Positive Youth Development: Taking the Long View of Services for System-Involved Youth

Positive Youth Development: Taking the Long View of Services for System-Involved Youth

January 21, 2015 | Christopher Hartney, Senior Researcher, NCCD

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The effects of juvenile justice or child welfare system involvement do not end when youth exit those systems; rather, the impact can last years—even a lifetime. Studies have shown that young adults who were involved in the juvenile justice system are at far greater risk than those who were not for many negative outcomes down the road: arrest, substance abuse issues, public assistance dependence, and low educational achievement and income.

The effects of juvenile justice or child welfare system involvement do not end when youth exit those systems; rather, the impact can last years—even a lifetime. Studies have shown that young adults who were involved in the juvenile justice system are at far greater risk than those who were not for many negative outcomes down the road: arrest, substance abuse issues, public assistance dependence, and low educational achievement and income. Similarly, formerly child welfare-involved youth have high rates of teen pregnancy, incarceration, homelessness, dropping out of college, low income, and use of public assistance and other public social services.

These troubling outcomes are greatly increased for those who experience contact with both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Furthermore, African Americans and other youth of color, who are more likely than White youth to be in these systems in the first place, are significantly more likely to suffer the harshest of these outcomes compared to their White peers.

The need exists for child welfare and juvenile justice programming that addresses not only the immediate needs of youth involved or at risk of involvement in these systems, but that gives these youth and their families a capacity for coping and success in their broader life pursuits. Positive youth development (PYD) interventions embody this longer view of youth services.

From a positive youth development (PYD) perspective, youth development is a function not only of the psychological and emotional characteristics of individual youth but of the social and environmental factors that can facilitate or impede their individual growth. Its theory of change is that youth can avoid risky behavior, overcome hardships, and successfully transition from adolescence into early adulthood when they are supported through positive relationships with adult family and community members; gain strong interpersonal coping skills and a sense of self-efficacy through skills-based training; have access to quality structured services appropriate to their developmental age; and are pro-socially engaged with their families, friends, and community in multiple settings, e.g., home, neighborhood, school or workplace, social programs, and community organizations. 

Unlike much of traditional youth programming, which emphasizes correcting problems and deficits, PYD interventions emphasize strengths and resilience. Success for PYD programs is measured not only as a decrease in negative outcomes, such as illegal behavior, discipline issues in school or while on probation, truancy, teen pregnancy, and over-dependence on public assistance, but in increased positive outcomes such as maintaining a good mentoring relationship with a caring adult, participation in positive community-based social and recreational activities, community service and civic engagement, finishing school, holding down a rewarding job, and healthy family functioning.

Examples of PYD interventions, or elements of a PYD approach, include mentoring programs; prosocial skills-training curriculum; health education; family functioning and parenting skills development; language acquisition and cultural competency training; civic engagement; volunteering in the community; and coping or protective factor skills-training, perhaps targeting specific needs or experiences such as youth who have experienced substance abuse, homelessness, divorce, or abuse.

Interventions that incorporate PYD typically do not focus solely on the at-risk or troubled youth but also on the adults and social networks with which they interact. A PYD program will likely involve some combination of parents and other family members, teachers and school representatives, employers, religious representatives, and other community members actively working with the youth to pursue program goals. With wide community involvement across a broad range of applications, the PYD approach can lead to not only healthier youth and healthier ties between a youth and his or her family and community, but stronger and healthier families and communities. And, finally, PYD programs and services targeting youth of color and the disadvantaged communities in which they often live can serve to reduce disparities in both system involvement and the long-term outcomes associated with system involvement.