What is positive youth development?

MARY E. ARNOLD, Ph.D.
Professor and 4-H Youth Development Specialist
Oregon State University College of Public Health & Human Sciences

A positive youth development approach considers the whole young person, not just a single characteristic or problem.  Youth development is dependent on family and community development as it occurs in the context of the family, community, and society. Youth development is designed to focus on the positive outcomes we desire for young people, not the negative we hope to prevent.

To promote PYD, 4-H programs focus on four important things:

Facilitating youth sparks. Sparks are the individual interests and passions that a young person brings to 4-H, for example an interest in animals or computer science. 4-H provides an opportunity for youth to explore their sparks through programs based on their personal interests.

Creating an effective program setting. To be effective, 4-H programs must be physically and emotionally safe, youth must feel welcome, that they belong and matter, and opportunities for structured learning, skill building, and mastery must be provided. Programs also grow and change as the young person does, by placing an increasing emphasis on leadership, civic engagement, and identity development in 4-H programs for teens.

Forming developmental relationships. A positive, supportive relationship between youth and 4-H staff and volunteers is critical to youth development. These relationships are called “developmental” because they grow and change as the young person does. Developmental relationships challenge growth, provide support and encouragement, and, increasingly, share power between youth and adults.

Encouraging youth engagement. 4-H has its greatest impact on positive youth development when youth are fully engaged in the program, especially when they participate for multiple years in 4-H. Youth should be encouraged to participate in 4-H actively and regularly, as well as participate in extended 4-H learning opportunities at the local, state, national, and even international level.

Together, these four elements create a developmental context that youth need to learn, grow, and thrive.

For more information on the Lake County 4-H Youth Development Program, please contact Jamie Davis, assistant professor of practice, with the Oregon State University Extension Office