The Role of Positive Youth Development

 By Wei-Lin Chen, Reprinted from the Society for Research on Adolescence

Linver, M. R., Urban, J. B., Chen, W.-L., Gama, L., & Swomley, V. I. (2021). Predicting Positive Youth Development from Self-Regulation and Purpose in Early Adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Positive Youth Development (PYD) emphasizes the potential for healthy, successful development, via interpersonal skills and relationships, confidence and self-efficacy, academic achievement, and success in school and society[1]. Stronger connections to community, family, teachers, and peers socialize adolescents with the requisite values, norms, goals, purposes, skills, and knowledge to navigate developmental challenges of early adolescence and to transition into adulthood[2]. In addition, opportunities for skill-building and engagement enhance the likelihood of healthy development and to become responsible citizens[3].

Many things can promote PYD, but today I’d like to talk about two – intentional self-regulation and purpose — and their connections to positive developmental outcomes for early adolescents. First, numerous studies have documented how intentional self-regulation (ISR), the ability to intentionally alter behaviors, thoughts, attention, and emotions[4], equips youth to seek out and use resources in their surrounding environment. Second, purpose, defined as the intention to accomplish something, can shape adolescents’ sense of direction and meaning in their lives as they progress toward adulthood, helping them connect with the larger world[5]. The links between ISR and positive developmental outcomes are well documented. However, research is less clear on the relation between early adolescents’ purpose and PYD outcomes, because ISR and purpose are linked. We currently do not know how early adolescents’ purpose relates to positive developmental outcomes. To address this gap in our knowledge, my research team examined how these two constructs may independently contribute to these youth outcomes.

This study utilized data from the Inspiring Purpose: Global Citizens in the Making study, implemented in Scottish schools from Fall 2016 to Fall 2017. Created by Character Scotland, Inspiring Purpose is a character development program, designed to help youth recognize their personal strengths and areas in need of development. Students research an inspirational figure and reflect on the ways in which they are inspiring, later transforming that inspiration into personal aspirations for their future.

Hypotheses. Specifically, we hypothesize that higher ISR and purpose will independently promote more confidence and connection for early adolescents. To parse out the unique contributions of both ISR and purpose on connection and confidence, we examine all constructs simultaneously. In addition, due to some scholarly uncertainty regarding whether purpose leads to connection and confidence or vice versa, we also examine how confidence and connection may lead to purpose for early adolescents.

Methodology. 763 Scottish early adolescents (ages 12-14) participated in our study four different times (Fall 2016, Winter 2016, Spring 2017, and Fall 2017). At each time, they answered questions about theirISR, purpose, connection, confidence, personal strengths and areas in need of development, and personal aspirations for the future. We decided to run fixed-effects models, since fixed-effect models are preferred over traditional statistical methods (e.g., ANOVA) when a randomized experimental design is not feasible[6]. We also ran our models with advanced methods, including random-effects models and growth curve models. The patterns are similar across all different methods.

Findings. ISR and purpose equip Scottish students to navigate challenges of adolescence in two ways. First, ISR and purpose build confidence. Second, ISR and purpose promote connections to school and the larger community, thus ushering a more successful transition into adulthood. Similar to previous research that demonstrates associations between youth purpose and other positive youth outcomes[7], our study shows positive associations from both purpose and ISR to connection and confidence. In addition, our findings suggest bidirectional effects — the development of connection and confidence positively predicts adolescents’ purpose.

Because ISR and purpose are separately related to youth confidence and connection, our findings translate well to programs that target youth development, such as after-school or summer programs for early adolescents. If the goal is to develop youth confidence and/or connection with others, activities that promote ISR/goal setting and pathways to develop purpose can yield youth outcomes like confidence and connection with school and neighborhood.

Our study has three known limitations. First, although the Scottish youth sample represents a little-studied population, it is relatively homogeneous, in terms of nationality, ethnicity, age, and other demographic characteristics. Although the findings may not be fully generalizable to other cultures, they do provide a starting point to examine ISR, purpose, and PYD in early adolescent populations globally. A second limitation is the relatively stable values on study variables across the four waves of the study. This stability could be due to ceiling effects (e.g., for most study variables, the starting value of the construct was relatively high) and/or the relative advantaged background of participants. Lastly, although supportive environments can help promote positive youth development, the current study did not include direct measures of these contexts. Going forward, researchers might examine the effects of the proximal environments including relationships with peers and adults (e.g., parents, coaches, teachers) along with youths’ connection to their neighborhoods and schools.

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