Youth Development: Going to the Next Level; Services for Youth Need to Help Reduce Problem Behaviors, and Increase Pro-Social Attitudes and Skills. (Social Issues)

By Witt, Peter A. | Parks & Recreation, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Youth Development: Going to the Next Level; Services for Youth Need to Help Reduce Problem Behaviors, and Increase Pro-Social Attitudes and Skills. (Social Issues)


Witt, Peter A., Parks & Recreation


Youth development as a term and set of practices began to emerge in the late 1980s. However, concerns began that youth programs were being restricted to "at-risk" youth, too often defined as persons of color from economically disadvantaged families, and from single-parent homes. Clearly, it was argued, there were youth from many other backgrounds, living in all parts of almost every community, who were demonstrating problematic behaviors.

In addition, there was a growing professional and public backlash against only dealing with the problems of a few, as opposed to offering services for everyone. Many professionals argued that "all youth are at-risk," that youth across the entire community are in need of services, and that school shootings, drug arrests and pregnancy rates in even middle-class communities are evidence of the need to serve everyone.

Problem Free is Not Fully Prepared

Unfortunately research findings have suggested that approaches to lessening youth problems, whether for some youth or all youth, have "produced weak, transient or no results" (Connell, Gambone, & Smith, 2001, p. 1). While a problems-based approach assumes that there is something wrong with the individual and that we need to provide the skills and knowledge to correct deficiencies, undertaking these types of programs has only had modest success.

However, "problem free is not fully prepared" and "fully prepared is not fully engaged" (Pittman, Irby & Ferber, 2000). Services for youth need to both help reduce problem behaviors, as well as increase pro-social attitudes and skills. The message is that it is possible to be problem free and still not necessarily grow up to be a fully functioning adult, and it is possible to be fully prepared and not use the skills and abilities one has in a positive manner.

These leaps of understanding are the bedrock principles of the youth development movement. According to advocates, efforts need to be made to create organizations and communities that enable youth to move along the pathways to adulthood by supplying the supports and opportunities necessary to develop beyond simple problem prevention. These approaches do not eliminate the need to target specific highrisk individuals for attention, but clearly indicate that efforts should not be restricted to this group or only be concerned with problem remediation. As Gambone et al. (2001) noted:

"At the center of this thinking is the idea that young people are assets in the making -- their development dependent on a range of supports and opportunities coming from family, community and the other institutions that touch them. When supports and opportunities are plentiful, young people can and do thrive; when their environments are deficient or depleted, youth tend not to grow and progress." (pp. 1-2)

What is more, Pittman and her colleagues (2000) have also argued that "academic competence, while critical is not nearly enough" and "competence alone, while critical, is not enough." In the first instance, to be fully prepared, individuals also need to achieve vocational, physical, emotional, civic, social and cultural competence. In the second, it is a necessity to apply this competence in action.

The emerging youth development lexicon strongly promotes thinking beyond an "either/or" mind set to one that embraces "and." It is not necessary to choose between prevention and positive development: both are appropriate and needed.

"If the entire spectrum of youth services can be thought of as a continuum, youth development services would be at one end and social control or incarceration would be at the other. In between these ends of the continuum would fall primary prevention (of problems such as substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy, juvenile crime, and the like); short-term intervention; and long-term treatment." (Quinn (1999), p. 98)

Defining Youth Development

"Youth development is a process which prepares young people to meet the challenges of adolescence and adulthood through a coordinated, progressive series of activities and experiences that help them to become socially, morally, emotionally, physically and cognitively competent. …

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