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Transitioning to Teaching Online – Contemporary Issues in Youth Development, Chapter 5: Youth Development and Youth Work

This is another post in my series on developing my Adolescent and Youth Development for Youthworkers class as an online course for this fall. The series begins with Part 1.

This is “Chapter” 5 of the interactive and experiential OER I will develop with my students this fall. This will likely be module 5 / week 5 of the course.

Chapter Overview: Youth development is not youth work. Youth development is not youth work. Youth development is not youth work. No matter how many times we say it, chances are high we’ll get the two confused. The two have been so intimately interwoven that they are often seen as synonymous! In this module we start to pull them apart. What are the most common kinds of relationships between youth development and youth work? How have those shown up for you as a young person (or as a youth worker)? How, given what we now know, should they be connected?

Learning Aims: As a result of participating in this “chapter”, participants will be able to:

  • Name key differences between five different models of youth development
  • Apply the frames of youth development presented so far to understanding these five models of youth development.
  • Name key differences between “youth development” and “youth work”.
  • Create a process for rotating between different frames for understanding youth when practicing youth work.

Part 1: 5 Models of Youth Development

So far we’ve explored “frames” for understanding youth development. Let’s think of them like image filters (Instagram, for example). We can apply one filter and it changes the way we see an image. If we applied a second one (say we could), we’d get a yet another image, now with two interacting layers. We could go on and on with this – the image would keep changing, and perhaps after a while even get difficult to recognize as the same picture we had at the beginning!

However, what we’ll encounter most in conversations about youth development aren’t frames, but models. A model of youth development is a theory of how young people develop, combined with a strategy to aid that development. The civilization that gets referred to as “the West” has only short history of youth development models – starting with G. Stanley Hall (remember him) and proceeding to today’s sometimes more progressive models.

Any given model interacts with the frames we’ve discussed so far – they have a politics and they intersect with identities (whether “youth” or all the other identities carried by any given young person). They may not use “adolescence” – but in some way or another, they respond to adolescence as a way of thinking about young people.

Ross VeLure Roholt (a professor in the Youth Studies program at the University of Minnesota) talks about a “river” of youth development models. If we think about a river like the Mississippi, it starts in Itasca, Minnesota and as it flows southward, both “drops off” and “picks up” sediment, animals, plants, and pollutants. The river of youth development does the same. It starts out with a model of youth development that sees youth in one way, and then as the river flows, it both picks up and drops off some ideas. I like thinking of this historical flow in this way because it is a decently accurate description of how one model of youth development was created in response to what came before it – ditching some ideas that it disliked while keeping some others.

While there are many models of youth development out there, we’ll briefly discuss five models that represent significant transformations along the way.

Adolescent Development

Models of adolescent development began with G. Stanley Hall and are committed to the notion that young people develop through a series of stages, each characterized by the development of a new set of capabilities. We studied some of these ideas earlier. This is the start of the river and we’ve never really escaped some of the ways that it frames youth development, which is why it is both a frame and a model. As a model, adolescent development is most often seen in more psychological contexts. However, you can also see it in the ways teachers talk about their classrooms – phrases like, “that’s not developmentally appropriate”, or “they aren’t able to understand that yet” represent this model. And although we might be inclined to judge these kinds of phrases negatively, the definitions in use now can be quite appealing! Check this one out:

NAEYC defines “developmentally appropriate practice” as educational and caregiving methods that promote each child’s optimal learning and development through a strengths-based approach to joyful, engaged

NAEYC Position Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice 2020, pg. 4

Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? Although NAEYC is focused on early-childhood education, the same way of talking about “developmental appropriateness” applies to adolescent development. Here’s another one, this time about youth:

Youth development in its broadest sense refers to the stages that all children go through to acquire the attitudes, competencies, values, and social skills they need to become successful adults.

Mentoring Resource Center Factsheet

However, both these quotes also point out some potential issues with adolescent development.

