Unleashing the Power of Community to Strengthen the Well-Being of Children, Youth, and Families: An Asset-Building Approach

Article excerpt

Search Institute's decade-plus emphasis on the elements of positive human development and community approaches to asset building can make a meaningful contribution to the field of child welfare. The institute's framework of developmental assets identifies a set of interrelated experiences, relationships, skills, and values that are associated with reduced high-risk behaviors and increased thriving behaviors. Its community-building work emphasizes the human relations and developmental infrastructure children, youth, and families require for their health and well-being.

The past two decades have seen significant research and a plethora of innovations aimed at understanding and reforming the service delivery system and related community supports for children, youth, and families (Bruner, 2000). These efforts typically involve implementing programs that incorporate ecological frameworks to prevent abuse and neglect, enhance safety and permanence, and promote well-being.

Still other initiatives adopt broader, community-wide perspectives and strive to build effective community collaborations to reduce individual, familial, and community risk factors and encourage the acquisition of protective factors (Benard, 2004). Resiliency-oriented initiatives that move beyond the personal dimensions of resilience and take into account social institutions and the larger community are also increasingly evident (Small & Memmo, 2004). These decidedly promotional efforts pay particular attention to community dimensions of wellness and are intent on infusing a more strengths-based practice into the provision of child and family services.

Search Institute's decade-plus research and applied learning agenda devoted to developmental assets and asset-building communities offer a promising strengths-based approach with significant potential to complement and enhance the child welfare field. The institute's focus on healthy human development as the cornerstone of well-being, and its emphasis on community-building strategies that unleash public commitment, passion, and capacity, create opportunities for communities to make progress in implementing supports for social and emotional well-being and increasing the likelihood that children and youth will prosper.

Developmental Assets

Search Institute's framework of developmental assets provides a tool for responding to the growing understanding of the "ecology" of human development and the growing need to enrich the child and family service system's ability to address the child well-being outcome with the same rigor and consistency that it has addressed the goals of permanence and safety (see Mannes, 2001). The framework identifies a set of interrelated experiences, relationships, skills, and values that are known to enhance a broad range of positive outcomes for young people (see Table 1; for more on the history, conceptualization, and research behind the developmental assets, see Benson, 2003; Benson, Scales, & Mannes, 2003; Scales & Leffert, 2004).

Grounded in the scientific literature on prevention, resilience, youth development, and protective factors, the developmental asset framework is conceptually aligned with a number of recent syntheses of research on adolescent development, including the Child Welfare League of America's framework of the five universal needs of children (Morgan, Spears, & Kaplan, 2003).

Since 1996, the Search Institute has administered a 156-item instrument, the Profile of Student Life: Attitude and Behavior Survey, to adolescents in communities throughout the United States. During that time, more than two million young people have completed the survey, which the institute designed to be administered anonymously in a 6th- through 12th-grade class period with standardized instructions. The instrument captures basic demographic information and measures each of the 40 developmental assets as well as a number of other constructs, including developmental deficits (e. …