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The Positive Youth Development Perspective: Theoretical and Empirical Bases of a Strengths-Based Approach to Adolescent Development

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents the conceptual foundations of the positive youth development (PYD) perspective by reviewing the history of theories about adolescent development and by specifying the key theoretical ideas defining the PYD perspective. By drawing in the main from the findings derived from the first longitudinal study of adolescents designed to test ideas associated with the PYD perspective—the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development—illustrations are provided of the burgeoning empirical work assessing among diverse adolescents the usefulness of this strengths-based approach to youth. Finally, there is a discussion of the implications of PYD theory and research for future scholarship and applications aimed at improving the life chances of diverse adolescents.

Keywords: compensation model, developmental systems theory, ecological assets, intentional self-regulation optimization, positive youth development, risk and problem behaviors, selection

All adolescents have strengths, and their families, schools, faith institutions, and communities have resources that, when aligned with these strengths, can promote more positive development among young people (Lerner, 2004, 2005, 2007). The purpose of this chapter is to present the theoretical and empirical foundations of this strengths-based conception of youth, termed the “positive youth development” (PYD) perspective. This orientation to young people has arisen because of interest among developmental scientists in using developmental systems, or dynamic models of human behavior and development for understanding the plasticity of human development and, as well, the importance of relations between individuals and their real-world ecological settings as the bases of variation in the course of human development (Lerner, 2002, 2006).

This chapter presents the historical and conceptual foundations of the PYD perspective by reviewing briefly past theories of adolescent development and by specifying the key theoretical ideas defining the PYD perspective. In turn, I will illustrate the burgeoning empirical work being done to assess, among diverse adolescents, the usefulness of this strengths-based approach to youth development by drawing in the main from the findings derived from the first longitudinal study of adolescents designed to test ideas associated with the PYD perspective—the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development (e.g., Gestsdóttir & Lerner, 2007; Jelicic, Bobek, Phelps, Lerner, & Lerner, 2007; Lerner et al., 2005; Phelps et al., 2007; Zarrett et al., in press; Zimmerman, Phelps, & Lerner, 2007, 2008).

As will be discussed later in the chapter, the 4-H study was designed to test the idea that when the strengths of youth are aligned across adolescence with family, school, and community resources (and, in particular, resources provided by community-based, out-of-school time youth development programs, such as 4-H, Boys & Girls Clubs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, YMCA, and scouting), positive youth development (operationalized by the five Cs (p. 150) of competence, confidence, character, connection, and caring) and, as well, youth community “contributions” (the “sixth C” of PYD) will occur (Lerner, 2004, 2007; Lerner et al., 2005). Finally, I will consider briefly the implications of PYD theory and research for future scholarship and for applications of developmental science aimed at improving the life chances of diverse adolescents.

A Brief History of Theory about Adolescent Development

Adolescence spans the second decade of life (Lerner & Steinberg, in press), and has been described as a phase of life beginning in biology, with the advent of pubertal changes, and ending in society, with the historically, culturally, and socially constructed transition to young adulthood and the enactment of role choices forged during adolescence (Petersen, 1988). Given the multiple levels of organization within the ecology of human development that are involved in structuring the nature of developmental processes during this period, adolescence may be defined as the life-span period in which most of a person's biological, cognitive, psychological, and social characteristics are changing in an interrelated manner from what is considered childlike to what is considered adultlike. When most of a person's characteristics are in this state of change, the person is an adolescent.

Since the founding of the scientific study of adolescent development (Hall, 1904), the predominant conceptual frame for the study of this age period has been one of “storm and stress,” or of an ontogenetic time of normative developmental disturbance (Freud, 1969). Typically, these deficit models of the characteristics of adolescence were predicated on biologically reductionist models of genetic or maturational determination (e.g., Erikson, 1968), and resulted in descriptions of youth as “broken” or in danger of becoming broken (Benson, Scales, Hamilton, & Sesma, 2006), as both dangerous and endangered (Anthony, 1969), or as “problems to be managed” (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). In fact, if positive development was discussed in the adolescent development literature—at least prior to the 1990s—it was implicitly or explicitly regarded as the absence of negative or undesirable behaviors (Benson et al., 2006). A youth who was seen as manifesting behavior indicative of positive development was depicted as someone who was not taking drugs or using alcohol, not engaging in unsafe sex, and not participating in crime or violence.

In short, for about the first 85 years of the scientific study of adolescent development, the field was framed almost exclusively by a deficit perspective about this period. Why? To address this question, we may divide the history of the field into three phases, beginning with the foundational contributions of G. Stanley Hall (1904).

The Beginning of the Scientific Study of Adolescence: The First Phase

Granville (G.) Stanley Hall (1844–1924) was the founder of the scientific study of adolescent development. In 1904, Hall published the first text on adolescence, a two-volume work entitled Adolescence: Its psychology and its relations to physiology, anthropology, sociology, sex, crime, religion, and education. Hall launched the study of adolescence with a theory that saw the period as one marked by “storm and stress. Hall believed that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”: The changes that occur in a person's life mirror the changes that occurred in the evolution of the human species. Human evolution, he believed, involved changes that moved us from being beast-like to being civilized. Adolescence corresponds to the period in evolution when humans changed from being beasts to being civilized. Therefore, adolescence is a time of overcoming one's beast-like impulses.

Few scientists believed the specifics of Hall's theory of recapitulation. However, his prominence in American psychology did influence the “general” conception that scientists—and society—had of adolescence, as a time of upheaval and stress. Other scholars studying adolescent development adopted, in their theories, Hall's idea that adolescence was a necessarily stressful period. For example, Anna Freud (1969) viewed adolescence as a universal period of developmental disturbance that involved upheavals in drive states, in family and peer relationships, in ego defenses, and in attitudes and values. Similarly, Erik Erikson (1968) spoke of adolescents as enmeshed in an identity crisis. In short, scientists defined young people as “at-risk” for behaving in uncivilized or problematic ways and therefore as being dangerous to themselves and to others. For much of the twentieth century most writing and research about adolescence was based on this deficit conception of young people.