  • Optimalism: We believe we can “optimize” a child’s experience – that if we somehow get all the factors right, they will grow up in a “perfect” way. But how do we research and determine what is optimal? In order to do this, we need to believe that we can establish a right way to approach things, but studying this is very difficult – because all we have to study are people growing up in the world we currently have. And unfortunately, that world isn’t equitably or fairly distributed between people, so the kids we are studying to make determinations about “optimal” are themselves already being brought up in a problematic society. And unfortunately, “optimal” in most cases means “fits into” society as it is… which, is deeply problematic!
  • Universalism: A related problem is the belief that all children (and thus all youth) are more or less the same in some way. While this may be true (and I personally doubt it), the studies about child and adolescent development have been conducted primarily on white, middle class, male-identified individuals. More importantly, most of the developmental ideas we use in adolescent development originated on studies of white, middle-class children and youth. So even the original map was created on a very specific subset of people, and even if subsequent studies made changes based on more diverse populations, they were just small changes to the map, rather than laying down a whole new map.
  • Focus is on youth as individuals: The primary focus is on each individual young person – they are the ones to be developed! As we will see in later models, this notion gets challenged in important ways.
  • Deficit / Damage Focus: Although modern approaches to adolescent development have begun to talk about “assets,” “strengths,” and “capabilities”, the overarching tone of most adolescent development ideas still carry the deficit framings of G. Stanley Hall. Even if you create a list of all the positive traits young people develop, there’s still a good chance they are missing some of these – which become deficits!

    Traditionally, most Adolescent Development theories focused only on individuals that didn’t fit “normal” development – juvenile delinquents, developmental disabilities, and so forth. More modern ideas of adolescent development have again adopted some thinking from Positive Youth Development in this regard and started to talk more about development of all youth.

Positive Youth Development

Positive Youth Development (I’ll abbreviate it +YD) rolled in as a challenge to Adolescent Development theories. It was a courageous concept when it first came out because it demanded two major changes to models of adolescent development.

  • +YD focuses on all young people’s development, not just the “problematic” young people.
  • +YD focuses on the “good stuff” for young people and not just the bad.

We already watched a video where Richard Lerner promoted the 5 C’s of Positive Youth Development. Here, we’ll engage with another example: the Developmental Assets Profile (DAP). The real DAP is used by many youth-serving organizations to assess the success of their programs. This is a simplified version to give you a sense of what they call the “developmental assets”.

Take the Developmental Assets Profile

Once you’ve taken the DAP, think for a minute about your results. How well did you do? What does it feel like to take this test? Are there any “assets” you were worried about?

Most of the time, students comment on the ways a list like this creates yet another way for a young person to encounter their deficits. Like, if I’m missing 10 of these assets, does that point out where I need to grow? According to the folks behind assessments like this, the answer is generally “yes.” Here’s what they have to say:

Young people today are dealing with a lot of difficult situations. Depression, anxiety, bullying, drug and alcohol use are major problems among teens. Advances in technology have amplified the issues for many adolescents, leaving schools and youth-serving organizations to address these problems and help kids navigate a tough world.

But it’s difficult for schools and youth-serving organizations to address these types of issues when they can’t see or monitor them.

The Developmental Asset Profile (DAP) was created for that reason. It is a reliable and valid assessment of the strengths, supports, and social-emotional factors that are essential for young people’s success in school and life.

Search Institute

Note that the focus is still on the problems of young people – and on fixing those problems by fixing the individual young people! Note too the implication: even though they are looking at young people’s “assets”, what they are actually looking for is young people’s missing assets. Further, note we are still optimizing young people based on a pretty narrow, and universal, idea of who the ideal young person is supposed to be. If we examine +YD through the lens of identity, we see one universal identity, rather than the multiply intersectional identities of any real young person.

In this “fly by” view of Positive Youth Development, it actually doesn’t look all that different from adolescent development! The truth is, it both is and isn’t. +YD changed things in a big way because it reminded (and still does remind) us that young people aren’t just a sum of their problems. It also reminded us to focus on all young people, rather than just the ones society has decided are problematic. However, you will see +YD all over the place in your work, and even if you use the language, I hope you also see that it carries some problems with it!

Community Youth Development

Community Youth Development (CYD) flipped the adolescent and even positive youth development paradigm on its head. Rather than focus on individual youth, CYD focuses on youth-in-community. There is a reciprocal relationship between the development of young people and the development of the community. In other words, the problems young people face are not just about their own personal failures! If they are using drugs, it isn’t because they have poor executive function, but because they live in a community where drugs are available and where young people may not have access to X, Y, and Z other opportunities. The failure is thus not on the young people, but on a broader community. Further, it is the failure of said community not to invite young people to have power in shaping the community to be the kind of place they’d like it to be.

And there’s one more important point here: according to proponents of this model, like Karen Pittman, communities are missing out on a key constituent by excluding young people! In other words, the community can’t develop well without young people’s involvement.

CYD doesn’t have much to say about some of the other aspects of adolescent development and +YD. Other than this primary switch in the focus of who is developed, one could potentially continue using ideas of +YD, as long as they also recognized that change needed to take place in the way the community treats young people. Further, though CYD names young people as an oppressed group because they lack power, it still ignores the intersectional identities of young people.

