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Community Programs to Promote Youth Development
For those who design, study, fund, and work in the field of community programs for youth, there can be a tension in approach. Two major program orientations are often identified: on one side are “prevention” or “problem-centered” programs; on the other are “positive youth development” programs. Programs focused on prevention or problems are often stereotyped by advocates of a positive youth development perspective as identifying teenagers as collections of specific problems in place or about to happen—drug use, early and inappropriate sexual activity, violent behavior, school failure, etc. Such programs often emphasize preventing problem behavior (e.g., reducing teenage drug use) and are often centered on a single problem, even though problems may be closely related (e.g., a program may concentrate on preventing teenage pregnancy but give minimal attention to preventing sexually transmitted diseases). In contrast, people linked to the positive youth development orientation define themselves as being interested in young people as collections of assets and opportunities, rather than problems (Pittman and Irby, 1996; Roth and Brooks-Gunn, 2000). Programs designed from this orientation emphasize positive growth and development and are not usually designed to address specific individual problems. Broad skills are typically fostered and taught rather than strategies for preventing or managing single problematic behaviors.
From the outset, the committee rejected this polarized view of youth programming. Although our charge stresses the importance of programs designed to promote positive adolescent development, we decided that both prevention and promotion approaches are needed and have great value. Clearly, all young people need multiple opportunities to grow in positive, healthy ways. They need adults who teach and encourage them, who help them set challenging and meaningful goals for the future, and who nurture an array of skills and values. But young people often also need specific, focused help in steering clear of specific obstacles that current popular culture places in their paths, such as the lure of drugs and alcohol and inappropriate and early sexual activity. Although an emphasis on overall positive youth development can help in addressing specific problems and challenges, more targeted, problem-centered interventions are often needed as well.
But even more important, this distinction is often blurred when one examines the content and nature of individual programs. In fact, many programs that are broad in nature and clearly designed to promote posi-