The Second Phase of the Scientific Study of Adolescence

As early as the 1960s, research began to appear that showed that Hall's idea, that adolescence is a period of universal storm and stress, was not in fact universally true (e.g., Bandura, 1964; Douvan & Adelson, 1966; Offer, 1969). (p. 151) Most young people do not have a stormy second decade of life, the period that most scientists denote as the adolescent period. In fact, although adolescents spend increasingly more time with peers than with parents, most adolescents still value their relations with parents enormously. Most adolescents have core values (e.g., about the importance of education in one's life, about social justice, and even about spirituality) that are consistent with those of their parents. In addition, most adolescents select friends who share these core values. Finally, there are numerous pathways (trajectories) across the adolescent years, and only some (a minority) of them reflect changes reflective of storm and stress.

Scholarship about adolescence during this second phase of the development of the field was not marked by the use of major or grand theories (e.g., psychoanalysis, learning theory, or cognitive developmental theory) framing empirical work (Lerner & Steinberg, in press). Rather, there was a burgeoning of research loosely tied to more molecular theories about the development of a particular facet of either (a) individual development, for example, ego identity development (e.g., Marcia, 1980); or (b) social development or youth—context relations, for instance, involving the effects of historical context on adolescent development (e.g., Elder, 1974; Nesselroade & Baltes, 1974) or parent—adolescent relations (e.g., Steinberg, Mounts, Lamborn, & Dornbusch, 1991). There were at least two contributions of great value that were associated with this research.

First, the level of empirical work regarding the development of individuals across the second decade of life elicited increasing interest in and enthusiasm about the study of adolescents and in enhancing their lives. For instance, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development was launched in the mid-1980s as a means to integrate research with application to address the problems of adolescence (Hamburg & Takanishi, 1996).

The research during this second phase thus both popularized and legitimated the field as an important area of scholarship within developmental science and, as well, helped the field to mature. Indicators of such maturity were the appearance of the first Handbook of Adolescent Psychology (Adelson, 1980); the organization of a scholarly society, the Society for the Study of Adolescence (SRA); and the launching of a major research journal sponsored by SRA, the Journal of Research on Adolescence (Lerner, 1991).

Second, the substance of the research being conducted during this period provided an empirical foundation for the synergistic generation, within the third stage of development of the field of adolescence, of the PYD perspective and of the use of research about adolescence as a key sample case for the elaboration of developmental systems theories of human development (Lerner & Steinberg, in press). In essence, the study of adolescent development was in large part a product and a producer of theoretical developments within the broader study of human development across the life span; the synergy between the study of adolescence and the elaboration of a developmental systems frame for the study of the life span would make, by the end of the 1990s, developmental systems theories the predominant theoretical lens for the conduct of developmental science (Lerner, 2006).

In short, the second decade of life emerged as a key sample case of the use of such theories for both basic research theory and for applications for promoting positive human development (Lerner & Steinberg, in press). It is useful to summarize some of the key research findings arising within the second phase of the development of the field of adolescence that provided the basis of the two above-noted contributions.

Diversity in the Features of Adolescent Development

Not all young people undergo the transitions of adolescence in the same way, with the same speed, or with comparable outcomes. Individual differences are a key part of adolescent development, and are caused by differences in the timing of connections among biological, psychological, and societal factors—with none of these influences (e.g., biology) acting either alone or as the “prime mover” of change (Lerner, 2004). In other words, a major source of diversity in developmental trajectories are the systematic relations that adolescents have with key people and institutions in their social context, that is, their family, peer group, school, workplace, neighborhood, community, society, culture, and niche in history (Lerner, 2002). These person—context relations result in multiple pathways through adolescence (e.g., Offer, 1969).

Multiple Levels of Context are Influential during Adolescence

Adolescence is a period of extremely rapid transitions in physical characteristics. Indeed, except for infancy, no other period of the life cycle involves such rapid changes. While hormonal changes are part of the development of early adolescence (p. 152) (Susman & Dorn, in press), they are not primarily responsible for the psychological or social developments during this period. Instead, the quality and timing of hormonal or other biological changes influence, and are influenced by, psychological, social, cultural, and historical factors (e.g., Stattin & Magnusson, 1990). For example, the physiological changes of early pubertal maturation have been linked to delinquency in adolescent girls, but only among girls who attend mixed-sex schools (Caspi, Lynam, Moffitt, & Silva, 1993) or among those who socialize with older friends instead of same-age friends (Stattin & Magnusson, 1990). Early maturation among girls in single-sex schools or in same-age peer groups was not linked with higher delinquency.

Indeed, global and pervasive effects of puberty on development do not seem to exist (Susman & Dorn, in press). When biological effects are found, they interact with contextual and experiential factors (e.g., the transition to junior high school) to influence academic achievement (Simmons & Blyth, 1987). In short, relations among hormonal and neural changes, personality and cognitive development, and the social contexts of youth illustrate the multiple levels of human life that are integrated throughout adolescent development.

Adolescence as an Ontogenetic Laboratory

Given the structure and substance of the range of interrelated developments during adolescence, in the 1970s and 1980s many scholars of life-span development began to regard the adolescent period as an ideal “natural ontogenetic laboratory” for studying key theoretical and methodological issues in developmental science (Lerner & Foch, 1987; Steinberg & Morris, 2001). Examples come from research that studied the relations between individual-level changes (e.g., in personality, intelligence, or social relationships) and historical changes of both normative and non-normative character (e.g., Elder, 1974; Nesselroade & Baltes, 1974). There are several reasons for the special salience of the study of adolescent development to understanding the broader course of life-span development.

