Box ES-1 summarizes the four domains and specifies the assets within each. Individuals do not necessarily need the entire range of assets to thrive; in fact, various combinations of assets across domains reflect equally positive adolescent development. Having more assets is better than having few. Although strong assets in one category can offset weak assets in another category, life is easier to manage if one has assets in all four domains.
Continued exposure to positive experiences, settings, and people, as well as abundant opportunities to gain and refine life skills, supports young people in the acquirsition and growth of these assets. The committee recognized that very little research directly specifies what programs can do to facilitate development, let alone how to tailor it to the needs of individual adolescents and diverse cultural groups.
Few studies have applied the critical standards of science to evaluate which features of community programs influence development. Despite these limitations, there is a broad base of knowledge about how development occurs that can and should be drawn on. Research demonstrates that certain features of the settings that adolescents experience make a tremendous difference, for good or for ill, in their lives.
There is good evidence that personal and social assets develop in developmental settings that incorporate the features listed below and in Table ES The exact implementation of these features, however, needs to vary across programs, with their diverse clientele and differing constraints and missions. Young people develop positive personal and social assets in settings that have the following features:.
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Structure that is developmentally appropriate, with clear expectations for behavior as well as increasing opportunities to make decisions, to participate in governance and rule-making, and to take on leadership roles as one matures and gains more expertise;. Opportunities to learn how to form close, durable human relationships with peers that support and reinforce healthy behaviors;.
Although all of these features are key to the success of children and adolescents at all ages, specific settings may focus their priorities differently to meet the developmental needs of particular participants—for example, younger children need more adult-directed structure and supervision than older youth and the skills that one needs to learn in childhood are different from those that need to be learned in adolescence.
Supportive, developmental settings, as a result, must be designed to be appropriate over time for different ages and to allow the setting to change in developmentally appropriate ways as participants mature. Positive development is also best supported by a wide variety of these experiences and opportunities in all of the settings in which adolescents live—the family, the school, the peer group, and the community. Still, exposure to such opportunities in community programs can compensate for lack of such opportunities in other settings. Community programs can expand the opportunities for youth to acquire personal and social assets and to experience the broad range of features of positive developmental settings.
Among other things, these programs can incorporate opportunities for physical, cognitive, and social and emotional development; opportunities to deal with issues of ethnic identity, sexual identity, and intergroup relationships; opportunities for community involvement and service; and opportunities to interact with caring adults and a diversity of peers who hold positive social norms and have high life goals and expectations.
Recommendation 1 —Community programs for youth should be based on a developmental framework that supports the acquisition of personal and social assets in an environment and through activities that promote both current adolescent well-being and future successful transitions to adulthood. Community programs are provided by many different individual organizations, each with their own unique approach and programmatic activities.
They may be provided by local affiliates of large national youth-serving organizations or may be an independent organization that is affiliated with a public institution, such as a school or public library. They also may be small, autonomous grassroots organizations that exist independently in a community. The focus of the activities may be sports and recreation, faith-based lessons, music and dance, academic enrichment, or workforce preparation. Programs may be targeted only to girls or only to boys; to a particular ethnic or religious group; or to young people with special interests.
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In addition, programs differ in their objectives, and some may choose to give more emphasis to particular program features. Community-wide organizing of youth policies, as well as support for individual programs, also varies from community to community. It might be a private intermediary organization or an individual charismatic leader, such as a minister or a rabbi of a local religious institution. However, it is often the case that there is no single person or group that is responsible for either monitoring the range and quality of community programs for youth or making sure that information about community programs is easily accessible to members of the community.
Adolescents in communities that are rich in developmental opportunities for them experience reduced risk and show evidence of higher rates of positive development.
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A diversity of program opportunities in each community is more likely to support broad adolescent development. The complex characteristics of adolescent development and the increasing diversity of the country make the heterogeneity of young people in communities both a norm and a challenge. Therefore, effective programs must be flexible enough to adapt to this existing diversity among the young people they serve and the communities in which they operate.
