What Is Youth Development Really?

If you’ve been around my community for a while, you know I talk about all things youth development. And, if this blog is new to you, it might be a good idea to make sure we are on the same page as to what youth development really is.  I dive into this topic in Season 1, Episode 2 of my #Jesusismyhashtag podcast. Give it a listen or keep on reading to find out more about youth development.

What youth development is not.

Often times when someone hears youth development, they think of adolescent development, more of a physical or cognitive growth process. While it can be important to have a general understanding of the ages and stages of adolescent development, we need to understand that youth development it is so much more.  

Additionally, the phrase youth development often links to specific programs in a community that serves young people. It might be an after-school program, a prevention program, or an education program. But a program is really not what I mean by youth development.

What positive youth development is.

First, let’s include the phrase “positive” in our definition. Positive youth development is an intentional way of connecting with young people and helping them to transition throughout adolescence and into adulthood. It’s a way of seeing, understanding and valuing young people. A positive youth development approach believes the following:

  • Young people must be actively engaged in their own growth, their own decision making their own development.
  • Youth have basic needs that need to be met.
  • There are basic skills and abilities for youth that will make a difference for them as they transition into adulthood.  

My First Formal Introduction to Positive Youth Development

As a young professional, I had the privilege of living and working in the Washington, D.C. area when a curriculum had just been developed and it was in the process of being piloted in different programs that worked with young people in that area. The curriculum I am referencing is the Advancing Youth Development Curriculum. One of my career highlights is that I was chosen to become a trainer of the Advancing Youth Development Curriculum.

Advancing Youth Development Curriculum

Now let me tell you a little bit of background about that curriculum. The office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention realized that the young people and their programs in the detention centers and their facilities were not really helping youth to make a healthy transition once they left. Youth would fall back into the same patterns that got them in the system in the first place. They would not really be developing the skills that would make the difference in them being successful. And that’s where this idea was born that there needed to be something more to help the youth and those that worked with them.

A partnership formed between the Academy for Educational Development, the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research and the National Network for Youth in the 1990s. This partnership allowed for years of research on working with young people to be compiled and translated into a training program for those that worked frontline with young people. 

Why This Curriculum Still Makes Sense

Now you may be sitting here thinking that 1990s curriculum and research that so old that there is no way this curriculum has any value or merit, and there is too much that has changed. Let’s talk about that. 

For years, long before this curriculum and even now, we have constantly been looking for ways to best impact young people. We ask ourselves these questions.

  • What are the strategies for engaging youth?
  • Are there best approaches in working with young people?
  • What do young people need and what’s missing in their lives? 
  • And can we find best practices and patterns in our work with youth? 

Research from back then and research now it will find a very similar approach that all young people have these basic needs and that there basic skills and abilities youth need to have in pace in order to be successful. They need services, they need supports and opportunities. These things have spanned time and I believe the research is just as valid today even though our world has changed.  

Needs of teens have not really shifted. They need safety and they need a place to belong. Teens need to figure out who they are and figure out their identity. They need to build these skills for interpersonal connections and know how to build healthy relationships. And all of those pieces still are something that young people need. And that is why this curriculum is so relevant today. 

I look back and realize that this training was my first formal and foundational piece of really working with young people from a specific place of intention. I am actually a better youth worker and a better parent because I have this foundation, this understanding, these best practices.  

You are a youth worker.

You’re also going to hear me call myself and you a youth worker or a caring adult. Yes, your role might be that of a coach, a parent, a teacher, a youth pastor. Your role doesn’t matter. The commonality is that you work with teenagers and are seeking to help them develop and grow.

It would make sense then, that we as caring adults, need to have our own skill set and best practices in engaging and working with or raising youth. We need a common approach that is more than a program and more than just raising teens how we were raised.  Specifically, we need intentionality. We need to be able to see youth for who they are and who they can become. Yes, we need a positive youth development approach.

A positive approach to working with youth.

Historically, program and even parenting has come from a preventative place. The focus was to keep youth from using drugs, dropping out of school, becoming pregnant. In the past, we approached youth from an at-risk perspective versus a developmental one. 

When we engage with youth from a positive youth development approach, we look at the young person as a whole. We focus in on specific needs they have. As caring adults, we guide them in developing knowledge, skills and abilities in certain areas. We see them with value, worth, potential and capabilities. Whatever our role, we can incorporate a positive youth development approach.

In future posts, we will dive more deeply into positive youth development, beliefs about young people, key developmental outcomes all youth need to develop, and so much more.

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