This model introduces a new and important characteristic, however: power. It recognizes that young people are left out of decision-making roles and positions in their communities, and are therefore left without power. Adolescent development and +YD ignore power entirely (as most people with power do) – these two models are to be applied to young people, whether or not they like it! CYD opens space – in fact, demands space – for negotiation between young people and adults.

Participatory Youth Development and Social Justice Youth Development

We now arrive in the “present” of youth development models, with Participatory Youth Development (PYD) and Social Justice Youth Development (SJYD). I present these two models here because they have many similarities (although still a few differences).

These models build on CYD. They believe young people have a right to make decisions, to organize to create change, and to be included in community decision-making (whether in a school, non-profit, local area, or more broadly). Unlike CYD, which makes general suggestions about change, these two models propose very specific strategies. These strategies, based in ideas of critical pedagogy and participatory democracy, start from the basis that whatever is happening within a small group should reflect the kind of society we want to build around us. Therefore, a small group of youth should function as a participatory democracy if that’s what we are hoping for in the broader world. PYD especially is focused on building democratic decision-making into the functioning of youth groups. However, neither of these models of youth development is satisfied with having nice groups! Both also propose that young people’s development can (perhaps should) include making the world around them a better place.

This is where SJYD gives its clearest message: youth development is not politically neutral! The world is lined up to provide privileges to some and to oppress others. Youth development should involve both understanding our own experiences within this political frame and creating political change. Though PYD also carries this political framing, SJYD is especially focused on young people’s intersectional identities and the ways those identities show up in a youth group and in relation to the kinds of changes they’d like to see in the world around them.

PYD and SJYD (especially the latter) actively shed notions of adolescent development and +YD. They aren’t at all interested in assessing young people, positively or negatively. Instead, they see young people as engaged, capable members of communities who should be invited into both exploring themselves and creating change. What adolescent development or +YD might call “youth development” shows up in these models when young people take an interest in exploring themselves or the community around them. For example, in some SJYD practice, young people choose to research their own cultural heritage as part of a change-making project.

While PYD and SJYD critique the ideas of adolescent and positive youth development, the practice of PYD and SJYD is often more complicated. Adolescent and positive youth development are such powerful ideas in the history of youth development, that it is often difficult to avoid them entirely. I’ve seen wonderful youth groups using PYD and SJYD models still forced to use assessment instruments like the Developmental Assets Profile to continue to receive funding. I’ve heard SJYD practitioners talk about the young people they work with in deficit frameworks – heck, I’ll admit I’ve caught myself doing that!


This is (obviously) a very short summary of five complex and interesting models of youth development. I don’t suspect that you have many concrete ideas about how to practice them (yet)! That’s okay. I think the first step is to see that there are different models, to be capable of differentiating them, and to be able to look at youth programs and see the kinds of models they are using, even if they don’t openly name them! Why? I believe strongly that if we can’t differentiate these ideas, and if we can’t see them in action, our practice of youth development (youth work) will happen more by default than by conscious choice. We’ll pick up on whatever model was used on us as a young person, or whatever model the organization that employs us uses, even if it doesn’t fit with our values!


  • First, find a youth program curriculum online. There are plenty of them out there.
  • Open this shared Google Drive Document – it’s a table with a few different characteristics of youth development models. Paste a link to your youth program curriculum on the left side of the document.
  • Spend a bit of time browsing the curriculum. Pay attention to the language that it uses to describe young people.
  • Return to the shared Google Drive Document and provide some analysis – provide one or two sentences for each column of the table that describe the way your program approaches that characteristic of youth development models. Also copy one or two sentences (more is fine too) from the program curriculum that justify the one or two sentences of description you wrote. Make sure to also add a page number.

Part II: Youth Development and Youth Work

These two terms are commonly used interchangeably. They are not the same. There are lots of ways of differentiating them, but to keep it simple, let’s say this: youth development is a way of describing how young people (and possibly the communities around them) change over time. Youth development models often prescribe a particular set of practices to use as well. Youth work is a way of describing the stuff we do with young people (sometimes professionally, sometimes not, sometimes under the title “youth worker”, and sometimes under many other titles). Youth work is typically a constellation of youth development models and practices, as well as the orientations, frameworks, lenses, and habits we bring to our work with young people.

Youth work often uses models of youth development (on purpose and by accident). It tends to mix and match. For example, many youth workers use language that fits right in with PYD and SJYD frameworks (I do youth-led youth work!). However, they still tend to focus on individual young people’s deficits and psychological development too. Sometimes this is dictated by the organization, sometimes it’s just a default of the youth worker themselves.

