Profiles In Mentoring: Dr. Edmond Bowers reflects on PYD, understanding youth success across contexts, and how technology can better the world



Today we’re pleased to bring you our interview with Dr. Edmond Bowers, an associate professor of Youth Development Leadership at Clemson University. Dr. Bowers received both B.S. and M.Ed. degrees from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology from Boston College. Prior to arriving at Clemson, he served as a post-doctoral fellow and research assistant professor in the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development (IARYD) at Tufts University. Dr. Bowers also has experience teaching and working with students from the preschool to the graduate level, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Framed by the positive youth development (PYD) perspective, Dr. Bowers’ primary research interest is on the influence of non-parent social supports (e.g., mentors, youth leaders, coaches, teachers, older peers) in promoting healthy and positive development in young people. Through this research agenda, Dr. Bowers has collaborated with researchers and practitioners to design, implement, and evaluate research-based programs and materials in diverse school- and community-based settings across the country.

We were fortunate to have an interesting exchange on a variety of subjects. You can read the transcript of our conversation below, edited and condensed for clarity.

Interviewed by Jeremy Astesano

C: So, I want to start by asking you about your background. What path did you take to your current research, and what early interests lead you to focusing on mentoring and the positive youth development perspective?

EB: Sure. I started out as a middle school teacher. I earned my Master’s degree while teaching at a Catholic School in Prichard, Alabama, an under resourced and predominantly African-American community just outside of Mobile. I now teach online Master’s courses in Youth Development Leadership to working professionals—and that’s kind of how I got my degree – so things have come full circle!

After Alabama, I spent a year teaching just outside of Dublin, Ireland, again, in a very under resourced area where connections to positive adults and support for the community were limited. And as I was working in those environments, I always wondered about my role as a teacher, because I’d have some students who were excelling in the classroom, did well in lots of things, and were the students you could look to for leadership in the class. Then you would have kids from the same community, the same general family backgrounds, who weren’t succeeding in class. So, I was always curious about my role in how I could help promote their success in the classroom and in life. This was before I started my PhD program so I understand the processes more now, but I always had lots of questions, like how did this happen, and why. So that led me to pursue my PhD at Boston College with [Professor] Jacqueline Lerner. She and her spouse, [Professor] Richard Lerner, are key scholars in the positive youth development (PYD) field. They are behind much of the theory and research on the Five Cs model of PYD.

To be honest, I didn’t really know about PYD as a teacher, and I am still surprised how many of my students are not aware of these ideas. I’d say it was serendipitous that I was connected to Jackie Lerner. I knew about risk and resilience and looked at it as “oh, these kids are experiencing risk and some of them are resilient,” but this was a new way to look at things. PYD is… very strength-focused seeing all youth as having strengths and their contexts as having resources. PYD looks at young people from a relational developmental systems approach. So this approach views the young person in context, with youth and their contexts always influencing each other. When a youth and their context mutually benefit each other, they are more likely to thrive. So our goal as PYD scholars is to identify those strengths in young people and those resources in their community that we can then try to align… [so they’re] more likely to benefit each other and put youth on a thriving trajectory. So, as a teacher, those weren’t things I was thinking about yet, and that’s what I learned once I started working with the Lerners.

So I was fortunate to go to Boston College, be mentored by Jackie Lerner, and then was hired as a Postdoc in the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, Rich Lerner’s lab at Tufts University. My dissertation explored the role of youth-adult relationships within a residential facility for adjudicated youth so, at Tufts, I served as a postdoc researcher on Project GPS, an applied project funded by the Thrive Foundation. The aim of Project GPS was to develop materials and measures for mentoring programs to promote youth goal–directed skills and the five C’s of PYD. With this project, I became even more deeply involved in youth-adult relationships and thinking about “what’s the role of a mentor” in promoting positive outcomes in kids, and how can we best measure these efforts and outcomes. I’ve been fortunate to pursue this work with programs and partners locally, nationally, and internationally.

The fruits of my colleagues’ and my work can be seen when organizations such as Youth Collaboratory adopt our tools. Youth Collaboratory has used the Five C’s to measure success in their youth, to see if young people are growing in the five Cs of competence, confidence, connection, character, caring. But they also started using it as a way for mentors to help set goals for youth…That’s kind of what we did with Project GPS, but they (the Youth Collaboratory) came to it on their own I think, more naturally, and a lot of programs kind of use those five C’s as ways to set goals for kids. I think that’s one thing mentors can do—a key aspect of most mentoring programs is “you’re going to work with these kids on some goals. How can you start focusing these efforts and assessing impact?”