First, although the prenatal and infant period exceeds adolescence as an ontogenetic stage of rapid physical and physiological growth, the years from approximately 10 to 20 not only include the considerable physical and physiological changes associated with puberty but, as well, mark a time when the interdependency of biology and context in human development is readily apparent (Susman & Dorn, in press). Second, as compared to infancy, the cognizing, goal setting, and relatively autonomous adolescent can, through reciprocal relations with his or her ecology, serve as an active influence on his or her own development, and the study of adolescence can inform these sorts of processes more generally (Lerner, 2002). Third, the multiple individual and contextual transitions into, throughout, and out of this period, involving the major institutions of society (family, peers, schools, and the workplace), engage scholars interested in broader as well as individual levels of organization and, as well, provide a rich opportunity for understanding the nature of multilevel systemic change.

Finally, developmental scientists were also drawn to the study of adolescents because of the historically unprecedented sets of challenges to the healthy development of adolescents that arose during the latter decades of the twentieth century (Lerner, 1995) and, as well, because interest in age groups other than adolescents nevertheless frequently involved this age group. For example, interest in infants often entailed the study of teenage mothers and interest in middle and old age frequently entailed the study of the “middle generation squeeze,” wherein the adult children of aged parents cared for their own parents while simultaneously raising their own adolescent children.

In sum, during the second phase of the development of the field of adolescence, there was increasing documentation of the diversity of adolescent development and of the nature of the interrelations of individual and context that were involved in shaping the specific directions of change found across this period of life. These findings provided evidence for plasticity of development (i.e., for systematic variation in the course of ontogenetic change); substantial plasticity in the direction of intraindividual change could be inferred to exist as a consequence of the range of interindividual differences in intraindividual change found to be present across the second decade of life.

However, despite these findings the predominant lens for conceptualizing the nature of adolescence continued to be one that implicitly or explicitly used a deficit model of youth. Indeed, even at this writing, literally hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars continue to be spent each year to reduce or prevent the problems “caused” by the alleged deficits of adolescents. These problems include alcohol use and abuse; unsafe sex and teenage pregnancy; school failure and dropout; crime and delinquency; and depression and self-harming behaviors.

Of course, one cannot deny the existence of problems during the adolescent years, or the (p. 153) importance of efforts to prevent problems. Nevertheless, the advent of a developmental systems perspective (Lerner, 2002, 2004; Lerner & Steinberg, in press) about adolescence led, over the course of the still ongoing third phase of development of the field of adolescence, to the idea that the best way to prevent problem behaviors was to focus on adolescent strengths, not deficits, and to promote positive changes across the second decade of life.

The Third Phase of the Scientific Study of Adolescence

The third phase in the development of the field of adolescence has been marked by at least three foci: a focus on developmental systems ideas as a frame for research and application (Lerner, 2002); an interest in application that involves interactions among, and occasionally collaborations involving, researchers and practitioners in the field of youth development; and an interest in the ideas associated with the PYD perspective, both for advancing theory and research within the scholarly community and for enhancing policies and programs for youth within the practitioner community. In many ways, the interest in PYD integrates the other two foci of concern within the third phase of the field's development.

Accordingly, it is important to understand the origins, foundations, and features of the PYD perspective. In addition, it is equally important to understand the empirical standing of this approach to adolescence. The remainder of this chapter will discuss these issues.

The Positive Youth Development Perspective

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, psychological science paid increasing attention to the concept of “positive psychology” (e.g., Seligman, 1998, 2002). Current PYD scholarship is now informed by this important work (e.g., Damon, 2004; Lerner, 2004, 2007). However, the emergence of the PYD perspective during the third phase of the study of adolescence was linked more to biology and comparative psychology than to the study of human psychology.

Origins of the PYD Perspective

The roots of the PYD perspective are found in the work of comparative psychologists (e.g., Gottlieb, Wahlsten, & Lickliter, 2006; Schneirla, 1957) and biologists (e.g., Novikoff, 1945a, 1945b; von Bertalanffy, 1933) who had been studying the plasticity of developmental processes that arose from the “fusion” (Tobach & Greenberg, 1984) of biological and contextual levels of organization. The use of these ideas about the import of levels of integration in shaping ontogenetic change began to impact the human developmental sciences in the 1970s (Cairns, 2006; Gottlieb et al., 2006; Lerner, 2002, 2006; Overton, 2006). Examples are the theoretical papers by Overton (1973) and Lerner (1978) on how the nature—nurture controversy may be resolved by taking an integrative, relational perspective about genetic and contextual influences on human development.

Accordingly, to understand the direction of scholarship within the third phase of the study of adolescent development, it is important to understand the scholarship that was conducted about adolescence as both a product and a producer of the broader scholarly approach to the study of the entire human life span that had been ongoing for a much longer period, for about 40 years (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006). I believe that it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the synergy between the growing influence of developmental systems theories within developmental science and the elaboration of a strengths-based approach to the study of adolescent development within the third phase of the development of the field of adolescence.

Interest in developmental systems theories and in a strengths-based view of adolescence was evidenced by a growing emphasis on “relations” among levels of organizations, and not on the “main effects” of any level itself, as constituting the fundamental units of analysis in developmental science (e.g., see Brandtstädter, 2006; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006; Magnusson & Stattin, 2006; Rathunde & Csikszentmihalyi, 2006). Indeed, as reflected by the range of chapters in the most recent (sixth) edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology (Damon & Lerner, 2006), developmental science now includes a range of diverse instantiations of developmental systems theories. Nevertheless, the commonalities across such models (Damon & Lerner, 2008; Lerner, 2006) operationalize the fundamental features of the approach to theories. The defining features of developmental systems theories are summarized in Table 14.1.

