Like an infant who sees rapid physical changes in the short amount of time to toddlerhood, adolescents experience the same kind of rapid change in their social and emotional development on their way to adulthood. Traditional thinking on adolescence characterizes this as a time when youth display negative risk-taking behaviors. A Positive Youth Development (PYD) approach, long used in the United States and other industrialized countries, takes a different view. It treats adolescence as an opportunity to harness the great energy and emotional growth that takes place during this developmental stage. PYD supports young people in building a foundation of skills needed to develop a positive self-concept, healthy relationships, and the motivation to engage in a meaningful way in their communities.
Having played a central role in youth development domestically and in the “global north,” the PYD approach is now gaining ground in low- and middle-income countries. In the many countries around the world that are experiencing a youth population bulge, development agencies are increasingly focusing on this important demographic between the ages of 15-24. In 2007, the World Bank published a report that suggested investments in youth development translated into benefits for society by increasing young people’s connections to their communities and helping them to make successful transitions to adulthood. Since then, there has been increased attention on the needs of youth and the usefulness of the PYD approach.
What is PYD?
PYD is based on the belief that, “given guidance and support from caring adults, all youth can grow up healthy and happy, making positive contributions to their families, schools, and communities (US Department of Health and Human Services).” Programs that use the PYD approach intentionally focus on “developing cognitive, social, emotional, behavioral and moral bonding competencies; self-efficacy; prosocial behavior; a belief in the future; a clear and positive identity; and self-determination.”
According to the University of Chicago, it is in adolescence where we must be sure to set the stage for success in adulthood. In particular, they suggest that we need to ensure a young person can “fulfill individual goals and have the agency and competencies to influence the world around them.” This includes helping them to be aware of the possibilities in life, to find the motivation to pursue those opportunities, and to develop the positive decision-making skills to make wise choices. This exposure is fundamental to young people having the ability to set and achieve education and career-related goals.
What are the Impacts of PYD?
A recent review completed by the Lancet Commission found that “building the assets and skills of adolescents can result in both immediate and long-term positive effects on the mental and physical health, economic development, and overall well-being of adolescents, their families, and communities.” A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials measuring the impacts of PYD in industrialized countries further elaborated the significant effects such programs have had on academic achievement and psychological adjustment, including decreases in emotional distress and increases in positive self-perceptions. These positive results remained in place for young people long after the PYD interventions.
While the availability of rigorous research on the impacts of PYD in low- and middle-income countries is limited, studies do exist that have found enhancing the assets of adolescents can support them in doing better academically and in managing emotional difficulties. Developing youth assets includes ensuring they have ample opportunities to feel supported and empowered, while learning and understanding positive values like caring, integrity, honesty, and responsibility. Correlational studies have shown that when youth have a high number of these assets they also have higher levels of “literacy, numeracy, and availability of human, social, financial, and physical capital to generate income.”
What do Young People Need to Achieve Economic Success?
At the same time researchers have been investigating the impacts of PYD, they have also been examining what youth need for economic success. Many efforts now focus on preparing youth for work by ensuring that they have solid, transferable soft skills. In some cases, soft skills have been shown to have a greater impact on an individual’s employment, earnings, and overall well-being than job-specific technical skills. According to Child Trends, soft skills include “competencies, behaviors, attitudes, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals.” The top six soft skills linked to positive employment and entrepreneurship outcomes for youth are:
Problem solving/critical thinking
Problem solving/critical thinking
How is PYD Linked with Economic Success?
If we unpack the benefits of PYD and the soft skills needed for future youth success in outside and self-employment, we see the overlap. We find common themes like self-esteem/self-concept; agency; assets; ability to navigate environment/self-determination; and self-efficacy/self-control. So how can we use PYD approaches to better prepare youth for work? Here are recommendations based on some of the main features of PYD:
Skill building through training, team-based projects, or service learning – This feature has a clear and obvious link to preparing youth for the world of work. Most important is the opportunity for hands-on, experiential learning. Instead of dry classroom lectures, a PYD approach ensures that youth are able to experience teamwork, problem-solving, the need for positive communication, and critical thinking through activities that require goal-setting and achievement. If one wished to make a more direct link to the world of work, scenarios could easily concentrate on science, technology, and math-focused activities or entrepreneurial-based assignments. Internships and apprenticeships also fit here for both soft and technical skill building.
Links to healthy role models and mentors – Another PYD feature that easily connects to preparing youth for economic success has to do with nurturing relationships with positive mentors and building social networks. In a report by the National Mentoring Partnership, they state, “mentors can enhance the employability of youth in two key ways: providing guidance to address professional and personal challenges and enhancing career readiness skills.” Recent studies have found significant effects of mentoring on youth career readiness and employment outcomes. Many studies in low- and middle-income countries have also shown the importance of social networks to youth employment and entrepreneurship.
A safe environment that offers a sense of belonging and membership – While this PYD feature may seem a bigger jump to make in fostering youth employment, think again. Many domestic and international companies now have specific strategies for building their talent pipeline that include internally focused programs to better onboard young entry-level workers. Companies design these programs to help young people feel comfortable in their new environment, learn the company culture, and better represent the company’s values. Other businesses are working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to source talented young workers, sometimes considered at-risk, to help meet gaps in labor supply. These NGOs often train youth in important soft skills before placing them in jobs, where they then receive ongoing mentoring and support to ensure successful .
A setting with clear norms and expectations – Where else is there a greater need for clear norms and expectations than in the workplace? For many years, apprenticeships have been the opportunity for youth to practice being on time, properly dressed, and ready to work without the ultimate consequence of losing the job if they mess up. They are also able to develop basic technical skills required to meet the needs of the company. A recent article on apprenticeships for youth suggests that, “apprenticeships teach career skills, but at the same time play a positive role in young people’s development. The adults involved in apprenticeships serve as mentors, on-the-job supervisors, and teachers. These adults provide guidance and demand professionalism, but still allow young people to learn from making mistakes.”
Opportunities for youth decision-making and leadership – When youth learn leadership skills in PYD programs it sets them up to become leaders in the workplace or to become motivated for entrepreneurship. When hiring young talent, innovative companies are looking for those who will “challenge the status quo.” They want fresh ideas from people who are willing to voice their opinions and follow through on achieving their goals. In addition, to become a successful business owner, leadership skills are a must. While being self-motivated is important, youth must also be prepared to take positive risks, which means having the ability to weigh the pros and cons and decide on the best course of action.
It is clear that in many ways PYD approaches and programs have a positive influence on the development of the skills youth need most in the workplace. Youth employment programs should, therefore, take notice of how the elements of PYD can be used in the development of their own strategies.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is currently building the research on PYD in low- and middle-income countries through its YouthPower Learning project. Making Cents International, implementer of YouthPower Learning, is excited to bring these lessons learned to PYXERA Global’s Global Engagement Forum Live on April 4–5th in Washington, D.C., where we will contribute our expertise to solving the Skills Gap that constrains youth employment globally. In addition, Making Cents will investigate the links between PYD and economic opportunities for youth at our 11th annual Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, to be held on Sept 27–29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.