Positive Youth Development?
Many people get overwhelmed by what may seem to be new terminology or new approaches—however, more often than not, these phrases explain what people have done or known for quite a while. Take "positive youth development"—not a new term, but one that I'm sure still gets presented every now and then to glazing-over eyes.
What does "positive youth development" mean? Basically, it's actively helping and supporting kids as they mature and grow—not just academically (cognitively), but socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically. It's being proactive in setting up some supports and structures that we know kids need as they progress through childhood and adolescence.
Sound difficult? It shouldn't, because it's what teachers and educators have been doing to varying degrees for decades, and at its foundation is the development of safe, caring environments where kids feel supported, cared about, and heard.
Research has consistently shown that adult caregivers such as teachers and educators—or, in fact, anyone who interacts with kids in the school-community setting—are key to developing positive youth and safe, protective environments (Benard, 1991, 2004; Goldstein & Brooks, 2005; Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Masten & Coatsworth,1998; Werner & Smith, 1982, 1992, 2001, 2005).
Last year, Bonnie Benard and I wrote a chapter in the first Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools to highlight how kids themselves knew that an adult cared about them and wanted them to succeed. The chapter summarized a decade's worth of sessions that Bonnie and colleague Carol Burgoa had held with students across California, asking a simple question: How do you know if someone cares about you?
The results remind us that it's not difficult and it should not be overlooked. So what did the kids say? Here is a synthesis of their comments from more than a dozen sessions across California over a decade.
Getting to know me:
When I'm bothered, they help me by listening and encouraging me ... they talk to me as a person and friend—not just as a student.
They take the time and ask me, "How was your weekend?"
They greet us and ask, "How are you doing?"
They take time to say hello.
They listen when I'm talking and give eye contact.
They get to know our stories.
Essentially, students highlighted simple acts as ways they knew their teachers cared. They identified actions that take place in many classrooms across the nation every day—actions that should take place in every classroom every day. These include acting friendly, smiling, saying hello (especially outside of class), taking an interest in the student, and noticing when the student is troubled.
When asked what adults can do more of for them, the answers were remarkably similar and succinct:
We need understanding.
We need adults to "be there" for us—you're our second parents.
Be there for us and believe in us so we can count on you.
I need an adult to believe in me.
Positive youth development is not difficult; it is often done, but all too frequently ignored as nothing special or consequential. However, both education researchers and students themselves remind us that people matter and relationships matter.
"At a time when the traditional structures of caring have deteriorated, schools must become places where teachers and students live together, talk with each other, take delight in each other's company."
—Nel Noddings, 1988
"School is a community; it's not a building but about people."
—Anonymous student, 2004