Even with the best staff and best funding, no single program can serve all young people or incorporate all of the features of positive developmental settings. A diversity of program opportunities in each community is more likely to support broad adolescent development and attract the interest of and meet the needs of a greater number of youth. To provide for the most appropriate kinds of community programs for the diversity of youth in a community, communities should regularly assess the needs of adolescents and families and review available opportunities for their young people.
While individual communities will invariably answer this challenge differently and make different judgments about the most appropriate ways to meet adolescent and community needs, there are several specific steps that the committee recommends be taken to support this kind of community mapping and monitoring. Recommendation 2 —Communities should provide an ample array of program opportunities that appeal to and meet the needs of diverse youth, and should do so through local entities that can coordinate such work across the entire community. Particular attention should be placed on programs for disadvantaged and underserved youth.
Recommendation 3 —To increase the likelihood that an ample array of program opportunities will be available, communities should put in place some locally appropriate mechanism for monitoring the availability, accessability, and quality of programs for youth in their community. Recommendation 4 —Private and public funders should provide the resources needed at the community level to develop and support community-wide programming that is orderly, coordinated, and evaluated in reasonable ways. In addition to support at the community level, this is likely to involve support for intermediary organizations and collaborative teams that include researchers, practitioners, funders, and policy makers.
The multiple groups concerned about community programs for youth—policy makers, families, program developers and practitioners, program staff, and young people themselves—have in common the fundamental desire to know whether programs make a difference in the lives of young people, their families, and their communities. Some are interested in learning about the effectiveness of specific details in a program; others about the effects of a given program; others about the overall effect of a set of programs together; and others about the effects of related kinds of programs.
Research, program evaluation, and social indicator data can play a significant role in answering such questions, improving the design and delivery of programs, and thereby, improving the well-being and future success of young people.
The committee first reviewed research on both adolescent development and the features of positive developmental settings that support it. In both cases, the research base is just becoming comprehensive enough to allow for tentative conclusions about the individual assets that characterize positive development and features of settings that support it. The committee used a variety of criteria to suggest the tentative lists of both important individual-level assets and features of settings that support positive development outlined in Box ES-1 and Table ES These suggestions are based on scientific evidence from both short- and long-term experimental and observational studies, one-time large-scale survey studies, and longitudinal survey studies reviewed by the committee.
However, much more comprehensive work is needed.
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More comprehensive longitudinal and experimental research, that either builds on current efforts or involves new efforts, is needed on a wider range of populations that follows children and adolescents well into adulthood in order to understand which assets are most important to adolescent development and which patterns of assets are linked to particular types of successful adult transitions in various cultural contexts.
The list of features of positive settings, as well as both personal and social assets, that the committee has developed is provisional, the boundaries between the features are fuzzy, and the specific names given to each feature and asset reflect the terminology of the scientific disciplines in which the research was done. Research on a diverse group of adolescents followed well into adulthood is needed to understand which patterns of assets best predict successful adult transitions in various cultural contexts and how these assets work together in supporting both current and future well-being and success.
Longitudinal research meets these objectives by collecting extensive psychological, social, and contextual information on the same individuals at different points in time. More experimental research that focuses on changing specific assets and characteristics of settings assumed to affect other assets is also needed in order to test causal hypotheses more sensitively. Despite its limitations, research in all settings in the lives of adolescents—families, schools, and communities—is yielding consistent evidence that there are specific features of settings that support positive youth development and that these features can be incorporated into community programs.
Community programs have the potential to provide opportunities for youth to acquire personal and social assets and have important experiences that may be missing or are in short supply in the other settings of their lives. Whether they are packaged as teen pregnancy prevention programs, mental health programs, or youth development programs, such programs can lead to positive outcomes for youth. There is limited research, however, measuring the impact of these experiences on the development of young people and therefore limited evidence on why program effects are or are not obtained.