Defining Features of Developmental Systems Theories

As described in the table, the possibility of adaptive developmental relations between individuals and their contexts and the potential plasticity of human development that is a defining feature of ontogenetic (p. 154) (p. 155) change within the dynamic, developmental system (Gottlieb et al., 2006; Thelen & Smith, 2006) stand as distinctive features of the developmental systems approach to human development and, as well, provide a rationale for making a set of methodological choices that differ in design, measurement, sampling, and data analytic techniques from selections made by researchers using split or reductionist approaches to developmental science. Moreover, the emphasis on how the individual acts on the context to contribute to the plastic relations with the context that regulate adaptive development (Brandtstädter, 2006) fosters an interest in person-centered (as compared to variable-centered) approaches to the study of human development (Magnusson & Stattin, 2006; Overton, 2006; Rathunde & Csikszentmihalyi, 2006).

Table 14.1 Defining features of developmental systems theories

A relational meta-model

Predicated on a postmodern philosophical perspective that transcends Cartesian dualism, developmental systems theories are framed by a relational meta-model for human development. There is, then, a rejection of all splits between components of the ecology of human development, e.g., between nature- and nurture-based variables, between continuity and discontinuity, or between stability and instability. Systemic syntheses or integrations replace dichotomizations or other reductionist partitions of the developmental system.

The integration of levels of organization

Relational thinking and the rejection of Cartesian splits are associated with the idea that all levels of organization within the ecology of human development are integrated, or fused. These levels range from the biological and physiological through the cultural and historical.

Developmental regulation across ontogeny involves mutually influential individual ←→ context relations

As a consequence of the integration of levels, the regulation of development occurs through mutually influential connections among all levels of the developmental system, ranging from genes and cell physiology through individual mental and behavioral functioning to society, culture, the designed and natural ecology, and, ultimately, history. These mutually influential relations may be represented generically as Level 1 ←→ Level 2 (e.g., Family ←→ Community) and, in the case of ontogeny, may be represented as individual ←→ context.

Integrated actions, individual ←→ context relations, are the basic unit of analysis within human development

The character of developmental regulation means that the integration of actions—of the individual on the context and of the multiple levels of the context on the individual (individual ←→ context)—constitute the fundamental unit of analysis in the study of the basic process of human development.

Temporality and plasticity in human development

As a consequence of the fusion of the historical level of analysis—and therefore temporality—within of the levels of organization comprising the ecology of human development, the developmental system is characterized by the potential for systematic change, by plasticity. Observed trajectories of intraindividual change may vary across time and place as a consequence of such plasticity.

Plasticity is relative

Developmental regulation may both facilitate and constrain opportunities for change. Thus, change in individual ←→ context relations is not limitless, and the magnitude of plasticity (the probability of change in a developmental trajectory occurring in relation to variation in contextual conditions) may vary across the life span and history. Nevertheless, the potential for plasticity at both individual and contextual levels constitutes a fundamental strength of all humans' development.

Intraindividual change, interindividual differences in intraindividual change, and the fundamental substantive significance of diversity

The combinations of variables across the integrated levels of organization within the developmental system that provide the basis of the developmental process will vary at least in part across individuals and groups. This diversity is systematic and lawfully produced by idiographic, group differential, and generic (nomothetic) phenomena. The range of interindividual differences in intraindividual change observed at any point in time is evidence of the plasticity of the developmental system, and makes the study of diversity of fundamental substantive significance for the description, explanation, and optimization of human development.

Optimism, the application of developmental science, and the promotion of positive human development

The potential for and instantiations of plasticity legitimate an optimistic and proactive search for characteristics of individuals and of their ecologies that, together, can be arrayed to promote positive human development across life. Through the application of developmental science in planned attempts (i.e., interventions) to enhance (e.g., through social policies or community-based programs) the character of humans' developmental trajectories, the promotion of positive human development may be achieved by aligning the strengths (operationalized as the potentials for positive change) of individuals and contexts.

Multidisciplinarity and the need for change-sensitive methodologies

The integrated levels of organization comprising the developmental system require collaborative analyses by scholars from multiple disciplines. Multidisciplinary knowledge and, ideally, interdisciplinary knowledge is sought. The temporal embeddedness and resulting plasticity of the developmental system requires that research designs, methods of observation and measurement, and procedures for data analysis be change-sensitive and able to integrate trajectories of change at multiple levels of analysis.

Furthermore, given that the array of individual and contextual variables involved in these relations constitutes a virtually open set (e.g., there are over 70 trillion potential human genotypes and each of them may be coupled across life with an even larger number of life-course trajectories of social experiences; Hirsch, 2004), the diversity of development becomes a prime, substantive focus for developmental science (Lerner, 2004; Spencer, 2006). The diverse person, conceptualized from a strengths-based perspective (in that the potential plasticity of ontogenetic change constitutes a fundamental strength of all humans; Spencer, 2006), and approached with the expectation that positive changes can be promoted across all instances of this diversity as a consequence of health-supportive alignments between people and settings (Benson et al., 2006), becomes the necessary subject of developmental science inquiry.

It is in the linkage between the ideas of plasticity and diversity that a basis exists for the extension of developmental systems thinking to the field of adolescence and for the field of adolescence to serve as a “testing ground” for ideas associated with developmental systems theory. This synergy has had at least one key outcome, that is, the forging of a new, strengths-based vision of and vocabulary for the nature of adolescent development. In short, the plasticity—diversity linkage within developmental systems theory and method provided the basis for the formulation of the PYD perspective.

