What Is Positive Youth Development?

Positive youth development is a framework that guides communities and institutions in the way they organize services, opportunities, and supports so that young people can develop to their full potential. Positive youth development is not just another program; it a compassionate and proactive outlook on the structured and empowering opportunities we provide our young people. The set of strategies employed by advocates for positive youth development can be adopted by any program or organization in hopes of helping young adults develop the skills and confidence necessary to successfully transition into adulthood (Restuccia, 2003). When done effectively, positive youth development practices support young adults achieve long-term goals such as establishing a sense of financial independence and healthy relationships with family, friends, and fellow community members. When a program embraces positive youth development strategies, its overall chances of succeeding are improved. Some specific examples of positive youth development based programs include mentoring programs, community services initiatives, and even artistic clubs (Restuccia, 2003). Great platforms for the fostering of positive youth development are often schools, museums, and libraries. Built on the idea that give the support of understanding adults and a safe environment, young people can develop intellectually, socially, and emotionally while making positive contributions to an organization, specific group of people, or community (IMLS, 2008). Communities, organizations, and institutions that adopt a positive youth development approach emphasize these fundamental principles:
  • Focus on strengths and positive outcomes. Rather than taking a deficit-based approach, organizations intentionally help young people build on their strengths and develop the competencies, values, and connections they need for life and work.
  • Promote youth voice and engagement. Youth are valued partners who have meaningful, decision-making roles in programs and communities.
  • Employ strategies that involve all youth. Communities support and engage all youth rather than focusing solely on "high-risk" or "gifted" youth. Communities do, however, recognize the need to identify and respond to specific problems faced by some youth (such as violence or premature parenthood).
  • Community involvement and collaboration is key. Positive youth development includes but reaches beyond programs; it promotes organizational change and collaboration for community change. All sectors have a role to play in making the community a great place to grow up.
  • Positive youth development is a long-term commitment. Communities provide the ongoing, developmentally appropriate support young people need over the first 20 years of their lives (ACT for Youth).

The following is a set of essential vocabulary terms you will encounter when researching and implementing the principles of positive youth development.
  • OST: out-of-school time; positive youth development occurs often outside of typical school time
  • resiliency research: the study of the common traits of youth who have overcome the negative effects of typical risk factors (ex. poverty, racism, illness)
  • protective factors: characteristics that help youth overcome adversity (ex. caring relationships, high expectations, positive participation)
  • positive risks: risks that youth are encouraged to take without the negative repercussions of mistakes or fear of failure
  • project based learning: identifying a problem and becoming invested and committed to solving that problem over an extended period of time (Restuccia, 2003)
  • deficit based programming: programming that focuses on addressing and preventing one particular issue (ex. drug abuse, violence)
  • Youth Leadership Councils: a group of individuals dedicated to promoting the research and practice of positive youth development issues (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2008)

History of Positive Youth Development

Positive youth development theory originated in the 1990s in response to the deficit based programs that were growing in popularity, such as the D.A.R.E. Program. What these programs lacked in lasting effects, the positive youth development advocates hoped to achieve in their programs that sought to address all of the broad developmental issues and needs of adolescents by promoting overall positive development (Restuccia, 2003).

How Positive Youth Development Works

The following are the most important intentions and concepts to keep in mind when implementing a positive youth development based program. A program that successfully encourages the positive development of youth incorporates all of these strategies and maintain the high expectations of their overall mission (Restuccia, 2003).

