Uniform Definition of Positive Youth Development Is Long Overdue

by Chuck Jackson

Positive youth development (PYD) is the paramount responsibility of all who work in education, after school programs, juvenile justice, treatment, and community programs in North America and abroad.  The establishment of universally recognized outcome measures, applicable across the full range of programming, would represent a great leap forward.

The recognition of common PYD constructs is necessary to develop reliable outcome measures vital to future program evaluation.

Establishing a consensus within the PYD field requires that both research and practice combine to form a basis for future national policy and program standards.  There are a wide range of approaches that promote positive youth behaviors. Continued steps must be taken towards a science-based practice focusing on mutual outcome measures.

The lack of uniformity gives critics and skeptics the openings they need to redirect the focus back to what’s wrong with children and youth. The juvenile justice field is especially vulnerable, because in spite of its claimed objectives, it remains plagued by society’s passion for punishing criminals whether adult or juvenile.  Not only is this attitude counterproductive, youth of color are “punished” more severely than white youth for the same offenses. Punishment disguised as treatment is not the answer.

Punishment alone can serve as the opposite of helping youth to positively develop. We cannot expect that punishment-oriented tactics disguised as treatment lead to positive outcomes and behaviors among young people. Failure to establish an integrated, conceptual framework associated with PYD may result in maintaining the status quo. The use of such a framework would lead to standardization and uniformity, resulting in real reform.

Suggestions to join forces in order to unify the PYD field have been made by scholars and other youth care professionals. Unfortunately, unification remains elusive, but there has been progress. The PYD field no longer claims nearly any type of youth programming.  The Search Institute’s examination of the five PYD frameworks has resulted in a better overall understanding of the PYD field.

The establishment of a universally recognized, theoretical PYD framework, with consistent outcome measures, is achievable. But if researchers and practitioners cannot come to a consensus, how do we expect policy makers to take the PYD field seriously?

One possibility is the Circle of Courage, developed and promoted by Reclaiming Youth International. The circle identifies four universal developmental needs of all children: Belonging, Mastery, Generosity and Independence.

National 4-H has built its own Essential Elements of PYD around these needs.  This construct is capable of providing a framework for the establishment of universal outcome measures of PYD.

Although there are examples of the Circle of Courage framework being applied in schools and youth agencies, data associated with specific outcomes is scarce. Contributing to this scarcity of empirical evidence is the absence of a valid measurement instrument necessary to measure belonging, mastery, independence and generosity.

Such an instrument would be an invaluable tool useful in generating scientific evidence needed to confirm the Circle of Courage developmental theory and advance policies and outcomes for all children and youth.

Chuck Jackson is the chief clinical officer for Starr Commonwealth, a multi-state provider of services for at-risk youth.

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