Editor’s note: Reed Larson’s seminal research on the lives of teenagers helped to launch the field of positive youth development, and his insights and findings continue to enrich the work of mentoring researchers. His work explores the contexts of daily life and how developmental processes unfold in extra-curricular activities. Reed is a professor in the Department of Human and Community Development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was recently the President of the Society for Research on Adolescence.
MLY: As a pioneer in the field of positive youth development (PYD), how did you first become involved in researching PYD?
RL: I got interested in adolescence because I saw it as an important and exciting period of awakening. Yet research on this age period focuses more on problems than on development. I discovered that high quality youth development programs are contexts where this awakening and development occurs for many youth.
LY: Based on your extensive knowledge and years of experience researching PYD, what are the key developmental processes and skills that a youth can develop to thrive?
RL: I’ve been especially interested, first, in a process in youth programs in which youth form constructive connections with peers and learn to think, work, and figure things out with them. A second is how teens develop the capacities for sustained engagement in serious and challenging work. A third is young people’s development of a more critical understanding of the world (it is more complex, messy, surreal, and often unjust than they were led to believe!). A fourth process is youth’s learning to understand their emotional and thought processes, which are also more peculiar than expected. A fifth is development of strategic skills for navigating both this external and internal complexity. Oh, and — of course — identity development is important too.
LY: In the context of after-school programs, much of your work focuses on the adults or advisers who are in charge of these programs. In your experience and research, what behaviors do adults in these roles do to most effectively promote positive youth development?
RL: Oh, where to start. What strikes me is always how complex their jobs are. In our research we’ve been struck by their capacity for managing numerous balancing acts: caring for youth yet respecting their autonomy, leading from behind (supporting youth’s agency, with judicious guidance and structures as needed), providing emotion coaching, and providing a model of calm, caring and thoughtful problem solving in challenging situations.
LY: Could you tell me a bit about your current projects and any future directions you hope to take with your research?
RL: We just completed a mixed-methods, cross-ethnic, longitudinal study of youth, leaders, and youth’s parents in 14 programs for high-school-aged teens. If that sounds complicated, it is. We are using the data to delve in a wide range of issues regarding youth development (of responsibility, emotional skills, strategic thinking), parent- program relationships, and I’m particularly interest in better understanding effective practice.
LY: Did you have a mentor and/or involvement in after-school activities that positively impacted you growing up?
RL: I tried sports, was in debate, and had a leadership role in student council. Perhaps the most formative experiences was my church youth group, led by a wise and caring seminarian who provided opportunities for us to think about challenging ethical, interpersonal, societal, moral, and other issues.