  • Make it easy for youth to participate in your program. Adolescents, especially teens, rarely go out of their way to learn or participate in educational or service opportunities. Make your program accessible, affordable (if not free), and eliminate any possible barriers that may discourage teens from joining. Also, make sure you have enough staff to support the adolescents and your mission. Avoid over extending your staff and your resources, which takes away from the effectiveness of your program.
  • Be reliable. Teens need to know they can trust the organization and adults they are working with. Establish programs that are consistent and safe, allowing teens to feel comfortable and experience the benefits of true positive youth development. Create opportunities for teens to create consistent and long lasting relationships with adults whom they feel they can trust and have their best interests in mind.
  • Set high expectations. Challenge individuals to achieve short and long-term goals that they may not have considered setting for themselves. Create a positive environment in which teens feel comfortable being challenged and taking risks without fear of judgment or failure. Encourage things such as career exploration and extend their existing skills to other fields they may not have experience with. Build on their existing knowledge base and individual learning styles to create educational opportunities that are lasting and empowering. Let them know that you believe in them and are willing to support them in their endeavors. Celebrate every success and acknowledge the accomplishments of all adolescents regularly throughout your program (Restuccia, 2003).
  • Know your audience and actively involve them in every aspect of your program. Young people should be an integral part of the planning, execution, and evaluation of a program that is built on the principles of positive youth development. Successfully identify what it is that teens want and need from a program offered by your institution and make it a priority to listen to their suggestions, ideas, and interests when creating it. The more you involve young people, the more invested they will become in the program itself, improving its success as well as the success of the young people actively involved in it. Show teens that you trust them by giving them responsibility and leadership opportunities. Allow them to have a choice in all aspects of the program and make them feel respected and valued as contributing members to its overall success. Young people should work with and not for you. Encourage them to be representatives of your organization and let them know that you trust them to embody its mission and values (IMLS, 2008).
  • Encourage young people to build positive relationships with adults. Create an environment in which adults guide and respect young people. Tens should get appropriate individual attention from adults and continuous authentic praise. Know that it takes time and effort to earn a young person's trust and respect. Thoughtfully and genuinely put forth that effort, encouraging young people to feel comfortable voicing their opinions and experiencing new things around you and the adults that are facilitating your program. Teach young people how to resolve conflicts and work with individuals of all ages.
  • Promote community involvement. Get out there! There is no reason for a program to be confined to a particular location or setting. Teach young people how crucial it is to be an active member of their community. Create opportunities for civic engagement to instill positive attitudes in young people about their community. Give them a reason to feel a sense of purpose, involvement, and investment in their community. Karen Pittman, a positive youth development researcher and advocate, aptly stated "young people grow up in communities, not programs." Use your program as an instrument of change and identify the unique needs of your community and encourage young people to care (IMLS, 2008).
  • Stop, collaborate, and listen. Identify other organizations that could possibly share your mission and contribute their own ideas and resources. Partnering with other institutions and programs could help you reach more people and meet the needs of a wider population. Collaborate and do not compete. Establish direct involvement early on. Integrate your goals and evaluate as a collective unit. For example, if your public library is creating a program for young people, seek the collaborative efforts of local businesses, sports teams, or recreational groups.
  • Always be improving. Evaluate consistently and constantly throughout the various phases of your program. Elicit feedback from participants and staff to see if your program is achieving its clearly set goals. Ask some of the following questions: How can we tell if our program is making a difference? What could we change or improve? How can we express our success to the community? Can we create better opportunities for our young people? A group that is constantly reflecting and improving is one that will prove its value and ultimate success (IMLS, 2008).

Positive Youth Development In Libraries And Beyond

"...if young people have mutually beneficial relations with the people and institutions of their social world, they will be on the way to a hopeful future marked by positive contributions to self, family, community, and civil society" (Lerner et al, 2005).

Libraries have the unique opportunity to facilitate the success of young people through their personnel, programs, and physical resources. "We must capitalize on the public library's potential to maximize learning opportunities beyond the walls of formal education" (Jones, 2011). By creating positive interactions and experiences for youth at a library, librarians can encourage them to have long lasting and beneficial relationships with the institution and its resources. Indeed, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has included in their Leadership and Professionalism competencies the need to “model commitment to building assets in youth in order to develop healthy, successful young adults” (YALSA, 2010).

YALSA identifies eight key developmental assets for youth that libraries and other communities can actively foster in the pursuit of PYD. Taken from the Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets, these critical components of PYD-building include: Support, Empowerment, Boundaries and Expectations, Constructive Use of Time, Commitment to Learning, Positive Values, Social Competencies, and Positive Identity (Eagle, 9-17).

We cannot impart these developmental assets to young people without first creating a welcoming environment in which to do so. Children and teens -- particularly those who are at-risk and thus plausibly most in need of PYD -- benefit from a setting in which they receive affection, caring, nurturing, safety, structure, and social support (Mondowney, 14). Therefore we must do our best to ensure that these factors are cultivated in our library. We must routinely ask questions of ourselves and the institution we represent. For instance, do library staff welcome all patrons with the same level of warmth and enthusiasm, including potentially rowdy teens? Have all staff undergone some training in working with children and adolescents?

To engender support, communicate both your passion and your plan for the library as a source of PYD. Encourage your colleagues to approach you with questions and offer basic training or coaching for those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with serving young people in the library environment. Consider writing a blog for fellow staff members about PYD in your library. By sharing your enthusiasm, knowledge, and ideas for practical application, PYD can become a library-wide effort.

Programming for PYD

PYD programming endeavors to build the developmental assets identified by YALSA. Such efforts will be most successful when we invite young people to express their needs and contribute ideas as to how the library might best serve them. Round-tables and focus groups provide forums in which youth might: (1) provide feedback on existing library programs and their appeal and efficacy; (2) identify and develop programming of interest and use to them; and (3) enhance their sense of belonging and self-worth through the contribution of opinions and ideas.

