National Youth Development Information Center
Monday, March 4, 2002
When we talk about our youth, we too often use negative terms: what we would like them to stop doing. We want them to stop using drugs, stop drinking, stop dropping out of school, stop having sex, stop getting pregnant, stop being violent, and stop committing other delinquent acts. In short, we would like them to stop having problems - and stop being problems. When we focus only on youth problems, we may begin to think of youth only as problems. We all want to reduce risk factors, but if that is all our community programs do, we assume that the absence of risky behaviors automatically assures positive growth. That is a risky proposition. Our programs and policies should not be restricted simply to preventing youth problems or treating problems after they occur. We should aim to create positive outcomes - to build strengths and resiliency - to provide youth with protection against the risks they face. Youth development seeks to take prevention a step beyond risk reduction by turning a narrow focus on negative risk factors into positive action strategies. Whether developing community programs or setting national policy, we sometimes think we can provide youth with development activities only after we have eliminated their problems through prevention or "fixed" their problems through treatment. That is a mistake. In fact, thinking that treatment and prevention must precede youth development can be most damaging to so-called "at-risk" youth who may need these programs the most. We place priority on treating and reducing risk factors for "at-risk" youth because we think their problems are the most serious. If we get around to supporting youth development programs for these youngsters, we do so only after we have provided treatment and sought to reduce risk. Youth development comes to be viewed as a last step: beneficial but not essential, nice but not necessary. As we design programs in our neighborhoods and in our nation's capital, the question becomes which problem to prioritize and which "at-risk" youth to make eligible (and thus, which youth to exclude). We need to shift our thinking. We need to stop thinking of youth problems as the principal barrier to youth development and start thinking of youth development as the most effective strategy for preventing youth problems. At its most basic, youth development means purposely seeking to meet youth needs and build youth competencies relevant to enabling youth to become successful adults. This is nothing new. Twenty years ago, the Youth Development and Delinquency Prevention Administration in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare identified those relevant needs as: a sense of competence, a sense of usefulness, a sense of belonging, and a sense of power or potency. Today, proponents of youth development still see the reduction of existing problems through prevention as vitally important. But they also hold that while we develop strategies to prevent dangerous activities, we must be equally adamant about stating positive goals that we wish all young people to achieve and then begin helping them to reach those goals. They see youth development as an ongoing process that promotes positive outcomes for all youth. Youth development programs are important for youngsters who have not taken their first drink and for teenagers already undergoing treatment for drug addiction. Kids from inner-city, lower-income families need to have the same needs met and acquire the same competencies as their peers from suburban and upper-income neighborhoods. When needs are not met and competencies are not acquired, any young person can be "at risk." Critical Components of Youth Development Even in the face of limited family and community support, all young people will seek ways to meet their basic needs and gain the competencies and skills necessary to move from adolescence to adulthood. The two critical components are meeting needs and building competencies. Meeting Needs Young people have basic needs critical to survival and healthy development. Successful youth development programs purposely address these needs in their program design. If families cannot and communities will not provide positive ways for young people to meet their needs, young people will strive to meet them on their own - and not always in positive ways. As you look at the youth development needs listed below, think about how juvenile gangs answer each of these needs for their members. To become successful adults, young people need a sense of: Safety and structure; Belonging and membership; Self-worth, status, and an ability to contribute; Independence, autonomy, and control over their lives; Closeness and several good relationships; and Competence and mastery. Building Competencies To succeed as adults, youth must acquire adequate attitudes, behaviors and skills. Successful youth development programs purposely seek to build competencies. Various research shows that children and young people who have the following skills are more resilient and less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Physical competence: Good current health status and knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that will assure future health and well-being. For example, fitness skills, exercise, good nutrition, and understanding the consequences of risky behaviors. Social competence: Responsiveness, flexibility, empathy and caring. Communication skills, a sense of humor, self-discipline, assertiveness, the ability to ask for support, and other pro-social behaviors. Skills to establish more positive relationships, including friendships with peers. Cognitive competence: Good reasoning, problem-solving and planning skills. The ability to think abstractly, reflectively and flexibly. The ability to create alternative solutions for both cognitive and social problems and create change in frustrating situations. Vocational competence: A sense of purpose and a special future. A broad understanding of life options and the steps to take when making choices. Educational aspirations. Adequate preparation for work and family life. Healthy expectations, goal-directedness, success orientation, achievement motivation, and a sense of a compelling future. Moral competence: The development of character, values and personal responsibility. A desire to be ethical and to be involved in efforts that contribute to the common good. Citizenship skills, including participation in civic life and community service. A respect for diversity. As you can see, youth development is an important part of the field of prevention but it also can reach beyond the defined bounds of prevention. Meeting needs and building competencies can be done as part of primary or secondary prevention efforts. But youth development also can be effective in strengthening youngsters already undergoing treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. Youth development is inclusive. It is never too late to build resiliency. What can we do to meet youth needs and promote skills and competencies through our youth programs and communities?