Components of the PYD Perspective

Beginning in the early 1990s, and burgeoning in the first half decade of the twenty-first century, a new vision and vocabulary for discussing young people has emerged. These innovations were framed by the developmental systems theories that were engaging the interest of developmental scientists. The focus on plasticity within such theories led in turn to an interest in assessing the potential for change at diverse points across ontogeny, those spanning from infancy through the 10th and 11th decades of life (Baltes et al., 2006). Moreover, these innovations were propelled by the increasingly more collaborative contributions of researchers focused on the second decade of life (e.g., Benson et al., 2006; Damon, 2004; Lerner, 2004), practitioners in the field of youth development (e.g., Floyd & McKenna, 2003; Pittman, Irby, & Ferber, 2001), and policy makers concerned with improving the life chances of diverse youth and their families (e.g., Cummings, 2003; Gore, 2003).

These interests converged in the formulation of a set of ideas that enabled youth to be viewed as resources to be developed, and not as problems to be managed (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). These ideas may be discussed in regard to two key hypotheses. Each hypothesis is associated with two subsidiary hypotheses. The first hypothesis pertains to the operationalization of PYD. The second is concerned with the relations between individuals and contexts that, within developmental systems models (see Table 14.1), provide the basis of human development.

Hypothesis 1. Pyd is Comprised of Five Cs

Based on both the experiences of practitioners and on reviews of the adolescent development literature (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Lerner, 2004; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003), “five Cs”—competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring—were hypothesized as a way of conceptualizing PYD (and of integrating all the separate indicators of it, such as academic achievement or self esteem). These five Cs were linked to the positive outcomes of youth development programs reported by Roth and Brooks-Gunn (2003). In addition, these “Cs” are prominent terms used by practitioners, adolescents involved in youth development programs, and the parents of these adolescents in describing the characteristics of a “thriving youth” (King et al., 2005).

Hypothesis 1A. Contribution Is the “6th C”

A hypothesis subsidiary to the postulation of the “five Cs” as a means to operationalize PYD is that, when a young person manifests the Cs across time (when the youth is thriving), he or she will be on a life trajectory toward an “idealized adulthood” (Csikszentmihalyi & Rathunde, 1998; Rathunde & Csikszentmihalyi, 2006). (p. 156) Theoretically, an ideal adult life is marked by integrated and mutually reinforcing contributions to self (e.g., maintaining one's health and one's ability so as to remain an active agent in one's own development) and to family, community, and the institutions of civil society (Lerner, 2004; Sherrod, Flanagan, & Youniss, 2002). An adult engaging in such integrated contributions is a person manifesting adaptive developmental regulations (Brandtstädter, 2006).

Hypothesis 1B. PYD and Risk/Problem Behaviors Are Inversely Related

A second subsidiary hypothesis to the one postulating the five Cs is that there should be an inverse relation within and across development between indicators of PYD and behaviors indicative of risk behaviors or internalizing and externalizing problems. Here, the idea—forwarded in particular by Pittman and her colleagues (e.g., Pittman et al., 2001) in regard to applications of developmental science to policies and programs—is that the best means to prevent problems associated with adolescent behavior and development (e.g., depression, aggression, drug use and abuse, or unsafe sexual behavior) is to promote positive development.

Hypothesis 2. Youth—Context Alignment Promotes PYD

Based on the idea that the potential for systematic intraindividual change across life (i.e., for plasticity) represents a fundamental strength of human development, the hypothesis was generated that, if the strengths of youth are aligned with resources for healthy growth present in the key contexts of adolescent development—the home, the school, and the community—then enhancements in positive functioning at any one point in time (i.e., well-being; Lerner, 2004) may occur; in turn, the systematic promotion of positive development that may occur across time (i.e., thriving; e.g., Lerner, 2004; Lerner et al., 2005) can be achieved.

Hypothesis 2A. Contextual Alignment Involves Marshaling Development Assets

A key subsidiary hypothesis to the notion of aligning individual strengths and contextual resources for healthy development is that there exist, across the key settings of youth development (i.e., families, schools, and communities), at least some supports for the promotion of PYD. Termed “developmental assets” (Benson et al., 2006), these resources constitute the social and ecological “nutrients” for the growth of healthy youth.

Hypothesis 2B. Community-Based Programs Constitute Key Developmental Assets

There is broad agreement among researchers and practitioners in the youth development field that the concept of developmental assets is important for understanding what needs to be marshaled in homes, classrooms, and community-based programs to foster PYD (Benson et al., 2006; Lerner, 2007). In fact, a key impetus for the interest in the PYD perspective among both researchers and youth program practitioners, and thus a basis for the collaborations that exist among members of these two communities, is the interest that exists in ascertaining the nature of the resources for positive development that are present in youth programs, for example, in the literally hundreds of thousands of the after-school programs delivered either by large, national organizations, such as 4-H, Boys & Girls Clubs, scouting, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, YMCA, or Girls, Inc., or by local organizations.

The focus on youth programs is important not only for practitioners in the field of youth development, however. In addition, the interest on exploring youth development programs as a source of developmental assets for youth derives from theoretical interest in the role of the macro-level systems effects of the ecology of human development on the course of healthy change in adolescence (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006); interest derives as well from policy makers and advocates, who believe that at this point in the history of the United States community-level efforts are needed to promote positive development among youth (e.g., Cummings, 2003; Gore, 2003; Pittman et al., 2001).

Conclusions about the PYD Perspective

Replacing the deficit view of adolescence, the PYD perspective sees “all” adolescents as having strengths (by virtue of at least their potential for change). The perspective suggests that increases in well-being and thriving are possible for all youth through aligning the strengths of young people with the developmental assets present in their social and physical ecology.

Although still at a preliminary stage of progress, there is growing empirical evidence that, with some important qualifications, the general concepts and main and subsidiary hypotheses of the PYD perspective find empirical support (Lerner, Phelps, Bowers, & Forman, in press). Using findings derived from the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development (e.g., Lerner et al., 2005; Phelps et al., 2007) as a sample case, I will briefly review this evidence.