While many library programs have social or entertainment value, we should seriously consider how to further integrate information literacy into our programming. Information literacy can mean not only interpreting information on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level as well. In Informing Young Women, author Lesley S. J. Farmer identifies a correlation between access to information and self-esteem. This is not unique to girls, as boys, too, appreciate and benefit from the sense of having or being able to obtain knowledge-- including self-knowlege. As information professionals, librarians are in a unique position to help young people build feelings of worth and ability by both guiding them to resources and asking questions of these youth that call for self-reflection. By viewing youth and their information needs individually, addressing issues and questions consciously and conscientiously, and building information literacy, librarians can build both self-knowledge and resourcefulness in young people, leading to enhanced self-esteem.

Whatever avenues we select to engage young people and cultivate PYD, we must remember that it is our attitudes toward children and teens that will ultimately have the most impact. If we behave honestly and compassionately, we have a far better chance of gaining their trust and respect, thus allowing us to best assist them in their growth to adulthood. As noted in Answering Teen's Tough Questions:
[Teens are] going to ask us questions -- deep questions, silly questions, terrifying questions, perplexing questions -- and the way we answer may determine
the kind of relationships we're able to have with them. Will we merely be seen as the purveyors of books and databases, or will we be adults who care and
can help, even confused, too? (Eagle, ix)

Examples of Self-Esteem Programming Resources:
  • Girl Talk Girl Talk is a non-proft organization that works to build self-esteem among middle-school aged girls through mentorship. Consider starting a chapter at your library!
  • Mentoring Boys Guidance for working with young men to build their intellectual and emotional skill sets.

Education: Examples of Academic and Adventure Learning

  • Upward Bound Upward Bound provides fundamental support to participants in their preparation for college entrance. The program provides opportunities for participants to succeed in their precollege performance and ultimately in their higher education pursuits. Upward Bound serves: high school students from low-income families; and high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor's degree. The goal of Upward Bound is to increase the rate at which participants complete secondary education and enroll in and graduate from institutions of postsecondary education (Upward Bound).
  • Kahn Academy The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We're a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere. All of the site's resources are available to anyone. It doesn't matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. The Khan Academy's materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge (Kahn Academy).
  • Adolescent Literacy A teacher's education never ends. New research, state standards, and curriculum changes require teachers who are informed, energized, and responsive. Learn the characteristics of excellent reading teachers, as well as the knowledge and skills required to teach reading effectively (Adolescent Literacy).
  • Outward Bound Outward Bound is a non-profit educational organization and expedition school that serves people of all ages and backgrounds through active learning expeditions that inspire character development, self-discovery and service both in and out of the classroom. Outward Bound delivers programs using unfamiliar settings as a way for participants across the country to experience adventure and challenge in a way that helps students realize they can do more than they thought possible. Customized courses provide curricula developed for struggling teens, groups with specific health, social or educational needs and business and professional organizations. Expeditionary Learning, a chartered entity of Outward Bound, offers a whole school reform model to more than 150 elementary and secondary schools throughout the country (Outward Bound).
  • Youthwork Link and Ideas Youthwork links and Ideas is a compilation of topics, stories, ideas, and featured websites for youth development.

Libraries: Avenues for Opportunity

As Jones (2011) stated, "Some on't realize how great libraries are for positive youth development." Librarians have the unique opportunity to facilitate the success of young people through their programs and physical resources. "We must capitalize on the public library's potential to maximize learning opportunities beyond the walls of formal education" (Jones, 2011). Libraries are excellent sources of educational opportunities. By creating positive interactions and experiences for youth at a library, librarians can encourage them to have long lasting and beneficial relationships with the institution and its reources. A library can play a large part in a child's Positive Youth Development (PYD) and that has become more obvious in recent years. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has included in the Leadership and Professionalism competencies the need to "model commitment to building assets in youth in order to develop healthy, successful young adults" (YALSA, 2010). Books such as "Connecting Youth Adults and Libraries" list library-specific ideas to encourage PYD including "Parent technology nights at school or public library provide sklls parents need to help their teens succeed in school" (Tilley, 2011).

