The impact of positive youth development

Research demonstrates that young people who participate in positive youth development programs are significantly more likely to exhibit academic competence.

The 2014 film “Boyhood” gave audiences the unique experience of watching a child grow up on screen. The movie was developed over the course of 12 years, with the same cast members participating in the entire project. Actor Ellar Coltrane was just five years old when filming began and eighteen when the production wrapped. “Boyhood” explores the impact of many factors that influence young people, such as the stability of their environment, the activities in which they engage and the support of the adults in their lives.

A similar exploration was conducted by the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, where data from more than 7,000 young people in 44 states was compiled and analyzed to assess the impact of participation in out-of-school-time activities, such as 4-H. The longitudinal study allowed researchers to investigate the outcomes of participants who were in fifth grade when the first data was collected. The most recent report of the study includes outcomes for 553 young people who were still in the study as eleventh graders.

Among the study’s findings is a positive note about educational outcomes. By eleventh grade, 4-H participants were 1.5 times more likely to report high levels of school engagement than their peers in other programs. Researchers suggested this may be because “4-H participation inoculates youth against high school dropout,” though further study is required to test that hypothesis.

What other factors might help lead to these positive outcomes? Every young person’s circumstances are different, but participation in out-of-school-time activities often helps boost the “5 Cs” of positive youth development:

  • Competence: skills and abilities in specific areas such as academic performance, interpersonal skills, decision-making and work habits.
  • Confidence: a positive sense of self-worth and one’s ability to affect the world around them.
  • Connection: positive, mutually supportive relationships with peers, family, community and school.
  • Character: behaving with integrity and a clear sense of right and wrong.
  • Caring/compassion: possessing empathy for others.

The activities that lead to those “5 Cs” are often facilitated by adult volunteers, and that is a key factor, according to the researchers. They note that “4-H youth appear to have higher levels of the developmental assets that the 4-H study found most important in promoting positive youth development: relationships, and in particular, caring, competent and committed adults, such as parents, teachers and mentors.”

You too can have a positive impact on young people by simply spending time with them as a supportive adult. To make a difference in a more intentional way, learn more about opportunities to volunteer with a 4-H program near you and contact your local Michigan State University Extension office to get involved!

Want to know more about specific strategies to promote the “5 Cs?” You’ll find them in future installments of this series.

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