(p. 157) The 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development

The 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development is a longitudinal investigation supported by a grant from the National 4-H Council. The study began in 2002–2003 by studying a national cohort of about 1,700 fifth grade youth (from 13 states across all regions of the United States) and their parents. At the time of this writing, the study is in its seventh wave of data collection (2008–2009), studying 11th graders, and involving about 5,000 youth from 34 states and about 2,500 of their parents. The 4-H study was designed to test a model about the role of ecological developmental assets and individual actions in the promotion of PYD, as conceptualized by the “five Cs” of PYD and of the “sixth C” of contribution, and in the diminution of problem and risk behaviors. These latter behaviors were operationalized by measures of internalizing problems such as depression, risk behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and drug use, and externalizing problems such as school bullying. Full details of the methodology of the 4-H study have been presented in several publications (e.g., Gestsdóttir & Lerner, 2007; Jelicic et al., 2007; Lerner et al., 2005; Phelps et al., 2007; Theokas & Lerner, 2006).

The increase in sample size that exists across the waves of the study occurs because the 4-H study uses a form of longitudinal sequential design (Baltes, Reese, & Nesselroade, 1977). Fifth graders, gathered during the 2002–2003 school year (Wave 1 of the study), were the initial cohort within this design and this cohort was the only one studied in Wave 1. However, to maintain at least initial levels of power for within-time analyses and to assess the effects of retesting, all subsequent waves of the study involve the addition of a “retest control” cohort of youth of the current grade level of the initial cohort; this new cohort is then followed longitudinally. Accordingly, in Wave 2 of the study (sixth grade for the initial cohort), a retest control group of sixth graders who were new to the study were gathered; these youth became members of a second longitudinal cohort. Similarly each subsequent wave of the study introduces a new cohort which is then followed longitudinally throughout the rest of the study.

The 4-H study data set may be used to illustrate the empirical evidence bearing on the main and subsidiary hypotheses of the PYD perspective. Given that prior to the 4-H study, there were no data indicating the reality of the five Cs, and thus no measure that could be used to test the purported positive outcomes of the individual–context alignments of concern in the second hypothesis associated with the PYD perspective, we began the 4-H study by seeking to test ideas derived from the first hypothesis.

Exploring Hypothesis 1: The Five Cs, Contribution, and the Relation between PYD and Risk/Problem Behaviors

Using the fifth grade data from the first wave of assessment within the 4-H study, Lerner et al. (2005) provided initial evidence for the five Cs and PYD constructs. Lerner et al. (2005) reported that the results of an initial structural equation modeling (SEM) analysis used to test the “five Cs” model proved to be adequate. Lerner et al. (2005) found evidence that the five Cs exist as latent constructs accounting for variance in several desirable “surface traits” (e.g., in regard to “competence,” measures of academic, social, and vocational abilities), and of their convergence on a second-order construct of PYD. Moreover, consistent with the predictions associated with Hypotheses 1A and 1B, discussed earlier, additional evidence was presented that PYD correlated positively with the purported “sixth C” of youth contribution (Lerner, 2004) and negatively with indices of risk and problem behaviors (Lerner et al., 2005).

Jelicic et al. (2007), using data from the first two waves of the 4-H study (i.e., fifth and sixth grades), extended the findings of Lerner et al. (2005). Jelicic et al. reported that Grade 5 PYD covaried positively with Grade 6 scores for youth contribution and negatively with scores for risk and problem behaviors.

Accordingly, the findings of Lerner et al. (2005) and Jelicic et al. (2007) provide evidence that for 4-H study participants overall, there is evidence for the existence of the five Cs of PYD, for the existence of the “sixth C” of contribution, and for positive relations among these Cs and, in turn, for inverse relations between the Cs and risk/problem behaviors. However, other findings from the 4-H study data set suggest that the developmental relations among the Cs and risk/problem behavior are more nuanced.

Using data from Grades 5, 6, and 7, Phelps et al. (2007) assessed the patterns of change over time associated with PYD and of risks/problem behaviors. Results indicated that five PYD trajectories represented changes across grades and three trajectories were associated with indicators of both internalizing and externalizing problems. Although Hypothesis 1B involves the expectation that most youth across the early adolescent period would show change over time marked by the coupling of increases in PYD and decreases in risk/problem behaviors, only about (p. 158) one-sixth of all youth in the sample manifested this particular pattern of change. Other youth remained stable over time, showed increases in PYD and risk, or declined in PYD.

A study by Zimmerman et al. (2008) both replicated and extended the findings of the Phelps et al. (2007) study. Using data from Grades 5, 6, 7, and 8, Zimmerman et al. assessed the patterns of change associated with indicators of PYD, contribution, and risk/problem behavior. Results indicated that five PYD trajectories represent change across grades, four trajectories were associated with indicators of youth contribution, four trajectories were associated also with indicators of depressive symptoms, and three trajectories were associated with indicators of risk/problem behaviors. Youth had diverse combinations of these trajectories of positive and problematic behaviors.

The multiplicity of patterns of conjoint trajectories for PYD and risks/problem behaviors means that the PYD model needs to be revised in at least two ways. First, theoretical revision and subsequent empirical research needs to accommodate to the fact that even youth at the highest levels of PYD development over the course of early adolescence (Grades 5 through 8) can show, as well, increases in risk and problem behaviors. Second, earlier ideas about the possibility of foregoing prevention efforts when PYD was promoted (e.g., Pittman et al., 2001) need to be revised in light to the findings of Phelps et al. (2007) and Zimmerman et al. (2008). Both prevention and promotion efforts need to be pursued, given that trajectories of PYD and of risk/problem behaviors are intertwined in diverse ways across the early adolescent years.

