Youth Development Programs

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Youth development programs seek to improve the lives of children and adolescents by meeting their basic physical, developmental, and social needs and by helping them to build the competencies needed to become successful adults. Examples of youth development programs include community service, mentoring programs, and neighborhood youth centers.

It is unclear exactly how many youth development programs are operating in the United States in the early twenty-first century. In 1998 the Internal Revenue Service identified more than 5,700 nonprofit organizationsalmost 3 percent of all charitable agenciesthat focused their primary services on youth development. In addition, countless other organizations offer youth development activities within a different primary focus. Examples include youth groups within religious organizations and after-school activities offered by public elementary schools.

The purpose of this entry is to provide an overview of youth development programs. It is organized in the following manner. First, a brief history of services for children and youth is presented. Second, the current framework for youth development programs, including school-based youth development efforts, is discussed. Next, issues regarding access to youth development programs and findings from evaluations of youth development efforts are presented. Finally, several issues regarding implementation of youth development programs and future research directions are discussed.

Historical Development of Youth Development Programs

The concept of childhood as a unique and crucial stage of human development is a relatively recent idea. Until the mid-1800s, children were viewed as miniature adults who, without strict guidance from their families, would follow their natural inclination toward aggression, stubbornness, sinfulness, and idleness to their doom. Not surprisingly, the earliest programs and services for children who were poor, orphaned, delinquent, or mentally ill focused heavily on helping them avoid their natural inclination toward vice and sought to help them gain useful occupation. Apprenticeships were arranged for older children, while younger children were cared for in almshouses where their health, morals, and education would be improved with the overall goal of ensuring future self-sufficiency.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, numerous factors combined to influence a transformation in the view of children and childhood and subsequently in services for children. Writings of the English philosopher John Locke (16321704) and American transcendentalists fostered the view of children as pure and good human beings who learn from experience and, as a result, are corrupted only by the influence of society. The nineteenth-century English naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of evolutionspecifically its premise of environmental influence on behavior and developmentcontributed to the growing belief that, with appropriate nurturing, children could be molded into successful adults. As a result, childhood began to be viewed as a particularly critical point in human development. Friedrich Froebel (17821852), the German educator and founder of the kindergarten movement, encouraged this viewpoint and contended that children required special preparation for adulthood, as well as opportunities for recreation and play. The publication of American psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall's seminal work Adolescence in 1904 expanded this notion to older children and served to further cement such views.

This shift led to significant changes in services for children and adolescents. Institutions specifically designed to nurture the needs of children replaced apprenticeships and almshouses. Although the earliest institutions for children date to the mid-1700s, the movement to remove children from almshouses did not gain broad support until the nineteenth century. In 1861 Ohio passed the first state statute calling for the mandatory removal of all children from county almshouses, and by 1890 about 600 institutionsmostly owned and operated privately by religious and ethnic groupswere serving indigent children. Institutional child care during this period tended to take an undemocratic and antifamily approach characterized by discipline, training, and rehabilitation. These institutions operated with minimal oversight and mass care, rather than individualized attention, was the norm. Support for institutional child care waned for several reasons including increased economic uncertainty; the inability to build institutions at a rate sufficient to meet the needs of a growing number of orphaned, dependent, and delinquent children; the rise of public education; and the reduction in apprenticeship and legal indenture opportunities.

Child-care institutions were quickly replaced by a movement to place needy children with families. Led by the New York Children's Aid Society and its founder, the Reverend Charles Loring Brace, this movement focused on helping delinquent and needy children from New York City's poorest classes by transplanting them to a more healthful environment. Under Brace's direction, thousands of children were transported on orphan trains from New York City slums to live with farm families in the expanding West. Although they were subsidized by the city and the state, Brace's orphan trains failed to live up to his ideals. The families with whom the children lived often took advantage of their labor and failed to provide them with even the basic necessities and education. Poor families resented having their children sent so far away, and eventually the western states complained about what they perceived to be the dumping of thousands of delinquent and needy children each year. The economic shift from an agrarian society to an industrial society reduced the need for child labor on farms and further doomed this movement. Brace's conviction that family life was best for children and youth, however, continues to influence services for children to this day.

The first half of the twentieth century brought growing interest in the problem of juvenile delinquency. Investigation done by Dr. William Healy's Juvenile Psychopathic Institute led to the realization that the problem of delinquent children was not limited to the poorest classes. Further, delinquency was increasingly viewed as resulting from numerous factors, with the most prevalent being the lack of parental discipline resulting from the loss of one or both parents. Concurrently, it was becoming increasingly clear that efforts to punish offending youth did not deter future criminal action and that many of the youth who left institutions often returned. As a result, interest shifted to finding ways to treat troubled youth, rather than merely punish them, and led to the creation of the juvenile court system, which separated juvenile and adult offenders and focused on rehabilitation and cure. The first juvenile court law was enacted in Illinois in 1899, and by 1919 all but three states had established similar legislation.

