Using Search Institute’s Developmental Assets to Foster Healthy Kids and Healthy Civic Life

Challenges Facing Human and Community Development In America

Data continue to suggest there are serious deficiencies in young Americans’ acquisition of core developmental competencies and capabilities. For well over a decade Search Institute (SI) has conducted survey-based profiles of several million youth in thousands of suburban, rural, and urban communities throughout the country, and discovered that a majority of young people fail to receive basic developmental ingredients and experience developmentally rich environments.

A low level of access to key developmental resources also tends to be the prevailing norm across gender, grade, parental education level, and race/ethnicity. Most American adolescents appear to be lacking a firm sense of support and belonging, missing opportunities for personal empowerment and affirmation, failing to experience appropriate structure, and losing access to situations for meaningful engagement and connection with adult role models. Many developmental support mechanisms for young people in families, schools and neighborhoods also seem to be fragile.

On a seemingly separate front, increasing numbers of community development professionals and activists throughout the country find themselves questioning whether community interests can find a secure foothold in a world increasingly structured around global capitalism and wedded to a pervasive culture of contentment that serves to diminish the public square as it underwrites an expanding sphere of social and economic privatization.

Scholars and practitioners dealing with the civic realm have noted reductions in relative degrees of civic participation, community engagement, and collaborative decision-making among younger and older Americans, and have lamented its negative impact on the nation’s civic culture.

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40 Assets List adolescentsDevelopmental Assets’ Contribution to Human Development

Since the early 1990s, SI has integrated and synthesized research results from developmental scholars and evaluation findings from the fields of child and adolescent development, prevention, and resilience in order to identify the factors that make important contributions to the healthy development for children and youth.

The findings from the adolescent synthesis (covering the middle school and high school years) are summarized in the publication entitled Developmental Assets: A Synthesis of the Research on Adolescent Development. The findings derived from the middle childhood synthesis (covering the upper elementary grades 4-6) are described in Coming into Their Own: How Developmental Assets Promote Positive Growth in Middle Childhood. The findings based upon the early childhood synthesis (covering the preschool years) are presented in Building Blocks for a Successful Start: A Comprehensive Approach to Understanding and Promoting Positive Development in Early Childhood, that will be available in the fall of 2008.

The synthesis led to the creation of frameworks specifying forty developmental assets which are organized into four internal and four external categories for adolescence, middle childhood and early childhood. A copy of the adolescent framework can be found at the end of the article. All three versions can be downloaded from the Search Institute website, Since their release, the developmental asset frameworks have become one of the most widely referenced and utilized strength-based formulations in the fields of positive psychology and positive youth development.

A consistent and growing body of evaluation results points to the beneficial influence of the developmental assets on young people’s lives. Research conducted by SI consistently shows that the more developmental assets youth experience in their family, school, and community life, the less likely they are to engage in risky behaviors such as excessive alcohol use, illicit drug use, early involvement in sexual activity, and engagement in violence.

The data suggest that the developmental assets protect children and youth from the negative consequences typically associated with risk factors/processes. Research conducted by SI has examined the interrelationship among developmental assets, poverty and risk. A study in a Minnesota community suggested that young people experiencing low levels of assets (fewer than ten) are two to five times more likely to predict their involvement in high risk behaviors than the fact that they are poor.

The Minnesota Institute of Public Health evaluated the results of a specific asset-building project. They studied a 9th grade program in St. Louis Park, MN, that was funded by the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. The evaluators concluded that:

“…it appears that the 9th grade program has successfully met program developers’ expectations to decrease illegal alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, decrease academic failure, and increased commitment to school as demonstrated by improved attendance of 9th grade students.”

Studies by academic researchers not affiliated with SI have been published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Health Education Research, the Journal of Counseling and Development, and the Journal of Adolescent Health. These refereed articles reinforce the role developmental assets appear to play in helping to reduce violence, drug and alcohol use, and pregnancy among youth.

Data analysis also shows that the more youth are exposed to and experience the developmental assets, the more likely they are to manifest certain behaviors that are consistent with certain markers of highly successful development which includes securing good grades, maintaining good health, and demonstrating leadership. In fact, the pattern of more assets producing more positive behavior and less risky behavior is evident for various ethnic and racial groups. Responses from African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian youth document the ability of the developmental assets to prevent, protect and promote.

OMNI Research and Training, Inc. evaluated the results of a statewide developmental assets initiative in Colorado. They determined that youth experienced gains in:

  1. sense of belonging,
  2. self-confidence,
  3. self-efficacy,
  4. positive view of the future,
  5. interactions with a wider circle of adults, and
  6. relationships with significant adults in their lives.