Relevant resources:

Local and Global Community and Positive Youth Development

  • John Gardner Center The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University partners with communities to develop leadership, conduct research, and effect change to improve the lives of youth.
  • OPT Youth Services Oak Park Township Youth Services (OPTYS) supports programs and services that work for the prevention of juvenile delinquency and which address youth who are at risk of becoming involved or are already engaged in inappropriate and/or illegal activities. OPTYS also advocates for programs and services which enhance the social and emotional development of youth and their families. OPTYS is committed to promoting opportunities for youth and their families to obtain needed services.
  • Reclaiming Youth International Reclaiming Youth International is dedicated to helping adults better serve children and youth who are in emotional pain from conflict in the family, school, community, or with self. The Circle of Courage® provides the philosophical foundation for the work of RYI. It suggests that children and youth do well when their needs of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity are met (RYI).

Positive Youth Development in the Media

  • goodreads
  • Guys Read: a web-based literacy program for boys. Our mission is to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers. Research shows that boys are having trouble reading, and that boys are getting worse at reading. No one is quite sure why. Some of the reasons are biological. Some of the reasons are sociological.
  • Reading In Color
  • readergirlz
  • Gnoosic: Gnod is a self-adapting system that learns about the outer world by asking its visitors what they like and what they don't like. In this instance of gnod all is about music. Gnod is kind of a search engine for music you don't know about. It will ask you what music you like and then think about what you might like too. When I set gnod online its database was completely empty. Now it contains thousands of bands and quite some knowledge about who likes what. And gnod learns more every day.
  • Scenarios USA: Scenarios USA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that that uses writing and filmmaking to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression in under-served teens.

Benefits of Positive Youth Development

Health, Safety, and Sexuality

At-Risk Behaviors

After much research, the Search Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to creating healthy communities for children, has developed a framework for PYD called Developmental Assets. They have broken down what they believe to be the essentials every child must have for PYD into two main groups: external and internal assets. Both of these groups consist of twenty characteristics that will promote positive behavior among youth. Each group is further divided into four subcategories and contains some of the following assets:

External assets (those features that are supportive in the youth’s environment)
  • Support- family, neighborhood and school
  • Empowerment- community values, services to others and safety
  • Boundaries and Expectations- school, family and neighborhood boundaries
  • Constructive Use of Time- creativity, religious communities and time at home

Internal Assets (Values, skills and competencies that youth should possess)
  • Commitment to Learning – school engagement, homework and reading for pleasure
  • Positive Values- caring, honesty and restraint
  • Social Competencies- decision making, cultural competence and peaceful conflict resolution
  • Positive Identity- self-esteem, sense of purpose and positive view of personal future

According to the Search Institute’s research, the more assets a youth possesses, the less likely they are to engage in high-risk behavior such as alcohol and drug use, violence, and sexual activity. Based on surveys of 150,000 6th- to 12th- grade youth, 45% of those who only possess 0-10 assets have problem alcohol use compared to 3% of youth that have 31-40 assets.

Bibliographical Resources

“40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents”. The Search Institute. http://www.search-institute.org/content/40-developmental-assets-adolescents-ages-12-18. (Accessed November 25, 2011).

Children's Rights and Library Best Practices

The Children We Serve

Eagle, mk. (2012). Answering teens' tough questions. Young Adult Library Services Association. Chicago: Neal-Schuman.

Farmer, Lesley S. J. (1996). Informing young women: Gender equity through literacy skills. Jefferson, N.C.: Macfarland & Company, Inc.

Jones, K., & Delahanty, T. (2011). Viable venue: The public library as a haven for youth development. Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, Retrieved from http://web.ecscohost.com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b117f331-b748-4c1c-ba14-457a7944a3f2@sessionmgr115&vid=3&hid=127

Lerner, R. M., Almerigi, J. B., Theokas, C., & Lerner, J. V. (2005). Positive youth development: A view of the issues. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1), 10-16.

Mondowney, Joann G. (2001). Hold them in your heart: Successful strategies for library services to at-risk teens. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

“The Power of Assets”. The Search Institute. http://www.search-institute.org/research/assets/assetpower. (Accessed November 25, 2011).


Restuccia, D., & Bundy, A. (2003). Positive youth development: A literature review. Retrieved from http://mypasa.org/failid/Positive_Youth_Dev.pdf

Tilley, Carol L. “Developmental Assets.” School Library Monthly, Vol. XXVII, No. 7, April 2011, pg. 41.

Tufts Study

"YALSA’s Competencies for Librarians Serving Youth: Young Adults Deserve the Best”. Young Adult Library Services Association. http://www.ala.org/yalsa/guidelines/yacompetencies2010. (Accessed November 25, 2011).

Youth in museums and libraries: A practitioner's guide. In (2008). Institute of Museum and Library Services. http://www.imls.gov/assets/1/workflow_staging/News/750.PDF