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Effectiveness of Positive Youth Development Programs

PYD programs engage young people in intentional, productive, and constructive ways while recognizing and enhancing their strengths. These programs promote positive outcomes by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, and giving the support that is needed to develop young people’s assets and prevent risky behaviors.

Research indicates that young people who are surrounded by a variety of opportunities for positive encounters engage in less risky behavior and ultimately show evidence of higher rates of successful transitions into adulthood.1 PYD programs are one venue to ensure that young people have access to adequate positive opportunities. The available evidence suggests that PYD programs can prevent a variety of risk behaviors among young people and improve social and emotional outcomes. For example:

  • A comprehensive study that looked at more than 200 school-based social-emotional learning programs found that program participants showed significant improvement in social and emotional skills, attitudes, and academic performance and reductions in internalizing symptoms and risky behaviors.2
  • A review of PYD programs for adolescents with chronic illness found that 3 of the 14 programs included the core components of PYD: opportunities for youth leadership, skill building, and sustained connections between youth and adults. The authors suggest that these programs serve as models for the development of future PYD programs for adolescents with chronic disease.3
  • A review of PYD programs that promote adolescent sexual and reproductive health found that 30 programs met the inclusion criteria and 15 of those had evidence for improving at least one adolescent and reproductive health outcome. Program effects were moderate and well-sustained. Effective programs were significantly more likely than those that did not have an impact to strengthen the school context and to deliver activities in a supportive atmosphere.4
  • A study on the first 5 years of a longitudinal evaluation of local 4-H programs5 looked at how positive influences in the lives of youth help protect against problem behaviors. The study sample included approximately 4,000 youth, from nearly all 50 states, with various levels of involvement and concluded that youth consistently engaged in 4-H were found to be at much lower risk of having personal, social, and behavioral problems than other youth. Compared to their peers, the findings show that youth involved in 4-H programs excel in several areas:
    • Youth involved in 4-H are more than four times as likely to contribute to their communities as other youth and about two times as likely to be civically active.
    • Youth involved in 4-H programming are nearly two times more likely to participate in science, engineering and computer technology programs during out-of-school time in Grades 10–12. Girls involved in 4-H programming are two times more likely (Grade 10) and nearly three times more likely (Grade 12) to take part in science programs compared to girls in other out-of-school activities.
    • Youth involved in 4-H are nearly two times more likely to make healthier choices in Grade 7.
  • A systematic literature review identified 15 PYD programs with evidence of promoting adolescent sexual and reproductive health outcomes, including the prevention of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
    • The level and duration of the impact on reproductive health outcomes were substantial, with the impact of several programs extending into adulthood.6
  • A meta-analysis of youth mentoring program effectiveness concluded that mentoring is a flexible and adaptive PYD strategy. Mentoring can be advantageous to both preventive and promotive program goals, while also supporting the involvement of positive adult role models, older peers, and supportive group settings.7

Although there has been limited evaluation of positive youth development programs, the evidence that is available suggests that the opportunities, skills, and atmosphere offered in a positive youth development program can lead to better health, social, and educational outcomes.

Resources

The Guide to Community Preventive Services
This website presents the results of intensive reviews that help determine which program and policy interventions have been proven effective. The guide researchers conducted a systematic review of youth development interventions that were intended to impact adolescent sexual and reproductive health outcomes and found evidence to recommend interventions that are coordinated with community services.

Hours of Opportunity: How Cities Can Use Data to Improve Out-of-School Time Programs
This research brief highlights out-of-school time initiatives and assesses the conditions and activities that add to the advancement of a coordinated system of services. It also discusses successful strategies for developing PYD out-of-school time opportunities.

Positive Youth Development Inventory — Full Version (2012)
This inventory is a collection of 55 Likert scale items designed to measure changes in levels of PYD. The instrument measures the constructs from the 5 C’s model of youth development: confidence, competence, character, caring, and connection.

Toolkit for Evaluating Positive Youth Development (PDF, 116 pages)
This toolkit, developed by the After-School Initiative, provides evaluation question sets that staff of an after-school program may find useful to assess youth outcomes. The questions were developed to measure 45 different youth outcomes within 8 outcome domains, including academic success, arts and recreation, community involvement, cultural competency, life skills, positive life choices, positive core values, and sense of self.

References

1 Alberts, et al.2006; Bandy & Moore, 2009; Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2000; Pittman, Irby, & Ferber, 2001; Pittman, 1999; Lerner, 2004; Lerner et al., 2012; Lerner & Lerner, 2013; Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczack, & Hawkins, 2004
2 Durlak, et al., 2011
3 Maslow & Chung 2013
4 Gavin, Catalano, David-Ferdon, Gloppen, & Markham, 2010
5 4-H programs provide youth outreach opportunities by connecting youth to their communities. In the U.S., 4-H is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
6 Gavin, Catalano, David-Ferdon, Gloppen, & Markham, 2009
7 Dubois, Portillo, Rhodes, Silverthorn, & Valentine, 2011

Other Resources on this Topic

Youth Briefs

How Individualized Education Program (IEP) Transition Planning Makes a Difference for Youth with Disabilities

Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.

Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: How Holding Early Leadership Positions Can Make a Difference

Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

How Trained Service Professionals and Self-Advocacy Makes a Difference for Youth with Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Co-occurring Issues

Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).