Exploration into the causes of delinquency continued well into 1900s. Particularly influential were Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, who in a 1960 book advanced the opinion that young people turned to delinquency out of frustration with the lack of opportunity available to them. Opportunity theory suggested that providing atrisk youth with increased opportunityparticularly for economic successcould serve to prevent delinquency. As a result, services for children began to focus for the first time on the prevention of youth problems. One early such effort was the Mobilization for Youth Program, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, which offered a comprehensive array of services including employment bureaus, training programs, education programs, antidiscrimination activities, and neighborhood service centers. Despite the mixed results of this program and others like it, the interest in prevention set the stage for the youth development efforts of the early twenty-first century.

Youth Development Programs in the Early Twenty-First Century

In the early twenty-first century, youth development programs take a more positive or strengths-based approach to prevention. Rather than trying to keep teens from engaging in risky behaviors, youth development programs focus on helping them grow into happy, healthy adults. This approach mandates a conceptual shift from thinking that "youth problems are the principal barrier to youth development to thinking that youth development serves as the most effective strategy for the prevention of youth problems" (Pittman and Fleming, p. 3). Although professionals and researchers have yet to agree on a single definition of youth development, they have identified a set of principles common to most youth development programmatic efforts.

First, youth development efforts focus on meeting needs and developing competencies for all youth, not just for those engaged in problem behaviors or perceived to be at risk for doing so. The youth development model assumes that because all youth must pass through a specific developmental process to become successful adults, all youth are at risk for problems.

Second, youth development replaces the deficit-based focus of public-health prevention models with a strength-based approach that focuses on meeting needs and building competencies, rather than solving problems and providing treatment. The needs that must be met and the competencies that must be built to ensure the transition to successful adulthood are outlined in Table 1.

Third, unlike the public-health prevention model's focus on individual behavior, youth development assumes that "the way to improve the lives of young people is to improve the communities in which they live" (Jarvis, Shear, and Hughes, p. 721). Thus, community-level variables, rather than individual-level variables, are targeted for intervention and play a key role in youth development initiatives. Youth development's focus on community-level interventions influences how youth development initiatives are structured and implemented. Specifically, youth development programs focus on the "creation of a supportive community for children and families" and mandates that community-wide support and participation must be objectives "not only within an initiative's institutional collaboration structure, but also between a community's institutions and those citizens who live within it" (O'Brien, Pittman, and Cahill, p. 8). In 1994 Karen J. Pittman and Shepherd Zeldin further maintained that the establishment of youth development as a policy goal "must become incorporated into public institutions of education, employment, training, juvenile justice and health services to be successful" (p. 15).

Finally, the youth development approach requires the active participation of youth in the planning, delivery, and evaluation of services. The notion of involving youth as partners, rather than simply as clients, is unique to the youth development approach and is deeply rooted in empowerment theory, which focuses on the process of individuals' gaining power in order to improve their life circumstances. These points are summarized in Table 2.

Youth Development Programs and Education

Schools are viewed as a critical component of community-based youth development efforts. Of particular interest are efforts to provide youth development activities in school buildings during nonschool hours. Such activities range from educational enrichment, career exploration and development, and social and recreational opportunities. Four basic models of school-based youth development programs have been identified.

The Beacons model was established in New York City in 1991 and implemented as part of a comprehensive antidrug strategy. The model is based on the premise that youth development and academic achievement are strengthened when parents and community residents are involved in schools and when gaps between the home and the school are minimized. School-based community centers were opened to create safe places for youth and families in poor neighborhoods beset with drugs and violence. In addition to keeping school buildings open sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Beacons model strived to create an environment within each school that promoted youth development and resiliency.

The Bridges to Success model, a school-based youth development model developed by the United Way of Central Indiana, began in Indianapolis in 1991. This model seeks to increase the educational success of students by improving the ability of schools to meet the noneducational needs of students and their families through a partnership between educators and the local human and community-service delivery systems. Activities, including educational enrichment, career development, arts and culture, life skills, counseling, case management, health and mental health services, and recreation, seek to establish schools as lifelong learning centers and focal points within their communities.


Developed by the Children's Aid Society of New York City and initially implemented in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood in 1989, the Community Schools model seeks to provide a myriad of health and social services within a public school setting. Operating fifteen hours a day, six days a week year-round, community school activities include medical, dental, and mental health service; recreation; supplemental education; parent education; family life education; and summer programs. This model is based on the premise that children's educational outcomes cannot be separated from that


of their families and other community residents. As a result, the model seeks to transform schools into institutions that house a comprehensive array of services, provide a focal point for community life, and ultimately strengthen the entire community.

