The Big Three Components of Effective Youth Development Programs

What are the specific actions taken by youth development programs that make them effective in promoting the Five Cs? Catalano et al. (1999) find that the preponderant majority (about 75%) of effective positive youth development programs focus on what Lerner (2004) termed the "Big Three" design features of effective positive youth development (YD) programs. YD programs involving the Big Three provide:

1. Opportunities for youth participation in and leadership of activities; that

2. Emphasize the development of life skills; within the context of

3. A sustained and caring adult-youth relationship.

For instance, Catalano et al. (1999, p. vi) note that effective positive youth development programs "targeted healthy bonds between youth and adults, increased opportunities for youth participation in positive social activities, . . . [involved] recognition and reinforcement for that participation," and often used skills training as a youth competency strategy. These characteristics of effective positive youth development programs are similar to those identified by Roth and Brooks-Gunn (2003b), who noted that such programs transcend an exclusive focus on the prevention of health compromising behaviors to include attempts to inculcate behaviors that stress youth competencies and abilities through "increasing participants' exposure to supportive and empowering environments where activities create multiple opportunities for a range of skill-building and horizon-broadening experiences" (p. 94). In addition, Roth and Brooks-Gunn (2003b) indicate that the activities found in these programs offer both "formal and informal opportunities for youth to nurture their interests and talents, practice new skills, and gain a sense of personal and group recognition. Regardless of the specific activity, the emphasis lies in providing real challenges and active participation" (p. 204).

In this regard, Roth and Brooks-Gunn (2003a) note that when these activities are coupled with the creation of an atmosphere of hope for a positive future among youth, when the program "conveys the adults' beliefs in youth as resources to be developed rather than as problems to be managed" (p. 204), then the goals of promoting positive youth development are likely to be reached. In other words, when activities that integrate skill building opportunities and active participation occur in the presence of positive and supportive adult — youth relations, positive development will occur.

Blum (2003) agrees. He notes that effective youth programs offer to youth activities through which to form relationships with caring adults, relations that elicit hope in young people. When these programs provide as well the opportunity for youth to participate in community development activities, positive youth development occurs (Blum, 2003).

The role of positive adult — youth relationships has been underscored as well by Rhodes (2002; Rhodes & Roffman, 2003). Focusing on volunteer mentoring relationships, for instance, Rhodes and Roffman (2003) note that these nonparental "relationships can positively influence a range of outcomes, including improvements in peer and parental relationships, academic achievement, and self-concept; lower recidivism rates among juvenile delinquents; and reductions in substance abuse" (p. 227).

However, Rhodes and Roffman (2003) also note that there is a developmental course to these effects of volunteer mentoring on youth. When young people are in relationships that last a year or longer, they are most likely to experience improvements in academic, psychological, social, and behavioral characteristics. On the other hand, when youth are in relationships that last for only between 6 and 12 months, fewer positive outcomes of mentoring are evident. When young people are in mentoring relationships that end relatively quickly, it appears that mentoring may actually be detrimental. Decrements in positive functioning have been reported in such circumstances (Rhodes, 2002; Rhodes & Roffman, 2003).

Of course, parents may also serve as the adults in positive adult — youth relations. Bornstein (2003) notes that the positive influences of parents on their children's healthy development may be enhanced when parents have several "tools" to facilitate their effective parenting behaviors. These tools include possessing accurate knowledge about child and adolescent development, having good skills at observing their children, possessing strategies for discipline and for problem prevention, having the ability to provide to their children effective supports for their emotional, social, cognitive, and language development. An additional resource for positive parenting is for adults to have their own sources of social support (Bornstein, 2003).

In addition to the Big Three components of programs that effectively support PYD, there are, of course, other program characteristics that are effective in promoting such development. Among these are the presence of clear program goals; attention to the diversity of youth and of their families, communities, and cultures; assurance that the program represents a safe space for youth and that it is accessible to them; integration of the developmental assets within the community into the program; a collaborative approach with other youth-serving organizations and programs; contributing to the provision of a "seamless" social support across the community; engagement in program evaluation; and advocacy for youth (Dryfoos, 1990, 1998; Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Lerner, 1995; Little, 1993; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003a, 2003b; Schorr, 1988, 1997). However, youth participation, adult mentorship, and skill building are the bedrocks upon which effective programs must be built. Indeed, Scales et al. (2000), in an assessment of thriving among 6,000 youth participating in the 1999-2000 Search Institute Profiles of Student Life—Attitudes and Behaviors Survey (PSL-AB) of developmental assets, found that spending time in youth programs was the key developmental asset promoting thriving.

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