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Positive Youth Development

PYD models and approaches

While the term “PYD” has been used in different ways and contexts, there are some similarities amongst different models. These include emphases on: a) the strengths of young people; b) developmental plasticity; c) internal developmental assets (such as psychosocial competence) and external developmental assets (such as community influence). In this review, several models and approaches of PYD are discussed, including Benson’s 40 developmental assets, Lerner’s 5Cs and 6Cs models, Catalano’s 15 PYD constructs, Social Emotional Learning and the “being” perspective based on spirituality and character.


Benson’s 40 developmental assets

The developmental assets framework is derived from an ecological perspective with a focus on the alignment between individual needs and external requirements, opportunities and supports for youth to achieve adequate development and effective functioning. Individual strengths and environmental resources were defined by Benson as “developmental assets”. By synthesizing the research findings in a number of fields, scholars from the Search Institute proposed a framework of 40 developmental assets, which pertains to developmental process, experiences, social relationships, contexts and interaction patterns that have been found beneficial to positive development among youths. Specifically, the 40 developmental assets consist of 20 internal assets and 20 external assets.Internal assets refer to the positive traits of an individual such as one’s skills and competencies, which can be divided into four categories:

  1. “Commitment to learning”: young people’s appreciation of the importance of continuous learning and their belief in own capabilities, including “achievement motivation”, “school engagement”, “homework”, “bonding to school” and “reading for pleasure”.

  2. “Positive values”: strong guiding principles which help youths make healthy life decisions, including “caring”, “equality and social justice”, “integrity”, “honesty”, “responsibility” and “restraint” (eg, sexually inactive or stay away from psychoactive substances).

  3. “Social competencies”: skills that young people need for establishing effective interpersonal relationships and adapting to novel or challenging situations, including “planning and decision-making”, “interpersonal competence”, “cultural competence”, “resistance skills” and “peaceful conflict resolution”.

  4. “Positive identity”: a sense of control and purpose as well as recognition of own strengths and potentials, including “personal power”, “self-esteem”, “sense of purpose” and “positive view of personal future”.

External assets represent the positive features of developmental ecologies where young people receive in interacting with multiple socialization systems (eg, family, school and neighborhood). They include:

  1. “Support”: emotional support, care and acceptance from persons surrounding young people. This domain includes six external assets: “family support”, “positive family communication”, “other adult relationship”, “caring neighborhood”, “caring school climate” and “parent involvement in schooling”.

  2. “Empowerment”: young people feel that they are valuable and can make a contribution to others and community, including “community values youth”, “youth as resources”, “service to others” and “safety”.

  3. “Boundaries and expectations”: clear regulations for youth conduct and consistent consequences for violating rules, and encouragement for them to try their best. These assets include “family boundaries”, “school boundaries”, “neighborhood boundaries”, “adult role models”, “positive peer influence” and “high expectations”.

  4. “Constructive use of time”: young people have opportunities to enjoy themselves and develop new skills outside of school. Four assets are proposed, including “creative activities”, “youth programs”, “religious community” and “time at home”


The Search Institute developed instruments to measure each of the 40 individual assets (ie, “Attitudes and Behaviors: Profiles of Student Life”, A&B) and the eight related categories (ie, “Developmental Assets Profile”, DAP). In the past three decades, the Search Institute has surveyed at least 3 million Grade 4 to Grade 12 students in more than 2000 communities. Findings consistently showed that higher levels of assets were closely linked with lower levels of multiple risk behaviors and higher levels of thriving regardless of the gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and geographic residence of the youths.Besides the cross-sectional associations, the number of assets that students experienced in their earlier lives also exerted positive impacts on their future developments.To conclude, scholars have shown that “adolescents with more personal and social assets … have a greater chance of both current well-being and future success”.

As Benson et al stated, asset-building has been a major PYD strategy adopted in organizing and planning youth programs by multiple national systems, such as the Y-USA, Y-Canada, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Salvation Army. There is empirical support for the effectiveness of the assets-building strategy. For example, supported by the US Department of Education, the “Building Assets Reducing Risk” (BARR) program promoted assets development among Grade 9 students and had achieved great success in terms of decreasing students’ failure rates, enhancing students’ academic performance, narrowing opportunity gaps and improving students’ experiences and teachers’ satisfaction Another example is the “Asset-Getting to Outcomes” (AGTO) program led by the Search Institute. By incorporating the asset-building framework into the original GTO (a 10-step youth program implementation model), the AGTO effectively built the capacity of community coalitions to implement different youth programs and systematically achieve prevention goals.