When you think about positive youth development and those five C’s, the resources mentors provide youth also help build that idea of connection a lot and build additional assets and social capital that a young person may not have until they meet their mentor.  Mentor’s don’t have to know everything…I always feel that’s a key thing to get across to mentors is that you’re kind of opening that door…mentors help connect kids to other people that can help them.

I think they can be a good resource for what the youth’s interests are, and help them make those connections that the mentor may not know themselves. If a child is interested in robots, or cooking, or whatever, a mentor might not have that skill, but they may be able to say, “I know people that can do that—I have the skill set to link you to those people and build that network up.”

“Mentor’s don’t have to know everything…I always feel that’s a key thing to get across to mentors is that you’re kind of opening that door…mentors help connect kids to other people that can help them.”

C: So, you’ve talked about what PYD is, but how does that vary from other perspectives in mentoring and why is it more appealing to you than some of the other perspectives that exist?

 EB: I most readily think of resilience approaches—and they’re not completely disparate from each other. They have a lot of things that they share in common. They both have a relational developmental systems background.

The idea though is that risk and resilience derives from a psychopathology foundation— with a strong focus on working with the individual—versus PYD, which arose more within community-based settings and within after school programs. I think that background can be more appealing to a lot of people, and also that it’s a strengths-based approach. People say, “Hey! You know our youth do have a lot of skills and our youth do have a lot of strengths” and that does appeal a lot to people… No matter what young person you’re working with, when you’re a competent, thoughtful, and intentional practitioner, you recognize that the youth you’re working with—even if they have lots of serious behavioral issues—they have things that they’re good at and interested in and that you can build off.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, but it’s something that a lot of programs recognize. Turning back to Youth Collaboratory, they work with youth who are sexually trafficked, who are homeless, who are on their own, or in the juvenile justice system. A lot of people think those youth are the “bad kids,” for lack of a better term; that they’re “not contributing” to society, they’re not good members of society.

I know from my own experiences that is not the case, but it’s a commonly held view of these young people. The people who work with these youth recognize that no, they have a lot of things about them that make them awesome, special, young people who have strengths and skills that many don’t recognize or that aren’t being built upon.

I think that’s why the five Cs appeal to a lot of programs and why PYD approaches are appealing.  They have that optimism to them that I think youth program practitioners see…and they hope for their youth to do better.

I also think it’s a realistic framework too. Now in my work with practitioners, both my students and colleagues, I always try to build links between theory, research and practice. The five Cs are realistic, where you set goals and work with young people on things that are aimed at that individual child. It’s a framework that can built around and worked with at an individual level too. So it’s easy to talk about, it has that idea of optimism, but it also can be easily adapted to working with individual youth. So you can say, “This child has an interest in improving his grades” and so that [gets at] “how do you build competence,” or this young person doesn’t really have a high level of self-worth, so you can say “oh, you can start setting goals in confidence,” and I think those things are really appealing to youth program providers—they can have a way to talk about it and link it with a young person’s understanding of these things too. So that’s one thing I’m really into now is how do kids define all these things.

In my work with colleagues on several projects, we’re moving towards exploring what the five C’s look like across the diversity of the US, but also across the global context…The five C’s are easy to catch on to, like confidence, competence, etc.—”I have to work on five things.” However, what goes into those five things differ across culture and context.

Bornstein’s idea of specificity is really important in this work, for example,  when you, ask questions about “how do mentors affect different outcomes in youth?” It’s going to matter “in what youth, in what cultures and contexts, and at what time?”

So, what a competent youth looks like in suburban Boston is way different than… if you’re working with Inuit youth in Alaska. Some of the things they need to be competent in are not remotely relevant to young people in suburban Boston. We’re working now with youth in Kenya  [trying to answer the question] what do the five C’s look like in these youth? What does a competent, thriving look like in Kenyan school setting, but also in Kenyan street children, because there’s skills that they need to be successful in that context may be much different. Much different within a Kenyan context, and also much different than we have measures for right now in the US context.

We’re getting into that same thing even in South Carolina. Youth have areas in which they’re more skilled at than what I remember growing up as Northeastern kid, in terms of connections to the outdoors and things that would mark a successful young person down here, that wouldn’t really matter to me as a young person growing up outside of Philadelphia. What a thriving youth looks like is different across contexts, so we try to improve those measures to reflect cultural diversity and the idea of specificity that Marc Bornstein talks about.