The fourth model, the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, a program initiated at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985, features university assisted schools. The underlying strategy of this model is to create a partnership between a school and a university that strengthens both institutions and produces positive outcomes for youth, university faculty and students, and the greater community. Specific programmatic activities include the development of enrichment activities, school-based health and social services, and community service projects. This model stresses community participation in program design and planning.

Private and public funders are expected to continue their push for school-based youth development efforts. Unlike programs offered in other community settings (such as churches and social-service agencies), school-based programs are viewed as being able to reach many youth and eliminating or reducing issues related to disparities in access.

Access to Youth Development Programs

A handful of studies have identified major discrepancies in access to youth development programs. In general, these studies have found that white or suburban youth have greater access to youth development activities than do their minority, urban, or rural counterparts. In addition, access to youth development programs also appears to be positively correlated with family income level.

In 1982 Judith Erickson found that members of youth organizations were more likely to come from families whose fathers were better educated or whose incomes were higher. Fred Newmann and Robert Rutter found in 1986 that private Catholic and alternative public schools were more likely to include community-service programs in their curriculum than regular public schools. Furthermore, larger schools and those with a larger minority population were also more likely to stress community service than smaller schools or those with predominantly white students.

In their 1985 examination of library distribution within communities, Mark Testa and Edward Lawlor found a link between family income and library availability. Specifically, they found that in Chicago neighborhoods where the median family income was below $25,000, the average number of children per public library was twice the average number of children per library in neighborhoods with a median family income above $25,000. Similarly, more than twice as much money was spent per child on the libraries in more affluent communities as compared to communities with lower family incomes.

Julia Littell and Joan Wynn further explored this issue in a 1989 study that compared the youth development opportunities available for middle-schoolaged youth (eleven-to fourteen-year-olds) in two Chicago communities that differed strikingly on numerous socioeconomic factors including educational attainment, occupational status, employment rates, median age, and racial composition. One community, given the pseudonym "Innerville" by the authors, was a low-income African-American community on Chicago's west side. The other community, which the authors called "Greenwood," was an affluent suburban municipality with predominantly white residents. They found stark differences in the number of community resources available for youth in these two communities. For every 1,000 youth aged eleven to fourteen, the inner-city community had 9.4 nonreligious organizations providing activities or facilities for youth, compared to 24.4 such organizations in the suburban community. In an average week, children in the inner-city community had access to 22.8 activities (per 1,000 youth aged eleven to fourteen), compared to 70.6 activities in the suburban community. In an average week, children in the inner-city community had access to 12.8 youth development activities offered through the public school (per 1,000 sixth through eighth graders), compared to 20.9 such activities for the suburban youth. Similarly, inner-city youth had access to2.2 public-park programs (per 1,000 youth aged eleven to fourteen), compared to 18.2 public-park programs for youth living in the suburb. Finally, the urban youth had access to about 9.4 facilities each week (per 1,000 youth aged eleven to fourteen), whereas the suburban youth could access 42.4 facilities.

Evaluation of Youth Development Programs

The effectiveness of youth development programs remains somewhat unsubstantiated because of the dearth of comprehensive, rigorous evaluations. In their 1999 review of more than sixty evaluation studies of youth-serving programs, Jodie Roth and colleagues were able to identify only six that used rigorous research designs. Findings from such studies, however, are generally promising.

As reported in 1995, an eight-site evaluation of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program found that after eighteen months youth who participated in the program were less likely to start using illegal drugs or to initiate alcohol use; were less likely to report hitting someone during the previous twelve months; earned moderately higher grades; skipped half as many days at school; skipped fewer classes; felt more competent about doing their schoolwork; and reported better relationships with peers and parents than the control group. No differences were found between the two groups in the number of times they stole or damaged property, were sent to the principal's office, engaged in risky behaviors, fought, cheated on a test, or used tobacco. There were no statistically significant gains in self-concept or in the number of social and cultural activities in which the youth participated.

As outlined in a 1994 report, a longitudinal study of the Quantum Opportunities Program, a multiservice youth development program operating in five states, identified several long-term positive effects of participation. Compared to the control group, program participants had significant increases in academic skills and educational expectations; were more likely to have graduated from high school or received their GED; were more likely to attend a postsecondary school; were less likely to have been in trouble with the police within the previous twelve months; and had fewer children. Additionally, 22 percent more participants received honors or awards during the previous twelve months and 30 percent more were involved in community service within six months of finishing the program. No differences were found in grades or knowledge about contraceptives and AIDS.

A 1997 evaluation of an effort to promote interracial, interethnic, and intercultural harmony among youth found that the treatment group (which numbered 244) had significant improvements in reported school attendance and race relations and significant decreases in drug and alcohol use in the previous month compared to the control group (which numbered 471). Program participants also tended to report higher self-esteem, less drug and alcohol use for the previous year, and greater control of aggressive behavior.

