New guidance is available for community-based practitioners and researchers seeking tools and measurements for implementing strengths-based approaches to positive youth development.

A Landscape Scan of Measures for Youth Strengths Across Individual, Family, School, and Community Settings is a new report by Search Institute, in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which also provided funding. The report provides background and history on how the positive youth development field arrived at strengths-based measures and why they are important for helping adults develop a thriving orientation about the young people they work with and study. It also includes detailed descriptions of existing strengths-based measurement tools that can be administered in community settings. 

The Journey to Thriving 

Decades of research and practice in positive youth development (PYD) have yielded important insights into the factors and conditions that can help young people get beyond “okayness” to a sense of thriving. We understand more fully that thriving is more than the absence of problems; it involves action and autonomy.

All young people have strengths, and they are intrinsically motivated to engage with their environment in ways that benefit themselves and their communities. These positive engagements create a fertile ground for growth — and they are nurtured by the developmental relationships that are key to young people’s development. 

Some strengths are internal, such as identifying with deep personal interests, a strong personal and civic identity, and a sense of self-worth and purpose. Other strengths are external, such as actively participating in their schools and communities. 

One important first step for practitioners and educators is to identify and measure young people’s strengths to help them get on the path to thriving. This task is not always straightforward, especially when working with communities such as youth of color or older youth populations (between 18 and 25 years old), for whom tools are underdeveloped.

The goal when developing and implementing effective measures is to more fully reflect the contexts, systems, and individual experiences of young people.

Thriving and Equity

One important finding from this landscape scan is a better understanding of what tools are available and what young people they may be appropriate for. We identified some trends and some gaps, including the need to develop tools specific to communities of color and older youth. In order for us to fully understand and capture youth strengths, measures must be inclusive of the diversity of strengths experiences across contexts and cultures. More work is needed to take what we are learning from community practice and from empirical research, to center the strengths and assets of diverse young people, and to ensure that they are properly included in measurement tools and subsequently in practice and intervention approaches. 

Laying the Foundation

What factors does a community or program need to encourage thriving and other positive outcomes for young people? Rather than focusing on risk factors that can impede thriving, a strengths-based approach identifies two main categories of strengths. 

  • Promotive factors are factors that are directly related to positive outcomes. For example, young people with strong developmental relationships with teachers are more likely to have high academic motivation.
  • Protective factors are indirectly related to positive outcomes because they reduce risk factors. Protective factors buffer harm or help youth achieve positive outcomes in the face of adversity. 

Promotive and protective factors can exist at every level of the youth experience. For example,

  • At the individual level, they possess social and emotional skills and competencies.
  • At the social level, they have positive experiences with prosocial peers.
  • At the family level, they have clear and consistent boundaries and expectations.
  • At school, they have a safe and supportive climate.
  • In their communities, they experience opportunities for civic engagement. 

What We Learned

A Landscape Scan of Measures for Youth Strengths Across Individual, Family, School, and Community Settings is useful for anyone working with young people to understand how to assess the strengths that can be used to build a foundation of positive relationships. 

In order to identify measures of ecological strengths for youth that can be administered in community settings, we targeted our scan on youth-serving organizations and the scientific literature. The result is a comprehensive list of 33 measurement tools that are grouped into the following categories.

  • Supportive contexts: opportunities and resources that exist in schools, communities, and homes that help young people learn, grow, and thrive. 
  • Supportive relationships: positive relationships with teachers, peers, mentors, and family members.
  • Attitudes, beliefs, and mindsets: internal perspectives and concepts around values and beliefs and identity.
  • Skills and performance: social, emotional, and cognitive skill and performance indicators such as emotion regulation, self-management, social awareness, cultural and linguistic competence, and critical thinking skills.
  • Engagement and involvement: participation in positive civic, family, and community activities. 
  • Learning strategies: classroom learning strategies, school learning strategies, teacher strategies, and teaching and information sharing. 

Many of these measures will prove useful for organizations seeking a strengths-based approach to positive youth development. However, the report also discovered some shortcomings in the landscape of measures. For example, there is a lack of measures of family-level strengths, few measures for people over 18, and no measures developed with the specific intention of identifying strengths and assets specific to youth of color (beyond the measures of racial and ethnic identity). For organizations seeking to identify culturally diverse strengths and assets or to address serious racial and ethnic inequities, there is a great need to center context, systems, and individual experiences for youth of color. 

The report includes measures that are intended to assess young people’s experiences of assets, strengths, promotive factors, and protective factors — whether or not they participate in specific positive youth development programs. It does not include measures primarily intended to evaluate the quality of positive youth development programs because many well-developed compilations already exist. Further, the researchers did not assess the psychometrics of each measure as part of the scope of the report.

From Measurement to Action

Using effective measures to identify youth strengths is one important step in the journey to improving the experiences and context for young people. 

With a complete picture of youth ecological strengths and assets, as well as areas that need improvement, that information can be used to create targeted approaches to improvement. Whether seeking to improve practice, evaluate an intervention, conduct research, or do all of these, data collection can be used to guide a strengths-based approach. 

Taking the time and effort to understand young people and their ecological contexts and to examine trends will help you to create a unified vision and to be more efficient with your PYD resources, but most important, it will help young people to thrive.

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To see the full report and the measures download the file here

CTA_Landscape_for_Youth_Strengths_Report_Brief | Blog

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