Imbedding Positive Youth Development

In recent years many of us who have been laboring in the vineyards of youth work have come to embrace positive youth development as the best approach to bringing hope into the risk-laden lives of children and youth. This approach has been buttressed by the seminal work of Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) and The Search Institute, and has been embraced by almost all of the national youth serving agencies, as well as America’s Promise, The National Assembly and The United Way of America. There is even major national legislation about to be introduced in the form of The Younger Americans Act, which would radically increase the workforce demand for youth workers.

One pitfall to avoid is using “positive youth development” as a moniker for all after-school or youth programs, just as mentoring has become a buzz word to describe youth/adult relationships. In fact, one of the lesser known studies of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America by P/PV, “Building Relationships with Youth in Program Settings,” has some findings that are relevant to youth workers. The study revealed that the one-to-one relationships that endured were ones in which the Big Sister or Big Brother had a developmental rather than a prescriptive approach to the young person they were mentoring.  In other words, they held expectations that varied over time in relation to their perceptions of the needs of the youth.  In prescriptive relationships the adult volunteers viewed as primary their goals for the match rather than those of the youth. Research shows that a highly structured activity focused on the deficit model of preventing drug abuse or other risk behavior  without involving the youths in meaningful ways is ineffective.

A key to effective youth development is the sustained support and interest of caring adults, paid or volunteer. An important question is how these youth workers should be trained. For youth development to be truly imbedded as a way of work, it needs a lead professional discipline to draw from and be identified with. Social work can provide that host setting, if there are some changes in the profession’s emphasis on the clinical model or approach. It is in social work school that many youth workers developed skills in listening, reaching for feelings or the conscious use of self.  Many budding group workers were influenced by the work of Bill Schwartz, Gisela Knopka and Grace Coyle.  After all, isn’t social work one of the few professions that concentrates on how to develop direct practice skills? It’s not enough for the youth workers of tomorrow to have the right approach or philosophy; they must also have the skills and competencies to put them into action.

Unfortunately, schools of social work today are caught up in producing therapists whose primary source of reimbursement is the health care system. In fact, in the US News and World Report rating of graduate schools, social work is listed under health services. However, there are some promising signs at schools like Case Western Reserve, the University of Washington, the University of Houston and the University of Pennsylvania that youth development is getting some attention. Perhaps the next few years will see a greater emphasis in other schools of social work (and in teachers’ colleges) on developing curricula that can help train youth workers.

Fortunately, groups like American Humanics and foundations such as DeWitt Wallace, Marion Ewing Kauffman and Edna McConnell Clark, have done much to lay the groundwork. Even the U.S. Department of Labor recently got into the act by rallying its resources to help upgrade the status and career opportunities in the field of youth work through the creation of a registered job title and apprenticeship. We must continue to build on these examples to create the environment for the growth and nourishment of positive youth development as an enduring framework for our work with all youth.


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