External assets protect and encourage youth
Communities may not be able to eliminate all of the risk factors facing young people today, but they can do great things to increase the external development assets for youth to improve their future outcomes.
Michigan State University Extension stresses the importance of preparing children to grow and prosper in order to become successful students and citizens. Community discussions often focus on family and environmental risk factors that might prevent children from realizing that success. While risk factors such as poverty, trauma, abuse, and drug or alcohol use in the home certainly have negative impacts on children, research indicates that the presence of positive assets in a child’s life have a greater impact than risk factors.
The Search Institute has studied more than four million young people over a period of time and their findings consistently indicate that the more developmental assets a young person identifies in themselves, the more likely they are to thrive. What has been delineated by the Search Institute as developmental assets are values, experiences, relationships and qualities of character that enable youth to grow into productive adults. Young people with more of these assets are likely to be academically successful, be involved in their communities and to value the diversity of their world. These same observations have been confirmed across socioeconomic groups and all cultures even in the face of overwhelming risk factors. The 40 developmental assets are divided into internal assets and external assets.
External assets result from positive relationships and experiences in the young person’s life. External assets can surround or support a person, and are outside of the young person’s control to provide or manage on their own. When thinking about external assets consider four groupings. The groups are made up of support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, and constructive use of time. The most important question however, is not, “what are the external assets?” but rather, “how can parents, families and communities go about helping to create an environment where these assets are realized by the greatest number of youth?”
All young people benefit from experiencing the support of many different people beginning with their parents and family members; they can include child care providers, teachers, bus drivers, librarians, scout leaders or coaches. These supportive figures include them in conversations, treat them with respect, are nurturing, accepting, encouraging and sincerely care about the well-being of the child. This type of support is important for all young people not just those who are the most liked, come from “good” homes, do well in school or don’t disturb the community. A supportive community cares about all young people, takes time to look for the good in everyone, encourages them to do their best, and offers support and assistance when they need help. Most often, children will live up to, or down to, the expectations of people they respect and who respect them in return.
Empowerment is the second category of external assets. Young people feel empowered when the community demonstrates its respect for children in any number of ways. Communities that invest in early childhood education programs and school millage demonstrate that they value children and youth and that they want to provide the necessary resources to help them succeed. One of the best ways to show youth that they are valued is by accepting their feelings, ideas and suggestions. Really listening is sometimes difficult for busy adults, however it is very important. Helping children to feel empowered also means offering them meaningful ways to help and to contribute to their family and their community in ways that they can embrace and feel good about. Finally, young people need to feel safe in their neighborhoods and to feel like there is a future for them and their friends.
While young people, especially adolescents, may not always act like they want and appreciate boundaries, they do. Having a consistent and fair set of expectations and boundaries, allows a young person to make decisions without fear of what might happen. Knowing the boundaries and being aware of the consequences for not meeting expectations is important for people at any age beginning with the youngest preschoolers all the way to adulthood. At the same time, it is important to know that parents, neighbors, teachers, store owners and other adults are willing to model positive behaviors and to monitor the behavior of youth letting them know that they care enough to call them out if appropriate.
Finally, youth need to have a variety of opportunities to make constructive use of their time. The specific opportunities will vary over the life of a child beginning with things as simple as play dates with friends, playgroups, library story hours eventually moving to scouting and 4-H club memberships, or participation in community arts, music or sports programs. These provide opportunities for young people to develop valuable relationships with their peers and with nurturing adults allowing them to explore a variety of interests and talents which will in turn let them express themselves in positive ways. Another benefit is that when young people are involved in activities that make constructive use of their time, they are less likely to engage in behavior that is troublesome and dangerous.
Communities may not be able to eliminate all of the risk factors facing young people today, but they can do great things to increase the external development assets for youth and make an impact in improving their future outcomes.