You may have created a model of youth work or youth development in other classes. That’s awesome! Doing this kind of thinking can help you get clear about the sorts of ideas you like (and dislike) and the ways you want to put them into practice. I’d like to do something related, but a little different with you here. We’re going to practice two skills. First, how do we describe a young person as objectively as possible? Basically, how do we say only facts about a young person? And second, how do we read the facts about this young person into a story – and most importantly, into multiple different stories!

Step 1: Creating a Young Person

We’ll begin by creating young people for each other. Each person will create a “profile” of a given young person using the most objective language possible. What does objective mean in this case? It means without opinions or interpretation. Here’s a few examples – do you think they are objective descriptions or not?

  1. Gerald is fifteen years old and lives with two parents, Daniel and Frank, as well as a sibling, Tasha.
  2. Gerald likes going fishing and dancing to YouTube videos.
  3. Gerald is outspoken and energetic.
  4. Gerald hopes to graduate from high school and be the first person in his family to go to college.
  5. Gerald sometimes seems anxious when he talks about his dad, Frank.

Okay, got your answers? I’d say 1, 2 and 4 are more objective, with 3 and 5 being interpretations. #1 seems to be a clear statement of facts about Gerald and his relationship to his parents and sibling. Though “likes” in #2 seems subjective (and it is to Gerald), if it is something he has told us about himself, we can count that as a “fact” about him. In #3, I’ve made the interpretation that Gerald is outspoken an energetic based on other observations. To make it an observation, I could perhaps say something like, “In the time I spent with Gerald, he talked most of the time and was always responsive to things I said or asked.” Again with #4, we have a statement about what Gerald hopes – this is subjective for him, but for us we can treat it as a fact if he told it to us. Finally, #5 is again an interpretation. To make it an observation, I might have to say something like, “When we talked about Gerald’s dad Frank, I noticed that Gerald started moving around more and responded more quickly to these questions than during the rest of the conversation.”

There’s a spectrum here – few things are ever a clear “fact”. Simultaneously, we can do better at sharing observations/facts by moving as much as possible away from interpretation.

That’s what we’ll do here. Your task is to create a profile of a young person. You can do this as a narrative or as a bulleted list (like the one above). Your aim is to get as objective as possible. Your profile should be robust. It should address the many identities of your young person. It should tell us about their aspirations and interests. It should tell us about their location in the world (school, community, etc.). It might tell us about some of the challenges your young person faces. Formal writing isn’t important here – but bringing this young person alive with as many details as possible is!

Step 2: Once we’ve all created a profile of a young person, we are going to do some interpretive work. Now’s the chance to try on the various frames and models we’ve studied over the past weeks. Choose 4 and write a brief interpretation of this young person through this frame/model. For example, if you took up “Social Justice Youth Development” as a person meeting this young person, how would you see them? Describe it to us! What details from their profile would you choose to focus on? What kind of conversation would you have? Give us enough detail that we can get a flavor for how this frame/model would differ from the others you choose. Repeat this process with 3 more frames/models. For reference, you might consider:

  • Adolescent development
  • Damage vs. desire
  • Moral panics
  • Forms of capital
  • Identities
  • Models like: Positive Youth Development, Community Youth Development, Participatory Youth Development, and Social Justice Youth Development.

Part III: Conclusion

For me, a good youth worker is a person who constantly rotates between frames and models for how they understand young people. Why? I draw from one of my teachers (and former professor in the U of M Youth Studies program), Mike Baizerman, in thinking about philosopher Martin Buber. Buber wrote about the quality of relationships, claiming (very simplified here) that many relationships between people might actually better resemble relationships a person has to objects. In other words, the way I learn to see another person (say a young person) is through a single, limited frame. And when I keep seeing this young person through that single, limited frame, I can’t see them for the complex, multifaceted, regularly changing individual that they are! I turn them into a static object!

Buber calls this an “I-It” relationship. In contrast, he forwards “I-Thou” – a relationship between two people who work constantly to see each other as the full, complex human being they are! I don’t think there’s a moment of enlightenment we reach where we are suddenly able to do this. Rather, it is through the regular practice of “cracking open” our default ways of seeing young people. One strategy to do this is to regularly try on new lenses. Though I might first meet Gerald as his social worker, how do I see him as a person more complex than his problem with his dad Frank? By changing frames or models, I can open up a new way of seeing him. The only way to get better at this is to practice, which is why we’re doing it here, and why we’ll do it later on too!

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