The Keys to Positive Youth Development Pt 1
Many significant issues impact education and youth development. Over the past few decades, a variety of solutions have been proposed to increase student grades, attendance and graduation rates, as well as to lower the frequency of unhealthy behaviors. These solutions—including tutoring programs, additional out-of-school time providers, and additional testing—more frequently treat the symptoms of a problem but don’t address why youth are struggling.
The key to overcoming underlying issues surrounding youth development is to understand how young people perceive their lives when it comes to things like having a positive role model, feeling a sense of responsibility for their actions or feeling safe at school and at home. These perceptions directly impact youth outcomes, as students may struggle to concentrate on school subjects when they feel that their safety is at-risk or they feel that they don’t belong in school because they don’t connect with their teachers or other adults.
Search Institute is at the forefront of conducting research on youth development. The organization’s Developmental Assets Profile (DAP) has been administered to over half a million youth worldwide. The DAP measures a youth’s eight categories of developmental assets, or a total of 40 positive experiences and qualities that influence choices that youth make and help them become responsible, successful adults. Results of the survey are analyzed to determine what solutions could be most effective in improving youth outcomes.
Kent Pekel is the President and CEO of Search Institute. He is working with schools and communities nationwide to improve their approach to developmental assets, developmental relationships and more.
nFocus: What are developmental assets and how do they provide an accurate picture of a child’s life?
Pekel: Search Institute defines developmental assets as internal and external factors in a child’s life that promote positive youth development. First, there are a child’s internal strengths – the things that make a child who she or he is. These strengths are used to motivate success in school, solve problems and reduce risks and can include a child’s commitment to learning, positive values, positive identity and social competencies. The developmental assets framework also includes a child’s external supports or the relationships, programs and opportunities around him or her.
Over the last 20 years, the most significant finding we have seen is that there is a compounding value to the assets. This means the more assets a child has, the more likely he or she is to be on track for academic success and to avoid risky behaviors. By using developmental assets to map out the complexity of a child’s life, school or community, leaders have an opportunity to proactively build up those assets and improve outcomes for that child.
nFocus: Some of the biggest issues in education include dropout rates and chronic absences. There have also been many reports of schools that are struggling with poor test scores and student grades. Would focusing on developmental assets help improve these issues?
Pekel: It can happen, but it doesn’t always happen. The developmental assets framework has 40 factors in it. If a school’s goal is to reduce the dropout rate, then certain developmental assets are going to be more important to meet that goal than others.
For example, DAP data can tell us about a youth’s commitment to learning. When we think about preventing dropouts, that data is highly relevant. Other data available within the survey, such as a youth’s sense of empowerment, may be valuable for a goal beyond dropout prevention.
nFocus: The Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) distributed the DAP to many of its sites earlier this year using nFocus’ online survey tool SurveyTrax. Can you discuss the implementation process and the possible next steps the City of Boston might take?
Pekel: BCYF is in the early stages of utilizing program data. Their goal as a network is to bring more youth engagement and youth development content to their centers. They believe having the right data available will help with that. Through their existing partnership with nFocus Solutions, BCYF already knows how often their participants are at their centers and their program dosage.
BCYF is administering the DAP in eight after-school centers with a plan to extend it to all after-school sites in the city by the end of the year. For the first time, administrators in these after-school centers will have valid and reliable data on the strengths and supports in their youths’ lives. That data will help guide their decision-making on the focus of their programs.
nFocus: Search Institute recently started researching developmental relationships. Briefly describe the initiative and what components make up a developmental relationship.
Pekel: Search Institute is analyzing data, reviewing research and talking to kids and people at organizations that work directly with youth in order to better understand the components of a strong developmental relationship. We are early in this research, but we’re finding that those developmental relationships in kids’ lives are powerful ways to help kids develop what researchers call “noncognitive skills.” Those are skills like perseverance and emotional competence that are essential for success in education and in life. In a developmental relationship, the interaction between the kid and a caring adult helps the young person develop those skills through a dynamic blend of both challenge and support. On one hand, the adult is challenging the young person to go beyond what he or she is comfortable doing, but on the other hand the adult is actively supporting the student as he or she works to make that change.
Another thing that we are finding in our research is that an important element in a developmental relationship is what we call “spark,” or the one thing that matters the most to a child. In a truly developmental relationship, the adult almost always knows about and works to nurture the child’s spark.
It’s also key that the child thinks that part of the adult’s spark in life is interacting with him or her. The young person needs the sense that the adult is not there just because it’s his or her job, or even just because the adult is passionate about the activity that the child is engaged in, whether that is playing basketball or math.
nFocus: How do you explain development relationships to teachers, parents, coaches or caretakers?
There are two analogies that help people understand the idea of developmental relationships. The first is learning to walk as an infant and the other is athletic coaching. Learning to walk portrays an image of challenge and support. There’s an adult with their arms outstretched, expressing positive and encouraging motions, but at the same time, they’re also challenging the child to do something new and kind of scary. As for athletics, when we ask youth about the relationships in their lives, often they mention their coaches as pushing them to succeed while supporting them.
We haven’t seen a lot of research conceptualizing or measuring what happens in these types of relationships, however; we’re working hard on doing that now.