Lerner’s 5cs and 6cs Models of PYD

Grounded in the ecological perspective, Lerner and his colleagues proposed 5Cs as five important indicators of PYD, which stood for competence, confidence, connection, character and caring/compassion. Competence includes cognitive, social, academic and vocational competences. Cognitive competence denotes cognitive abilities such as problem-solving, logical thinking and decision-making. Social competence points to interpersonal abilities such as the ability of conflict resolution. Academic competence is reflected by school grades, school attendance and test scores. Vocational competence is indicated by work habits and the ability to explore different career choices. The second C (confidence) refers to the individual’s view of his/her global positive value and capacities. The third C (connection) denotes an individual’s positive relationships with other people and organizations such as the exchanges between the individual and the social environment. The fourth C (character) represents morality, integrity, internal value standards for right behaviors and respect for social and cultural regulations. The fifth C (caring/compassion) refers to the capacity of sympathizing and empathizing for others. Furthermore, Lerner and his colleagues showed that these five Cs would help shape the sixth C, contribution, when these 5Cs exist in a young person.Based on the longitudinal 4-H study, a set of related measures for 5Cs of PYD was developed. These measures include the full-length measures of 5Cs for early adolescence and middle to late adolescence respectively with acceptable psychometric properties. The measures were also found to be positively related to youth contribution and negatively related to problem behaviors. Furthermore, Geldhof and his colleagues trimmed these full measures to generate four short measures, including the two 34-item short scales (PYD-SF) and the two 17-item very short scales (PYD-VSF), for both early adolescents and middle to late adolescents. Studies also showed that these measures had good psychometric properties. Although the 5Cs model of PYD had been extensively discussed in the literature, this model was rarely adopted as objectives and measured outcomes of the existing PYD intervention programs.  The most commonly measured outcomes of PYD programs included the changes in community contribution and reduction in problem behaviors. The majority of programs focused on single or few indicators of 5Cs, such as promoting competences in different domains, facilitating bonding and developing confidence. Only a few programs adopted the comprehensive 5Cs model as outcome measures. Although these programs were found to be effective in promoting the development of 5Cs, most of them did not consciously adopt 5Cs as their program goals nor using the related measures in evaluation. Only the Try Volunteering program was defined as a quality PYD intervention.

Catalano’s 15 PYD Constructs

Catalano and his colleagues proposed an operational definition of PYD based on literature review and consultation with leading researchers, planning colleagues and evaluation staff of PYD programs. This definition introduces 15 developmental constructs as indicators of PYD, including:

bonding, resilience, social competence, emotional competence, cognitive competence, behavioral competence, moral competence, self-determination, spirituality, self-efficacy, clear and positive identity, belief in the future, recognition for positive behavior, opportunities for prosocial involvement and fostering prosocial norms.

Bonding represents a child’s emotional attachment and relationships with peer groups, family, community and/or culture. Resilience refers to one’s ability to adapt to life changes and stressful events healthily and flexibly. Social competence represents a set of interpersonal skills to facilitate adolescents to achieve their social and interpersonal goals. Emotional competence means the ability to recognize own and others’ emotions and respond to these emotions. Cognitive competence denotes cognitive skills including problem-solving, decision-making, logistical thinking and self-awareness. Behavioral competence represents effective behaviors such as effective communications and action-taking. Moral competence is the ability to assess and determine the ethical and moral aspects of a situation. Self-determination refers to self-thinking and the consistency between action taking and thinking. Spirituality means relating to, concerning or owning the nature of spirit, soul or God. Self-efficacy represents the ability to achieve one’s goals through one’s effort. Clear and positive identity denotes an integrated and coherent sense of self. Beliefs in the future are an internalization of optimism about possible results. Recognition for positive behavior refers to others’ positive responses to desired behaviors of youth. Opportunities for prosocial involvement are the presence of events to encourage youth to perform prosocial actions. Fostering prosocial norms means helping young people to develop healthy beliefs and expectations for action.

