Positive Youth Development

A guest blog from Cassandra Jessee, Director of YouthPower Learning

For the past three weeks, I’ve been working with partners in Rwanda and Indonesia on youth livelihood project designs. Informing this work is Positive Youth Development (PYD), a concept that many hold central to quality work with young people. I recently introduced it my students at Northwest University, where I was teaching a class this Fall in their Master’s program in International Community Development. Fiona Macaulay, founder and CEO of Making Cents International, recently posted a short article about PYD on her LinkedIn page. Making Cents International manages the USAID YouthPower Learning project, which is dedicated to advancing the knowledge and practice of PYD to transform the lives of young people.  The article was adapted from a presentation delivered at the YouthPower Network Launch in December by Cassandra Jessee, Director of YouthPower Learning. I think the article offers a nice introduction to PYD, and the authors kindly agreed to adapt it for Staying for Tea as my first guest blog. 

PYD: Changing the Way We Do Development

Positive Youth Development (PYD) is both a philosophy and an approach. It is a way of understanding young people that helps guide the design of youth-serving programs and the creation of youth opportunities. In contrast to conventional approaches to youth development, which rely on reducing youth risk factors and behaviors, PYD focuses on increasing youth assets and strengthening protective factors. Programs that utilize a PYD approach have increasingly demonstrated that building the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional competence of youth is a more effective development strategy than one that focuses solely on correcting problems.

PYD represents a paradigm shift in how we look at and provide youth services. It moves us from fixing problems to building on strengths; from reacting to risky behavior to proactively building positive outcomes; from targeting troubled youth to engaging all youth; and from regarding youth as recipients of services to treating youth as resources and active partners. With PYD, youth development is no longer just about programs and interventions – it is about relationships. By emphasizing the importance of relationships, young people become not just the business of aid workers, but of everyone in their community.


PYD shifts

The National Research Council at the Institute of Medicine conducted a two-year review of PYD programs and found that they were most successful if they included the components or features listed below. Each of these items connects in some way with virtually all PYD frameworks. The top four components of the list were:

  1. Physical and psychological safety
  2. Supportive adult relationships
  3. Skill-building
  4. Engagement not only in community activities, but in program design, implementation, and evaluation as well

Some programs employ the PYD approach to achieve one important objective or outcome (e.g. crime prevention), but PYD has actually demonstrated positive impact on other important youth outcomes that programs did not initially target, or that they considered ‘secondary.’ PYD approaches using the right components have proven to improve multi-sector outcomes regardless of the original program goal. For example, crime prevention programs using the PYD approach have been associated with both enhanced academic skills and delays in sexual activity. This occurrence was consistent across programs, regardless of youth gender or ethnic group.

PYD concepts

Definition of Positive Youth Development

USAID’s YouthPower initiative is building on this body of research and experience to apply a PYD approach internationally. To guide this effort, the YouthPower Learning project led by Making Cents International developed a PYD definition drawing upon the original definition from the YouthPower solicitation and the inputs from PYD leaders on our team. We also consulted other available definitions, such as the one put forward by the Interagency Working Group on Youth (www.youth.gov), and the academic and programmatic literature. We refined it with feedback from USAID and other YouthPower contract holders. It is intended to be a visionary, mission-oriented definition:

Positive Youth Development (PYD) engages youth along with their families, communities, and/or governments so that youth are empowered to reach their full potential. PYD approaches build skills, assets, and competencies; foster healthy relationships; strengthen the environment; and transform systems.

One can broadly apply this definition across youth age groups (10 to 29), although it should be noted that youth have different developmental stages and rapidly changing social, emotional, and cognitive skills across these age ranges. This definition is also relevant to various settings. As this definition is intended to be visionary, implementers should interpret terms like “skills,” “relationships,” “environment” and “systems” broadly. The terms “families, communities, and governments” are also broad and encompass systems such as peer networks and educational and workplace settings.

YouthPower Learning: A Game Changer

Making Cents is the prime contractor for the USAID YouthPower Learning project, which aims to advance the knowledge and application of PYD to transform the lives of young people. The project will foster an inclusive, demand-driven learning network to improve skills and practices around international, cross-sectoral PYD; create and manage YouthPower.org (scheduled to launch in March 2016), the premier learning hub for knowledge sharing on PYD programming; develop indicators and tools to bridge gaps across sectors and establish common measures to contribute to a comprehensive PYD framework; and provide evidence and evaluation support to USAID in the form of assessments, research, learning, and technical program design.

At the center of YouthPower’s Learning Network are its Communities of Practice (social networks of individuals committed to exploring what works in PYD), which drive the discovery of new practices to improve youth development outcomes, and which support YouthPower’s mission to enable youth to reach their full potential. The Network currently hosts the following Communities of Practice: Soft Skills and Their Relationship to Advancing Cross-sectoral Goals; PYD Approaches to Youth Programs in Conflict and Crime; Gender/Adolescent Girls and PYD; and Youth Engagement in PYD Program Design and Implementation. To join or learn more about the Communities of Practice, please email comms@youthpower.org.

Adapted by Making Cents International from a presentation delivered by Cassandra Jessee, Director of YouthPower Learning, implemented by Making Cents International, at the YouthPower Learning Network Launch in Washington D.C., December 7-8, 2015.


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Categories: Education, Youth


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