from Sage Publications, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91320; (800) 818-7243; fax: (800) 583-2665;

Youth Development: Issues, Challenges and Directions. Author: Public/Private Ventures. 2000. Available from Public/Private Ventures, 2000 Market Street, Suite 600, Philadelphia, PA 19103; (215) 557-4411; fax: (215) 557-4469;;

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