Strengthbased View Of Youth Development

In these early years of the twenty-first century, a new vision and vocabulary for discussing young people has begun to emerge (King et al., 2004). Propelled by the increasingly more collaborative contributions of scholars (e.g., Benson, 2003; Damon & Gregory, 2003; Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003; Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Murray, & Foster, 1998), practitioners (e.g., Pittman, Irby, & Ferber, 2001; Wheeler, 2000, 2003), and policy makers (e.g., Cummings, 2003; Gore, 2003; Gore & Gore, 2002), youth are viewed as resources to be developed. The new vocabulary emphasizes the strengths present within all young people and involves concepts such as developmental assets (Benson, 2003), positive youth development (Benson, 1990; Little, 1993), moral development and noble purpose (Damon, 1990; Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003), civic engagement (e.g., Flanagan & Faison, 2001; Flanagan & Sherrod, 1998; Youniss, McClellan, & Yates, 1999), well-being (Bornstein, 2003), and thriving (Dowling, et al., 2003, 2004; King, et al., in press; Lerner, 2004; Scales, Benson, Leffert, & Blyth, 2000; Theokas et al., 2005). All concepts are predicated on the idea that every young person has the potential for successful, healthy development and the belief that all youth possess the capacity for positive development.

This vision for and vocabulary about youth has evolved over the course of a scientifically arduous path (Lerner, 2004; Lerner et al., 2002). Complicating any new conceptualization of the character of youth as resources for the positive development of self, families, and communities was an antithetical theoretical approach to the nature and development of young people, one characterized by a deficit view that conceptualized youth behaviors as deviations from normative development (see Hall, 1904). Understanding such deviations was not seen as being of direct relevance to scholarship aimed at discovering the principles of basic developmental processes. Accordingly, the characteristics of youth were regarded as issues of "only" applied concern—and thus of secondary scientific interest. Not only did this model separate basic science from application but, as well, it disembedded the adolescent from the study of normal or healthy development. In short, the deficit view of youth as problems to be managed split the study of young people from the study of health and positive development (Lerner et al., 2002; Overton, 1998).

Other types of "splits" were associated with this deficit model of youth development. The conception of developmental process typically associated with this model often involved causal splits between individual and context, between organism and environment, or—most generally—between nature and nurture (Gottlieb, 1997; Lerner, 2002; Overton, 1998). In short, scholars studying human development, in general, and youth development, in particular, used a theoretical model that was not useful in understanding the integrated, or relational, character of development (Overton, 1998); the synthesis between basic and applied science; or how young people developed in normative, healthy, or positive ways. However, the integration of person and context, of basic and applied scholarship, and of young people with the potential for positive development were legitimated by the relational models of development that emerged as cutting-edge scholarship by the end of the twentieth century (Damon, 1998).


The forefront of contemporary developmental theory and research is associated with ideas stressing that systemic (bidirectional, fused) relations between individuals and contexts provide the bases of human behavior and developmental change (e.g., Damon, 1998; Ford & Lerner, 1992; Gottlieb, 1997; Overton, 1998). Within the context of such developmental systems theories, changes across the life span are seen as propelled by the dynamic relations between individuals and the multiple levels of the ecology of human development (e.g., families, peer groups, schools, communities, and culture), all changing interdependently across time (history) (Lerner, 2002). History—temporality—infuses the system of relations between individuals and contexts with the potential for change (Baltes, Lin-denberger, & Staudinger, 1998; Elder, 1998).

Developmental systems theory eschews the reduction of individual and social behavior to fixed genetic influences and, in fact, contends that such a hereditarian conception is counterfactual (Gottlieb, 1997, 1998; Lerner, 2002). Instead, developmental systems theory stresses that mutually influential (i.e., bidirectional or fused) relations exist among variables from all the levels of organization comprising the individual (e.g., the genetic and physiological) and the contextual tiers that we have noted comprise the ecology of human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2001, 2005). The fusion of these levels creates a fully coactional system (Gottlieb, 1997, 1998, 2004) that, because of the temporality of change derived from the embeddedness of the system in history, makes human development both lawfully probabilistic (i.e., probabilistic epigenetic; Gottlieb, 1997, 1998) and relatively plastic. This concept means that, because of the reciprocity between the individual and the context (which may be represented as individual * context), there is always at least some potential for systematic change in behavior.

The relative plasticity of development means that one may expect that there may be means found to improve human life. Such plasticity legitimizes an optimistic view of the potential for promoting positive changes in humans. As such, plasticity is a strength present within all people. Plasticity directs both science and applications of science—for example, involving public policies and the programs of community-based organizations (CBOs)—to find ways to create optimal matches between individuals and their social worlds in order to capitalize on the potential for positive change in people and thereby promote positive development.

The optimistic view of the potential of the developmental systems model to promote positive human development is linked also to the concept of "developmental regulation," that is, to the idea that individual — context relations constitute the basic process of change within developmental systems models. Developmental regulations may act to promote variation over time in how an individual interacts in his or her world and/or to promote consistencies in positive behaviors, e.g., continued resistance to engaging in health compromising behaviors. Cairns and Hood (1983) explain that such behavioral continuity may necessitate new means (strategies) at different points in life; thus, plasticity is involved in the production of both change and constancy in human development.

In essence, then, the systemic variability of developmental regulations, produced by the temporality of the developmental system, enables potential plasticity to be instantiated. Our interactions with our contexts can involve new means to positive outcomes and/or finding means to maintain health in the face of new risks (Baltes et al., 1998; Cairns & Hood, 1983). Thus, the concept of developmental regulation underscores an optimistic view of human potential. The concepts of relative plasticity and developmental regulation frame a conceptualization of a life-span developmental process for positive development, a process that may be labeled as "thriving."

A young person may be said to be thriving if he or she is involved across time in healthy, positive individual — context relations and on the path to what Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde (1998) describe as "idealized personhood" (an adult status marked by making culturally valued contributions to self, others, and institutions). While the structure of individual — context relations (of developmental regulations) remains invariant (e.g., involving bidirectionality and relative plasticity), the components of the individual-psychological and social relational features of individual — context relations may show inter-individual and inter-cultural differences as they change over time to comprise the thriving process. Nevertheless, despite individual and contextual variation, Lerner (2004) believes that the probability of thriving can be maximized in the context of developmental regulations that assure individual liberty and that reflect the democratic institutions of civil society. Such relations promote the individual development of the person and support institutions that are designed to protect and further such promotion.

Because of temporality and contextual variation, the instantiation of the relation between individual liberty and civil society may be different across cultures, in different nations, or across historical epochs. For example, attributes such as competence, confidence, character, social connection, and caring or compassion, which are characteristics that have been labeled as the "Five Cs" of positive youth development (e.g., Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Roth et al., 1998; Lerner, 2004; Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000), are often regarded as healthy outcomes of functionally appropriate (adaptive) developmental regulations in the contemporary United States (Lerner, 2004).

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