Positive Youth Development
Today, the most cutting-edge thinking about human development across the lifespan is holistic, dynamic, and emphasizes the relationship between the developing person and his or her context. This thinking represents an important evolution within the field of developmental science. It stands in stark contrast to outmoded ideas that reduce development down to a couple competing forces (e.g., nature versus nurture), or that see the person as something to be molded like a piece of clay or filled like an empty receptacle. We now know that there are many integrated and co-acting influences that make up the “ecology of human development,” from biology/physiology through culture, the physical ecology, and history. We also know that people are very effective agents in their own development, and that development is a lifelong endeavor.
The Positive Youth Development (PYD) perspective is one such holistic, dynamic, and relational view of human development that centers on the developing young person. The PYD Perspective has six core concepts:
- Because of the potential for developmental change (plasticity) across the lifespan, all young people have strengths.
- All contexts have strengths as well. These strengths are resources that may be used to promote positive youth development.
- These resources are called “ecological assets.” They are the “social nutrients” needed for healthy development.
- Ecological assets are found in families, schools, faith institutions, youth serving organizations, and the community more generally.
- If the strengths of young people are combined with ecological assets, then positive, healthy development occurs.
- We should be optimistic that it is in our power to promote positive development among ALL young people and to create more asset-rich settings that support development.
In short, PYD emerges out of this dynamic relationship between the strengths of young people and the strong ecological assets within their contexts. How do we know that this is happening, that positive development is taking place? We know PYD is happening when we see the presence of “Five C’s”:
- Competence – A positive view of one’s abilities. This tends to refer to social, academic, cognitive, and vocational skills and knowledge.
- Confidence – An internal sense of worth and effectiveness. Consists of goals related to improving self esteem, self-concept, self-efficacy, identity, and belief in the future.
- Connection – Building and strengthening mutually beneficial relationships with the natural world, with other people, and with institutions.
- Caring – A sense of sympathy and empathy for and identification with other living beings.
- Character – Respect for cultural norms, as well as a sense of right and wrong.
The “Five C’s” model of PYD refers to the needs of the whole child, not just one part. The goal is to understand how young people develop in all areas of their life and how development in one area (always) affects another. When these “Five C’s” are happening for a young person, we can imagine that he or she is not the only person to benefit. Positively developing, thriving young people contribute, in turn, to their contexts. So, we can say that from the “Five C’s” emerges a sixth “C”:
- Contribution – It is believed that, when the “Five C’s” combine within a person, then there is a sixth “C” that emerges. This refers to contribution to self, to family, to community, and to civil society in general.
The Positive Youth Development perspective is a guiding value and a core developmental outcome at Home Base Learning Center. By nurturing the strengths and passions of our children and aligning those strengths with the ecological assets of our community, with the strengths and passions of our teachers and parents and of our incredible natural and designed spaces, we seek to nurture the positive development of our children, and of every member within our community. The opportunity to maximize one’s chances to develop in healthy and positive ways is social justice and so we can think of PYD as a social justice perspective, which is our second guiding value/core developmental outcome.
Social justice is both a goal and a process. As a goal, social justice means full and equal participation of all groups in society, where the distribution of resources is equitable and where all members are both self-determining (able to realize their full potential as human beings) and interdependent (capable of interacting democratically with others). At the center of even this larger, societal-level goal is the relationship between self and other, and so the seeds of social justice are planted from the beginning of life in every interaction every day.
As a process, social justice within education is a way of seeing and acting that strives for fairness and equity, and that helps to actualize each individual’s human potential:
- It is the practice of deep introspection and awareness of one’s interconnectedness with the whole of life, from the closest influences to the most distant.
- It is calling attention to our differences and similarities, honoring both individual and group identity.
- It is intentionally introducing issues of fairness and unfairness, and calling ourselves to think critically and to take action.
- It is understanding mechanisms of oppression and how to nonviolently challenge them.
- It is being responsive to each other’s developmental needs and trajectories and paying attention to our passions and burning questions.
- It is cultivating a sense of place — of belonging to a particular patch of earth and sky — and a connection to the earth and its creatures.
Learning to value nature requires significant personal contact with it. It requires knowing what previous generations of children and youth knew, namely, that nature is where one can go to experience wild play, where natural materials can be used to build with and explore, where risks can be taken to grow and mature. Children are naturally interested in how nature “works” and so it is simply a matter of building on that interest. When we build on this natural interest, we start children down the road toward earth stewardship, even if at first they are not yet capable of understanding the ins and outs of biodiversity and the interconnectedness of living systems.
The development of earth stewardship involves: A sense of wonder, a kind of wonder that, if supported, will lead to individuals showing care for nature. David Sobel, a leading environmental educator, puts it succinctly, “One transcendent experience in nature is worth a thousand nature facts.” In all earth stewards, no matter the form they take, we find a deep sense of wonder. And so, with children, we do not begin with the facts of nature but rather with nature’s power to elicit wonder. Knowledge and understanding that fosters a nature-centric perspective, one that leads naturally to an understanding of humans as participants in a vast and complex natural world. All well-developed earth stewards have in common the fact that they ‘know their stuff’ – their medium and the methods needed to achieve their goals in being earth stewards. For example, John Muir had to learn the skills needed to climb cliffs, traverse glaciers, and scale tall trees in order to put himself in position to write his accounts of high adventures, accounts that captured the nation’s imagination and led to the nation’s preserving wilderness. The list of professionals and workers in general, using their special professions and their special workplaces to be earth stewards, is long indeed – but in each developed earth steward we find these same themes of knowledge and competence.
An ethical-spiritual perspective on the natural world, which has at its center respect for the intrinsic beauty and worth of the nonhuman world – such that nonhuman animals, mountains, plants, rivers, etc. – all evoke not only a sense of “Is” but also a sense of “ought” – we ought to care about and for the natural world. In all cultural variations, we find in the development of earth stewards a shared ethical-spiritual perspective that emphasizes wonder, interdependence, and care for the natural world. Even young children can have an intuitive understanding and appreciation of the natural world and its ethical-spiritual meaning. With development comes increasingly more advanced ways of reflecting on this meaning such that what was once understood only implicitly and felt intuitively is eventually made explicit, and out of that emerges a developed earth steward.
No doubt, there are different pathways to becoming an earth steward, and no doubt, the endpoints of these pathways differ from one another. But they all have in common the development of a passion for caring for the natural world, and they all indicate a keen awareness of our smallness and interdependence.
The Having of Wonderful Ideas by Eleanor Duckworth