An evaluation of the ADEPT Program, a comprehensive after-school program focusing on building positive self-esteem and providing homework assistance and activities for social and emotional growth, found that the program did not have any measurable effects on personality variables, such as self-esteem, risk-taking behavior, depression, and in-class behavior. Further, there was no positive program effect on standardized test scores. There was, however, a statistically significant improvement in average standardized test scores for students who received the self-esteem-building curriculum.

A two-year, longitudinal study of ten after-school programs offering alternative supports to improve educational achievement found that, two years following program completion, program youth received significantly higher grades than comparison group students in mathematics, science, social studies, reading and composition. Further, program participants showed greater improvement in their reported effort in science and social studies. The students who participated in the program for two or more years held significantly more positive attitudes about themselves and school; felt safer during the after-school hours; knew more people in college; had higher educational expectations; and liked school more than nonparticipants.

A three-year longitudinal study of the South Baltimore Youth Center featuring multiple comparison groups found that the program had a significant impact on participants. The amount of self-reported alcohol consumption increased significantly less than the comparison group for youth who participated in the program's social activities such as mentoring, tutoring, and job training. Further, the self-reported amount of drug use decreased significantly for the program youth during the study. The amount of self-reported delinquent behavior, both minor and serious, decreased significantly for the program youth. There were no differences, however, in the prosocial behavior of either group.

Issues Regarding Youth Development Programs

The required level of community-wide collaboration, the basic tenants of the youth development approach, and limited evaluation efforts are all barriers to widespread implementation of youth development programming.

Community-wide collaboration. The high level of community-wide collaboration required for successful youth development efforts has been identified by many researchers as posing a significant barrier to successful adoption of this approach. Previous research has documented that collaboration is often the element that distinguishes between successful youth development initiatives and those that fail. Both Marian W. Edelman, in 1987, and R. Jenkins, in 1989, concluded that targeting critical needs with proven programs is secondary to establishing broad community support in ensuring the long-term success of youth development interventions.

While both practitioners and researchers agree that community-wide collaboration is critical for youth development efforts to be successful, they concede that garnering such support is often difficult. Specific barriers to community-wide support include the lack of clarity regarding the concept of youth development and outcomes associated with it, the lack of clear leadership in many youth development efforts, and the wide range of values and perspectives that participants bring to the collaboration. Until such barriers to collaboration can be meaningfully addressed through research and practice, youth development initiatives will continue to prove to be difficult to implement and to maintain.

Conflict with youth development philosophy. Several studies have found that the basic tenants of the youth development approach prove troublesome for many participants in youth development initiatives. Faced with many pressing community needs, collaborators may have difficulty prioritizing prevention over treatment, and, as a result, it is often more difficult to mobilize parents, community leaders, policy-makers, and service providers around promoting overall health or wellness than attacking a specific problem or crisis. Joan Wynn and her colleagues also noted the challenge of shifting institutional attention from "day-to-day survival and maintenance toward a more 'future' orientation" (Wynn, Costello, Halpern, and Richman, p. 48).

In addition, collaborators frequently have different viewpoints regarding another hallmark of the youth development approach: the involvement of youth and families in planning and policy development. One reason for this challenge is the lack of a theoretical framework that practitioners may use to guide collaborative efforts. However, work by N. Andrew Peterson and colleagues may begin to fill this gap. In a 1996 report, the National Clearing-house on Families and Youth contended that while many youth-serving agencies believe in client participation, putting that belief into practice to the extent required by youth development is often a challenge for many community organizations.

Finally, researchers have hypothesized that embracing youth development may be particularly difficult for social service agencies, whose philosophies, programs, and funding are likely to be deeply rooted in the traditional youth services paradigm. In 1995 Joan Wynn and her colleagues contended that such a paradigm is often too narrow to accept the broader youth development perspective, and, as a result, many of these agencies find it particularly difficult to institute the fundamental changes needed to embrace youth development. Funding streams that favor treatment and intervention over prevention may further discourage agencies from shifting services to the youth development paradigm.

Limited evaluation efforts. The lack of rigorous evaluation efforts has also limited more widespread adoption of the youth development approach. In its 1992 review of evaluation of youth-serving programs, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development identified several reasons for the lack of evaluative effort. First, they found that many agencies failed to allocate appropriate resources for outcome evaluation. Second, they found that many existing evaluations had weak evaluation designs and as a result their findings were unclear at best. Third, the staff of youth development programs were often resistant to participating in evaluation efforts. Finally, the council found that no clear, universally agreed-upon outcome measures for youth development programs had been identified. The council, however, felt that improving the state of youth development evaluation was critical to expanded implementation.

See also: Clubs; Community Education; Neighborhoods; Urban Education; Youth Organizations.


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internet resource

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Donna Van Alst

N. Andrew Peterson