C: I read about the Arthur interactive media study. I’m curious how much potential you think there is for technology to be a positive force in mentoring contexts?

EB: It’s limitless I would say. I was fortunate to be on that project and start learning how we can leverage the power of media, which youth are more naturally going to be engaged in, for positive ends.

That’s one thing we always talk about —you’re not going to get kids to get off social media and media. You can limit it, but in today’s society it’s part of our culture—it’s a context for children and teens—so when people say, “Oh, you know your online-self versus your offline-self,” and [talk about] “in real life.” Well, for youth today, social media and being on the internet is real life; they don’t see it as something separate. So, our goal, I think, as developmental scientists—and I’m fortunate to be connected with scholars and storytellers who do way more of this work—is how do you harness this context that kids are going to be a part of to promote positive outcomes? It’s again, that idea of intentionality… how can you use these things in an intentional way to promote positive outcomes in kids?

There’s really a lot of neat research out there right now showing how technology is linked to positive outcomes in children and teens. For example, I am consulting on a technology-based intervention to promote character in youth, but it’s almost becoming a game-like way to do asset mapping.  Asset mapping, in mentoring programs and youth programs, is where you lay out “Who do we know? Who can we ask for help? What resources are available to us?” When you start sharing that information with [game developers], they go “Oh, that’s really neat! We can turn that into a game!” You’re like, “and that would be really helpful to youth programs!”

[Youth programs] sometimes run into a wall, like, how many times can you do asset mapping with groups of youth? Or, how can you come up with more novel ways to make the activities you do with young people that are important, more engaging, more fun, more interesting, so that youth will do it without having to be sat down and told “alright, today we’re doing asset mapping, kids. Let’s lay out who is in your community that you can talk to? What do you want to do in life?”… Those are important and good activities because they’re intentional and thoughtful, but having the brains of people that create games that young people pay money to do or sit on for hours—having their creative minds helps us to say, “Here’s how you can turn some of these more static, traditional ways of doing youth programing into something more dynamic—here are ways we can amp it up to make it way more fun for kids to do.”

A lot of programs may also ask, “How can I use technology to connect my youth to experts that aren’t where I am?” If they want to learn about robots or physics, and things like that, a mentor may not know all those things, but they can build a youth program—or a mentoring program—to reach out to people, and say, “Hey, let’s connect to these young people.”

Going back to the five C’s of PYD, I’m working with colleagues who ask, “How can we be more novel in collecting data about the five Cs that aren’t just surveys?” When you’re working with some populations, getting youth that leave the program to do surveys and follow up interviews is pretty difficult. Can we come up with ways they can do things online—or through texting or through games – where you can see them using those skills in a game-like environment where we can get data from the back end where we see what choices they made, or what they did to be successful in navigating a situation?

So, there are multiple ways that technology support the work of mentors –  as the primary modality of a program, with the actual activities that can be integrated into a program,[and] they can be really useful in assessing a program’s outcomes. So, I think technology is an awesome resource for lots of programs.

A lot of programs may also ask, “How can I use technology to connect my youth to experts that aren’t where I am?” If they want to learn about robots or physics, and things like that, a mentor may not know all those things, but they can build a youth program—or a mentoring program—to reach out to people, and say, “Hey, let’s connect to these young people.”


C: I came across another one off your papers about intentional self-regulation. Can you explain what that is and how mentoring relationships increases someone’s ability to do that and what it’s useful for?


EB: Sure. Intentional self-regulation is one of those terms that gets used in all different ways, so you have to be clear about how to define it. We define it—going back to the idea of goal setting skills or goal-directed skills—using the selection, optimization, and compensation framework—which is from Freund and Baltes—[Lerner’s] colleagues from Germany.

Rich Lerner and his colleagues adapted that model for teenagers to explain how adolescents pursue goals in life. Young people set goals. They optimize the resources in their environment whether it’s mentor support, whether it’s practicing, whether it’s making plans—they optimize their chances to achieve those goals. Sometimes their strategies don’t work, or their goals get blocked, so then they compensate. They either come up with a new goal, which is a loss-based selection, or they come up with different ways to get back to their goal.

