Focus Area 2: Youth Development
5. The Positive Youth Development Perspective

With an understanding of the process of human development, specifically the various developmental stages, channels, tasks, and milestones each youth needs to reach, you have a better idea of what it takes to support youth no matter their physical age or actual developmental stage.

Now you’ll look at how you can support their development through a research-based framework known as Positive Youth Development (PYD).


A collaboration of 20 federal government departments and agencies that support youth, collectively known as the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, jointly crafted this definition of positive youth development (PYD)1:

“PYD is an intentional, prosocial approach that engages youth within a manner that is productive and constructive; recognizes, utilizes, and enhances young people’s strengths; and promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, and furnishing the support needed to build on their leadership strengths.”

There are five areas of focus within the PYD perspective. They are known as the Five Cs – Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, and Caring. When a young person has all Five Cs, then a sixth C - Contribution – is realized2.


A positive view of one’s actions in these specific areas:

  • Social competence, referring to interpersonal skills (e.g. conflict resolution)
  • Cognitive competence, referring to cognitive abilities (e.g. decision making)
  • Academic competence, referring to school performance as shown, in part, by school grades, attendance, and test scores
  • Health competence, referring to keeping oneself fit through nutrition, exercise, and rest
  • Vocational competence, referring to positive work habits and exploration of career choices. Having effective entrepreneurial skills is another example of vocational competence.


An internal sense of overall positive self-worth and self-efficacy - the belief that you can achieve or accomplish something.


Positive bonds with people and institutions that are reflected in exchanges between the individual and his or her peers, family, school, and community in which both parties contribute to the relationship.


Respect for societal and cultural norms; having standards for correct behaviors and a sense of right and wrong; and integrity.


A sense of sympathy and empathy for others.


Contributions to self, family, community, and the institutions of a civil society. Such contributions are envisioned to have both a behavioral (action) component and an ideological component (contributions are the result of a young person’s values and sense of moral or civic duty).

The core concept of the PYD perspective is that when the inner strengths and resources of youth are aligned with environmental resources, then every young person’s development can be improved. (J. Lerner, Phelps, Forman, & Bowers, 2009) 

Your work with youth is intended to bring about the developmental outcomes of the six Cs as described in the chart above. 


PYD exists in dynamic environments that build upon the strengths of and recognize risk behaviors in adolescents. These environments include systems of support, such as peer or social networks, school, family, and community. The contexts are all a part of an ecological framework that PYD programs incorporate into their programming and that adolescents continually interact with.

When connecting youth to positive experiences, youth programs should encompass the following principles3:

  • PYD is an intentional process. It is about being proactive to promote protective factors in young people.
  • PYD complements efforts to prevent risky behaviors and attitudes in youth and supports efforts that work to address negative behaviors.
  • PYD acknowledges and further develops (or strengthens) youth assets. All youth have the capacity for positive growth and development.
  • PYD enables youth to thrive and flourish and prepares them for a healthy, happy, and safe adulthood.
  • PYD involves youth as active agents. Youth are valued and encouraged to participate in design, delivery, and evaluation of the services. Adults and youth work in partnership.
  • PYD instills leadership qualities in youth, but youth are not required to lead. Youth can attend, actively participate, contribute, and/or lead through PYD activities.
  • PYD involves civic involvement and civic engagement; youth contribute to their schools and broader communities through service.
  • PYD involves and engages every element of the community — schools, homes, community members, and others. Young people, family members, and community partners are valued through this process.
  • PYD is an investment that the community makes in young people. Youth and adults work together to frame the solutions.

Environmental Resources

Sometimes called “external assets” or “ecological developmental assets,” examples of environmental resources include4:

  • Families
  • Schools
  • Neighborhoods
  • Structured out-of-school-time (OST) activities

Each can support adolescent growth in more positive directions.

Internal Developmental Assets

The strengths of young people – their internal developmental assets – can be measured by three characteristics:

  • Ability to select goals
  • Ability to develop strategies and means for reaching one’s goals
  • Ability to compensate for or overcome obstacles in the face of failure or blocked goals

As youth advance through life, the cognitive and behavioral styles they previously used become inadequate for coping and thriving. For example, at age four, when a child gets frustrated with a task, it may work to yell out, “Mom!” to get help. However, at age fourteen, this would generally not be seen as a developmental strength or asset.

They then shift to using cognitive and behavioral styles that they deem more effective for life’s new challenges. This is how youth develop strengths.


You enter youth work wanting to make a difference. Does your work make a difference in supporting positive youth development? Research says yes!

The 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development is an ongoing long-term study that began in 2002. Its goal is to test the hypothesis that positive youth development occurs when the strengths of youth are aligned with environmental resources. 

How the 4-H Study Was Conducted5

The 4-H Study included looking at the Five Cs - Competence, Confidence, Character, Connection, and Caring. It also tested whether youth with higher PYD scores demonstrate higher levels of the sixth C - Contribution to one’s self, family, community, and civil society. (Source: Lerner, 2004).

The researchers looked at many factors, such as:

  • Career goals
  • School achievement
  • Involvement in out-of-school time activities
  • Parent-child relationships
  • Active and engaged citizenship (AEC) among youth
  • Sexual behavior
  • Engagement in activities such as exercise and healthy eating
  • Risk behaviors (e.g. smoking, drinking, bullying)
  • The presence of depressive symptoms

Key Findings

  • PYD (Positive Youth Development), as measured by the Five Cs, is linked to a “Sixth C” - Contribution.
  • Youth development programs constitute key ecological assets promoting PYD when they include:
  • Sustained, positive adult-youth relationships
  • Life skills-building activities
  • Youth participation and leadership

These three assets are often called “The Big 3 of Ecological Assets.”

  • Four important ecological assets present in families, schools, and communities of youth are:
  • Individuals
  • Institutions
  • Collective action
  • Access to resources in one’s context

In each setting, individuals are always the most important asset!

  • Across adolescence, the Five Cs occur when the strengths of young people are aligned with the environmental resources (assets) present in their community for healthy development.
  • Contrary to prior beliefs, there is more than one pathway for PYD. Several distinct trajectories have been identified for PYD, Contribution, and Risk/Problem Behaviors. For example, even youth at the highest levels of PYD and Contribution can show risk and problem behaviors.

The bottom line: across more than 40 empirical publications to date, the 4-H Study has yielded important information that confirms the benefits of including PYD in youth programs.

Reference Sources

1, Positive Youth Development

2 The first 5 Cs are from: Waves of the Future: The First Five Years of the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, (Lerner, et al; 2009). The 6th C (Contribution) is from: Positive Youth Development, Participation in Community Youth Development Programs, and Community Contributions of Fifth Grade Adolescents (Lerner, et al, 2003).

3, Positive Youth Development, Key Principles

4 Benson, Scales, Hamilton, & Sesma, 2006; Theokas & Lerner, 2006. Cathann A. Kress, Director, Youth Development, National 4-H Headquarters, CSREES, USDA (2004).

5 This section was adapted from: The 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development: Past, Present, and Future; Submitted by Amy Glaspie (2011); Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA)

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