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Few researchers have applied the critical standards of science to evaluate which features of community programs influence development, which processes within each activity are related to these outcomes, and which combinations of features are best for which outcomes. Thus, there is very little research that will help organizations decide how they should tailor program activities to the needs of individual youth and diverse cultural groups.
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Consequently, research is needed to sharpen the conceptualization of features of community programs and to explore whether other key features should be added to the list. This work should focus on how.
It should also focus on how to incorporate these features into community programs and on how to maintain them once they are in place. Finally, such research should identify program strategies, resource needs, and approaches to staff training and retention that can cultivate and support the features of positive developmental settings in community programs for youth.
Very few integrated programs have received the kind of comprehensive experimental evaluation necessary to make a firm recommendation about replicating the program in its entirety across the country. However, there is sufficient evidence from a variety of sources to make recommendations about some fundamental principles of supportive developmental settings and some specific aspects of programs that can be used to design community programs for youth.
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These are captured by the features of supportive settings outlined in Table ES Recommendation 5 —Federal agencies that fund research on adolescent health, development, and well-being, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education, should build into their portfolios new or more comprehensive longitudinal and experimental research on the personal and social assets needed to promote the healthy development and well-being of adolescents and to promote the successful transition from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood.
Recommendation 6 —Public and private funders should support research on whether the features of positive developmental settings identified in this report are the most important features of community programs for youth. This research should encourage program design and implementation that meets the diverse needs of an increasingly heterogeneous population of youth.
Evaluation and ongoing program study can provide important insights to inform program design, selection, and modification. Program evaluation can also help funders and policy makers make informed choices about which programs to fund for which groups of youth. The desire to conduct high-quality evaluation can help program staff clarify their objectives and decide which types of evidence will be most useful in determining if these objectives have been met.
Ongoing program study and evaluation can also be used by program staff, program participants, and funders to track program objectives; this is typically done by establishing a system for ongoing data collection that measures the extent to which various aspects of the programs are being delivered, how are they delivered, who is providing these services, and who is receiving them. Such information can provide useful information to program staff to help them make changes to improve program effectiveness. Finally, program evaluation can test both new and very well developed program designs by assessing the immediate, observable results of the program outcomes and benefits associated with participation in the program.
Such summative evaluation can be done in conjunction with strong theory-based evaluation or as a more preliminary assessment of the potential usefulness of novel programs and quite complex social experiments in which there is no well-specified theory of change. In other words, program evaluation and study can help foster accountability, determine whether programs make a difference, and provide staff with the information they need to improve service delivery.
Clearly there are many purposes for evaluation. Not surprisingly then, there are different opinions among service practitioners, researchers, policy makers, and funders about the most appropriate and useful methods for evaluating community programs for youth. In part, these disagreements reflect different goals and different questions about youth programs.
In part, they reflect philosophical differences about the purposes of evaluation and nature of program development. Program practitioners, policy makers, program evaluators, and others studying programs should decide exactly which questions they want answered before deciding on the most appropriate methods. The most comprehensive experimental evaluation, which involves assessment of the quality of implementation as well as outcomes, is quite expensive and involves a variety of methods. It also provides the most comprehensive information regarding both the effectiveness of specific programs and the reasons for their effectiveness.
Very few high-quality comprehensive experimental evaluations of community programs for youth have adequately assessed the impact of the programs on adolescents. This is presumably due to many factors—including the low priority accorded to evaluation by organizations struggling to fund services; inadequate funding for such evaluations and overreliance on program staff to conduct such evaluation, despite the fact that they have limited training to conduct such evaluations and limited time and funds to devote to such an effort; ethical concerns among practitioners and policy makers about the random assignment of some youth to programs and others to a control group receiving no services; unrealistic demands by many program funders for quick answers about the impact of programs they fund; and scarcity of the type of collaborative teams involving the research, practice, and policy communities needed to design and implement high-quality, comprehensive experimentally based evaluations.