Human EcologyUrie Bronfenbrenner's theory of ecological human development  teaches us that a child develops through interactions with her social environments. Families, peer groups, schools, neighborhoods, after-school groups, faith groups, and the many other social settings that a child experiences will promote or hinder her development. The relationships between each of these entities will play a role. Her growth will also be affected by larger societal systems -- new communication technologies, social movements, or economic peaks and valleys, for example.
This is not to say that children are entirely at the mercy of their environments. According to Bronfenbrenner, the interaction between a child and his social environments is reciprocal. This means that development does not simply happen to children and adolescents. On the contrary, young people are actively involved in shaping their own development; what's more, they influence the events that happen around them. They are participants, not just recipients.
The human ecology perspective informs the positive youth development philosophy. Rather than focusing solely on behavior change among youth, the positive youth development approach seeks to change the environments in which young people grow, act, and make decisions. To change these environments, it is necessary to change the attitudes of adults, as well as the policies and practices of organizations and groups in all community sectors. Drawing on the insights of human ecology, positive youth development improves youth outcomes by changing adults and their organizations, and ultimately changing the community itself.
PreventionPrevention science is a very large body of research that, since the 1960s, has investigated the question "How can we predict and prevent negative behaviors?" Prevention analysis identifies risk factors that increase the likelihood of negative behaviors such as violence, risky sexual behaviors, substance abuse, and school drop out, and suggests strategies for supporting at-risk youth. Some prevention researchers base their work on human ecology theory. Richard Catalano and David Hawkins at Washington University, for example, consider the whole community as well as the school, family, peer group, and individual. With an overall focus on preventing problems and reducing risk, prevention approaches have different emphases but frequently complement positive youth development approaches. Stephen F. Hamilton offers an analysis of this relationship in Youth Development and Prevention (PDF: 110K).
ResilienceFindings from resiliency studies, which began to appear in the 1980s, greatly influenced the development of the positive youth development approach in the 1990s. Resiliency research helped to shift practice in a positive, strength-based direction, asking "Why do many young people do well despite the risk factors they face? How do young people beat the odds against them?" Researchers have attempted to answer these questions by following groups of individuals from childhood to adulthood (see, for example, the 40-year Kauai study by Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith ). Using a risk- and protective-factors framework, resiliency analysis identifies the characteristics that buffer the impact of risk factors, thus increasing the likelihood of positive behaviors. These characteristics may be intrinsic to the child, or part of the child's environment. For example, the presence of caring adults in a young person's life is a key environmental factor that promotes positive outcomes.
Importantly, protective factors have a more profound impact on the life course than do specific risk factors.
Developmental AssetsMore recently, research has begun to focus on positive outcomes, addressing the question "What makes young people succeed?" Taking a positive youth development approach, Peter Benson and his colleagues at Search Institute in Minneapolis have identified 40 developmental assets that make it possible for young people to thrive . Developmental assets are experiences, values, skills, and opportunities that young people need to develop to their full potential. Two sets of assets are proposed: external -- those traits that communities, schools, and families provide, and internal -- those traits that the individual brings to the table.
One of Search Institute's important contributions to the field has been to demonstrate a relationship between assets and outcomes: the fewer assets a young person experiences, the more likely it is that he will engage in negative behaviors such as alcohol use and violence. Similarly, the more assets a young person has, the more likely he is to succeed in school and make healthy behavior choices.
|||Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
|||Werner, E. & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. New York: Cornell University Press.
|||Benson, P. L. (2006). All kids are our kids (Second ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley.|