In short, 4-H study findings suggest that the first set of hypotheses about the PYD perspective need to be revised to ask, “What trajectories of growth in PYD and contribution covary with what trajectories of change in risk/problem behaviors, for what youth, living in what settings?” We also have to ask, “What individual and contextual processes are involved in these diverse developmental patterns?” This latter question pertains to the second set of PYD hypotheses. Findings from the 4-H study pertinent to this set of hypotheses also require revisions in the PYD perspective.

Exploring Hypothesis 2: Youth—Context Alignment, Developmental Assets, and the Role of Out-of-School-Time Youth Development Programs

To assess whether youth—context alignment promoted PYD, Theokas and Lerner (2006) and Brown (2008) measured four types of ecological assets identifiable in the homes, schools, and communities of 4-H study participants (Grade 5 through Grade 7). These assets involve, first, individuals in the lives of youth—parents, teachers, and community mentors, for instance. The second domain of ecological assets is the physical and institutional resources present in the social environment (these assets index opportunities for learning, recreation, and engagement with individuals and the physical world). The third domain of assets is collective, activity which includes mutual engagement between community members, parents, youth, school personnel, and institutions of society. The fourth domain is accessibility, which involves the ability of youth to partake of human resources and resource opportunities.

Theokas and Lerner (2006) used fifth-grade data to assess, in each of three settings (the home, the school, and the community), the relations between these four domains of actual developmental assets and indices of PYD and risk/problem behaviors. Four communities within the larger 4-H study data set were studied, viz. Worcester (Massachusetts), Puma (Arizona; which includes Tucson), Missoula (Montana), and Dade County (Florida, which includes Miami). In all communities, scores for the ecological assets were significantly related to both positive and problematic outcomes in expected directions. For instance, ecological assets increased the positive prediction of PYD (accounting for an additional 18% of the variance), above demographic predictors (e.g., sex, race, SES); in turn, these assets were negatively related to internalizing problems, that is, an additional 14% of the variance (beyond demographic predictors) was accounted for by the ecological assets.

Theokas and Lerner (2006) also found that some assets were particularly important in specific contexts. For example, collective activity in the family was the only ecological asset that predicted decreased risk behaviors. Family assets accounted for larger portions of the variance for all outcomes with the exception of “contribution,” for which school assets accounted for more variance. Moreover, in the family context, collective activity (e.g., eating dinner together) was the chief predictor of PYD. In the school, accessibility (e.g., small school size and low teacher:student ratios) was most important; in the community, the presence of a mentor was the most important asset.

Using the same four communities studied by Theokas and Lerner (2006), Brown (2008) extended the fifth grade findings developmentally. Brown studied participants across Grades 5–7. She determined whether neighborhood assets moderated (p. 159) the effect of adolescent involvement in out-of-school activities on positive and negative developmental outcomes. The results revealed a complex interplay between individual-level factors, activity involvement, and neighborhood assets. Activity involvement differentially affected youth outcomes depending upon the ecological context in which they were embedded.

For example, activity involvement had the greatest influence on youth living in neighborhoods with limited physical resources. In addition, boys and girls were affected differently by both the amount of time spent in activities and the types of neighborhood supports available. Youth living in lower-assets neighborhoods benefited more than their counterparts living in high-assets neighborhoods from participation in activities when looking at outcomes of dysfunction. Once again, then, data from the 4-H study suggest that a more nuanced understanding of person—context relations is needed to fully capture the range of relations between youth and contexts that are involved in PYD.

Moreover, assessing the role of ecological assets in the youth—context alignments expected to be linked to PYD is only part of the task in exploring the second hypothesis. In the context of the developmental systems model of mutually influential person—context relations framing the PYD perspective (Lerner, 2004, 2005), it is necessary to identify and appraise the importance of strengths of youth that, when aligned with ecological assets, are associated with PYD. What may comprise such strengths?

Gestsdóttir and Lerner (2008) hypothesized that processes of intentional self-regulation may constitute such strengths. They noted that adolescence is a period of marked change in the person's cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development (in the individual's relations with the people and institutions of the social world), and that these changes place adaptational demands on adolescents. Adaptation involves relations between the actions of adolescents upon the context and the action of the context on them, a bidirectional process that has been labeled developmental regulation. The attributes and means through which the adolescent contributes to such regulation may be termed self-regulation. Accordingly, Gestsdóttir and Lerner proposed that the development of intentional self-regulation in adolescence would be linked to the PYD and, as well, to lower levels of risk/problem behaviors.

To explore this idea, Gestsdóttir and Lerner used the model of Selection, Optimization, and Compensation (SOC), developed by Baltes, Baltes, and Freund (e.g., Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Baltes et al., 2006; Freund & Baltes, 2002), to conceptualize and index intentional self-regulation in adolescence. Accordingly, Gestsdóttir and Lerner (2007) found that fifth and sixth graders' scores on SOC, both within and across time, were related to indicators of positive and negative development in predicted directions. In turn, Zimmerman et al. (2007), studying participants from Grades 5 through 7, found that statistically significant but substantively minor changes in SOC scores existed across the three grades. As such, Zimmerman et al. (2007) also found that Grade 5 SOC scores were significant predictors of subsequent development. Grade 5 SOC scores positively predicted Grade 7 scores on the five Cs of PYD and negatively predicted Grade 7 depression, delinquency, and risk behaviors. Moreover, in the previously discussed study by Zimmerman et al. (2008), SOC scores were found to predict which youth were in the highest trajectories of PYD and “contribution” from Grades 5 to 8 and, as well, in the lowest trajectories of risk/problem behaviors across these grades.