That work formed the basis for Project GPS. We took that framework for intentional self-regulation and turned it into something that was more user friendly. We worked with Friends of the Children, and we came up with GPS as our acronym for these skills. We started calling the set of skills GPS because kids knew what a GPS device was for: “oh, you set a destination, it gives you a route, and then sometimes there’s traffic or an accident, and it reroutes you.” So… you have Goal selection (G), you have Pursuit of Strategies (P), and then Shifting Gears (S).

I would say a mentor is really in a good place to help youth set and pursue goals and build intentional self-regulation. You can use that framework, and some programs [like] 4-H of California and Boys Hope Girls Hope have.

That [GPS framework], same as the five Cs, speaks to a lot of people; it makes sense. Some Chinese colleagues adapted the GPS framework for youth  in orphanages. These youth need to figure out how to obtain resources and achieve their goals once they’re out of the system, and this is a good framework for them to figure out the goals they have for themselves—career and college and beyond—and how to obtain resources.


C: When you hear the term “Positive youth development,” you might wonder whether there’s space in that framework for pushback, discipline, or negative reinforcement. Is there?


EB:  From my work with students and knowing the field, I see that the PYD framework gets misconstrued sometimes. People forget you still have to address young people’s deficits too or address their needs. It’s that idea of prevention, promotion, and amelioration—people just get to the promotion part and say, “Alright, we’re just going to focus on kids’ strengths, and here are the great things that will come,” but they forget to say, “You’ve got a lot of things that we have to address and ameliorate in addition to building up on their strengths.” And I think a lot of programs go “Oh, hey, here are my strengths, so I’m just going to build off those.”

But what about the things that you are not good at? You can’t just pretend that they don’t exist. And I think that a lot of people take that PYD approach and over emphasize the strengths part… You need to build off youth strengths, but you can’t forget about all the issues that they have at home or forget about all of the things that go wrong in school. You have to remember those too. You have to prevent and address… That’s why I like to try to link theory, research, and practice, because the theory gets taken and all of the nuances are overlooked, I guess. And people will go “Sure! There’s strengths. We’re good to go!” Sometimes, the theory and research get misinterpreted and simplified in a way that it doesn’t necessarily lead to positive outcomes in young people.

…”I see that the PYD framework gets misconstrued sometimes. People forget you still have to address young people’s deficits too or address their needs. It’s that idea of prevention, promotion, and amelioration…”


C: It sounds like it’s above all, a holistic approach, where understanding the young person with their positive and negative sides is really important. I’ll leave you with one final question. What is something that you would like to see change in the field of mentoring? What is a misconception you’d like to clear up about mentoring in your understanding?


EB: One thing, because I work practitioners, is that idea of specificity of practices and activities that mentors do. People are hungry for what to do with kids and ideas. Sam McQuillin published a paper in Applied Developmental Science getting at the specificity of what goes on in a mentoring program. A lot of the time in empirical articles we say, “We put kids together and we do these general activities of building trust and relationships and tutoring,” and it’s very general. Well, if I’m running a youth program right now, I need some ideas. Like, concrete “what are you doing that’s leading to these good outcomes in young people?”

And the other thing is that idea of that gold standard mentor. A better perspective may be what Jon Zaff and colleagues have termed “Webs of Support.” Basically, it’s the idea that several people serve as a young person’s mentors. One person can’t do everything for a young person, so you need this network of relationships.

So, that idea of figuring out how can we recognize that people don’t have to sign on to be a mentor who has to do everything for a young person. You just need to support them in the area that they recognize you as a help to them. You don’t have to solve all of their problems.

You may be able to help them connect to a college program or career that they’re interested in… And I think getting across that idea of, “you’re a part of their network” and getting people to think about it that way, working with other programs and adults in young people’s’ lives would be an important thing to clear up. Mentors are not necessarily the cure all for every  issue.


C: Yeah. Absolutely.


EB: Oh, the other thing to change in the field of mentoring is getting men involved in anything!

I had to do a practice review about increasing male mentoring. I had to review the one paper identified on the topic which basically posited, “To recruit men to mentor, give them money.” They had no clear reason why they thought money would make men more likely to stick with mentoring. And I was like, that’s kind of insulting to me as a man who does community service… Money is not the reason that I do these things. I don’t have a lot of time. I don’t think they do a very good job in getting men involved in any type of service. That’s what I would like to see to see change in the field of mentoring… We don’t have any really good ideas about how to get men involved in mentoring. They have some ideas, but nothing studied at the level you’d see in a peer-reviewed journal.


C: And it’s probably also on us as men to step up and promote work in the community, as mentors and otherwise. Well, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.


EB: Thank you.