Regarding the intervention programs, most of the current PYD programs targeted on only one or a few of the constructs proposed by Catalano and his colleagues. In a comprehensive review, Catalano and his colleagues identified 77 PYD programs with scientific study design, outcome measures and evaluation effects. Most of these programs focused on one or a few of the 15 aforementioned constructs with different lengths and approaches (eg, skill-training and mentoring). Besides, only 25 programs were identified as effective programs to promote positive youth development.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is regarded as a positive development model by Tolan and colleagues. SEL refers to the process that enables people to learn the “ability to understand, manage, and express the social and emotional aspects of one’s life”.44(p2) SEL framework represents an application of theories on social information-processing, social cognition, emotion processing and emotional intelligence and it has been used as an intervention approach to enhance young people’s positive characteristics, establish supportive contexts and promote constructive interactions between the child and the contexts. Emerged primarily as education-focused, SEL articulates a set of skills that are essential to promote social functioning among individual students and adequate school functioning such as school learning and adaptation. For example, as one of the major SEL frameworks, Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) conceptualized these skills into five domains that integrate interrelated cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies:

  1. “Self-awareness”: the ability to identify one’s own thoughts, emotions, beliefs as well as related strengths and limitations in an unbiased manner. This domain includes “identifying emotions”, “accurate self-perception”, “recognizing strengths”, “self-confidence” and “self-efficacy”.

  2. “Self-management”: the capacity to regulate one’s own thoughts, emotions and behaviors in different situations as well as motivate oneself toward personal goals effectively. Skills related to self-management are comprised of “impulse control”, “stress management”, “self-discipline”, “self-motivation”, “goal setting” and “organizational skills”.

  3. “Social awareness”: the ability to understand and respect others with different backgrounds and show empathy toward them. Social awareness skills consist of “perspective-taking”, “empathy”, “appreciating diversity” and “respect for others”.

  4. “Relationship skills”: the competence to build and maintain healthy and constructive relationships with others. This component includes “communication”, “social engagement”, “relationship building” and “teamwork”.

  5. “Responsible decision-making”: able to make good personal choices about how to behave and interact with others that are in line with moral standards, safety principles and social norms. Responsible decision-making includes “identifying problems”, “analyzing situations”, “solving problems”, “evaluating”, “reflecting” and “taking ethical responsibility”.


Although SEL focuses primarily on psychosocial competence, this framework is currently regarded as a general model of positive youth development that is applicable across contexts and developmental stages. Theoretically, SEL is consistent with Benson’s developmental assets, Lerner’s notion of competence and Catalano’s concept of psychosocial competence. Empirically, research showed that socially and emotionally competent children and adolescents are less likely to show problem behavior and more likely to have positive developmental outcomes such as academic success. Besides, vulnerable children such as those suffering from behavioral deregulation or poverty will benefit from developing core social-emotional competencies. In addition, longitudinal studies showed that higher levels of social-emotional competencies in childhood are predictive of developmental outcomes in multiple domains over time.

SEL interventions focus on nurturing social and emotional skills among youths by directly cultivating their competencies or indirectly improving their learning environments that foster the development of social-emotional competencies. The nurtured competencies that are commonly indicated by social and emotional skills (eg, identifying emotions, self-control and coping strategies), self-perception (eg, self-worth and self-concept), attitudes toward others (eg, prosocial beliefs) and attitudes related to school context (eg, perception of teachers, school boding and belonging) promote social relationships, academic and behavioral outcomes and productive performance.

Meta-analytic research has consistently shown that school-based SEL interventions result in noticeable positive and long-lasting effects on a variety of developmental outcomes including academic performance, positive social behaviors and mental health. Furthermore, the overall impacts of SEL interventions on students’ development were consistently positive, regardless of students’ ethnicity, gender, age and school locations (ie, urban, suburban or rural). These positive impacts were found to be more significant for students from low-income families. Besides, meta-analytic findings have shown that interventions following principles of SAFE (ie, Sequenced, Active, Focused and Explicit) or utilizing active (eg, role-play) rather than passive methods (eg, lecture) exerted a greater beneficial influence on student development. In addition, SEL programs are also beneficial to teachers, with those who successfully implemented SEL interventions reported to have more positive teaching experiences, higher levels of efficacy in teaching and job satisfaction, greater personal accomplishment and lower level of stress.

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