In short, while current research associated with the 4-H study is integrating the assessment of SOC and of ecological assets in the appraisal of PYD, findings to date indicate that both internal strengths and ecological assets covary in theoretically expected ways with PYD, contribution, and risk/problem behaviors. However, as with the revisions of the first set of hypotheses that were linked to findings from the 4-H study, the findings that are pertinent to these second hypotheses suggest that we need to ask how variation in individual strengths, when linked to different assets in various settings, results in particular patterns of relations among PYD, contribution, and risk/problem behaviors. This more nuanced question will necessarily be complicated further when the remaining issue to be addressed in regard to the second hypothesis—the links between PYD and community-based out-of-school-time (OST) activities, and in particular youth development (YD) programs, such as 4-H and Boys & Girls Clubs, etc.—is considered. Data from the 4-H Study also illustrate that there is evidence that OST programs and, specifically, YD programs, are associated with PYD. However, as before, the nature of this relationship is more complicated than framed in the initial formulation of this hypothesis.

Using information presented by Eccles and Gootman (2002) about the diversity of community-based activities available in the lives of youth, Balsano, Phelps, Theokas, Lerner, and Lerner (in press) (p. 160) assessed the OST activities of youth in regard to a set of structured after-school activities and programs that were categorized into four groupings: (1) youth development (YD) programs (e.g., 4-H, YMCA/YWCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, Scouts, Big Brothers/Big Sisters); (2) sports; (3) arts (e.g., music, drama, dance); and (4) other after-school clubs. Youth also participate in unstructured activities including playing with friends and homework completion and, as well, have after-school jobs. However, both to explore facets of Hypothesis 2 and because, compared with unstructured after-school activities, structured activities are associated more often with indicators of positive development (e.g., Mahoney, Vandell, Simpkins, & Zarrett, in press), Balsano et al. focused on structured activities.

Across Grades 5 and 6, youth OST activity involvement was characterized by a changing and diverse array of activities in which youth participated, and there were some gender differences in patterns of youth participation and in links between participation and scores for PYD. For example, boys were more likely to participate in some sports and girls were more likely to participate in some instances of the arts. In addition, girls scored higher in PYD than boys, and PYD scores were significantly associated with breadth of OST activity participation for girls but not for boys.

Zarrett et al. (in press) explored further the association between patterns of OST activities and PYD. Using data from Grades 5 through 7, Zarrett et al. assessed the relations among sports participation (the most frequent instance of OST activities; Balsano et al., in press) and other OST activities, including YD programs, and positive and problematic youth development. Any benefits of sports participation were found to depend in part on specific combinations of multiple activities in which youth participated along with sports. In particular, participation in a combination of sports and YD programs was related to PYD and youth contribution, even after controlling for the total time youth spent in OST activities and their sports participation duration.

The findings of Zarrett et al. (in press), when combined with other reports from the 4-H study, underscore a key theme in the 4-H study data that have been presented to illustrate the empirical status of the PYD perspective: there is considerable support for this strengths-based approach to the study of adolescent development; at the same time, however, the complexity, nuances, and qualifications of developmental trends pertinent to the sets of hypotheses framing the field suggest that both theoretical refinement and considerable additional longitudinal research will be needed to more fully understand how the links between the developing strengths of youth and the resources available in their homes, schools, and communities can best be combined to assure thriving across the second decade of life.

In short, the two PYD hypotheses need to be recast to ask what individual strengths, of what youth, at what points in their adolescence, when combined with what ecological assets, in what settings (family, school, and community) are associated with what combination of PYD, contribution, and risk/problem behavior trajectories? The formulation of this revised, multicomponent, developmental, and relational question leads to some concluding comments.

Conclusions

The stereotype that there is a single pathway through the adolescent years—for instance, one characterized by inevitable “storm and stress” (Hall, 1904)—cannot stand in the face of current knowledge about diversity in adolescence; evidence for strengths in youth; findings regarding the presence and bases of trajectories of positive development; and results of initial longitudinal assessments that document the number of different pathways of PYD across at least the early adolescent years. Accordingly, in future research and applications pertinent to adolescence, scholars and practitioners must extend their conception of this period to focus on changing relations between the individual characteristics of a youth and his or her complex and distinct ecology.

Contemporary developmental science—predicated on a relational metatheory and focused on the use of developmental systems theories to frame research on dynamic relations between diverse individuals and contexts—constitutes an approach that may integrate the scholarship pertinent to these diverse levels of organization and, by so doing, may facilitate understanding of the means to capitalize on the strengths of young people and their contexts in the service of promoting positive human development. As has been demonstrated by reviewing the ongoing work of the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, developmental systems approaches have the promise of providing important insights about the diverse ways in which adolescents, in dynamic exchanges with their ecologies, can develop along positive pathways.

As Bronfenbrenner (2005) eloquently puts it, it is these relations that make human beings human. As (p. 161) such, the PYD perspective suggests that, if we are to conduct good science about adolescent development, we must study youth and contexts in integrative, developmental manners. Such work can inform policies and programs uniquely, helping to characterize the multiple ways that the strengths of diverse youth can be transformed into positive developmental pathways. I believe that we can better serve America's and the world's youth, families, and communities through this approach to science. Continued scholarly and societal investment in such work can enhance the likelihood that strong, active, and contributing youth will be emblematic of the future of civil society.

Three Future Questions about the Field

  1. 1. What is the impact of the strengths-based, PYD perspective on research and applications derived from deficit conceptions of adolescence?

  2. 2. How do the key hypotheses associated with the PYD perspective need to be revised in light of current findings from the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development?

  3. 3. What are the chief challenges in transforming theory and research about PYD into policy and program initiatives aimed at enhancing the lives of diverse adolescents?

Acknowledgments

A prior version of this chapter was prepared for the Workshop on the Science of Adolescent Health and Development, National Research Council /Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. The preparation of this chapter was supported in part by grants from the National 4-H Council and the John Templeton Foundation. I am grateful to my colleagues and students participating in the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development for their collaboration in the research reviewed in this chapter.

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