So…what does it really mean?…
Youth development is a theory and a practice that is research-based, and that works. It focuses on and emphasizes what our youth can do as opposed to what they can’t or aren’t doing. (For the purposes of this article, youth is defined as ages 14-24 give or take a year or so, depending on who you ask). Through youth development, our young people are equipped with the tools needed to make informed decisions about their futures, and to be productive and positive members of society.
It is promoted through project-based and experiential learning, enrichment activities, civic engagement, character-building, and service learning, to name a few. These types of activities are intentional and cater to the needs of the youth being served, while addressing their academic, social, emotional, intellectual, physical, and even their professional needs.
In short, when our youth associate positive experiences with the relationship, program, or environment that is being fostered (whether it be at school, in after-school programs, community-based organizations, camps, internships, etc.), this all works collectively towards our youth’s positive development.
There are also some core values that under-gird the field, and that are key contributors to youth development, regardless of who the youth is. In order for positive youth development to take place, any youth-focused program needs to emphasize:
1. A sense of belonging
2. Safety and Structure
3. Choice and voice
4. Strengths-based and focused
5. Youth-driven decisions
6. Promotion of the mental, physical, social, and emotional health of the students
7. Intellectual, academic, and educational rigor
8. Healthy and positive relationships
Having the characteristics listed above as core programmatic components ensures that our youth are provided with the supports needed to build on their leadership strengths to become change agents, engaged citizens, and leaders.