Their study also determined that:

  1. adults stepped up to champion the healthy development of young people in their communities;
  2. communities were mobilized to engage in asset-building; and
  3. agencies that served youth changed the way they did business in order to be more supportive of developmental well-being.

The developmental assets have also shown their merit with particularly challenging youth populations. An article published in the Journal of Adolescent Research suggested that gang youth’s positive development can be promoted by embedding them in a more asset-rich environment.

Using the Developmental Assets to Foster Community-Based Human Development

For many, the common good – the social glue that unites neighbors in shared purpose and action – is predicated upon the welfare of neighborhood children. The concept of “collective efficacy” conveys the ways in which human relations and community organizing can foster young people’s healthy development.

Improved human relations, steeped in sense and purposeful personal and social networks which are capable of bringing community residents together to accomplish improvement tasks, have always been a focal point of community building efforts. Strengthened human relations translate into effective community organizing by virtue of its ability to mobilize collective action on behalf of community development.

Finally, successful human development remains dependent upon positive and productive organizational relationships that can galvanize community expertise and resources and bring them to bear on community issues. Collective efficacy encompasses the set of shared beliefs and capability for group efforts that people require to actively engage in the lives of young people.

Community application of the developmental assets illustrates the pivotal role they can play in enhancing interpersonal and inter-organizational relationships for the good of children and youth. Community-based initiatives in hundreds of cities, towns, and suburbs throughout America are using the developmental assets as the catalyst for producing a unique intergenerational version of collective efficacy and civic revitalization grounded in human development concepts and knowledge.

These initiatives are best understood as Community-Based Human Development (CBHD) efforts. They highlight the centrality of four indispensable and interconnected issues:

  1. youth and adult engagement on behalf of the healthy development of young people is an essential, but often overlooked, ingredient of a more robust civic sphere;
  2. human development is simultaneously a foundation of, and springboard for, young people’s and adults civic involvement;
  3. a community’s long-term social capacity for civic engagement is enhanced by the healthy development of its young people; and,
  4. community organizations that touch the lives of children and youth can collectively forge an infrastructure that is essential to fostering positive development.

When cities, towns, suburbs, and exurbs decide to use the developmental assets they immediately become a more developmentally-attentive place. The developmental assets provide them with a blueprint and guidelines for building optimal configurations of resources, opportunities, experiences, and relationships for young people across the multiple settings that comprise the fabric of community life. The communities marshal and activate the strength-building capacities of their residents and sectors. Developmentally-attentive communities also pay close attention to enacting policies, making investments, and establishing new social norms that support the positive development of young people.

Based upon its years of experience and insight with CBHD, SI highlights five action strategies needed to transform community life and realize collective efficacy. They are:

  1. engage adults from all walks of life to get involved in the affairs of young people;
  2. mobilize young people to use their power and abilities to contribute to their own and their community’s advancement;
  3. activate sectors such as schools, congregations, youth organizations, businesses, human service and health-care organizations to create asset-building environments and more fully contribute to young people’s healthy development;
  4. invigorate programs to be asset-rich and available to children and youth who need them; and
  5. influence civic decisions by motivating decision-makers and opinion leaders to leverage financial, media, and policy resources in support of development.

Asset-building work is gradually spreading beyond America. Active efforts to measure young people’s asset levels have occurred in Brazil, the Philippines, Bolivia, Nepal, and Morocco. There are community-based initiatives operating in several countries including Australia. Finally specific NGOs, such as the Langley House Trust in England and Questscope in Jordan, are determining how to employ the developmental assets with the populations they serve.

Simultaneously Revitalizing Human Development and Civic Engagement

The rapid diffusion of asset-building efforts and the groundswell of citizen involvement set the stage for progress in the human development and civic arenas. It is time to more fully consider the powerful potential of CBHD to simultaneously produce healthy, caring, and responsible young people, and strengthen civic engagement. Greater utilization of the developmental assets and the establishment of CBHD initiatives would lead to community members becoming more knowledgeable about the social contexts and civic forces which serve as the wellsprings of developmental opportunities and resources for young people, and learn how they can foster positive development.

It would also prompt advocates of civic engagement and devotees of community building and organizing to pay much more attention to matters of human development for young people during their first two decades of life. Once the explicit linkages between human development and social development become more fully appreciated, and the contributions of youth and adults, multiple life settings, and diverse sectors of community life to the successful development of young people are more clearly understood, the civic village assumes a most natural and appropriate milieu for taking practical action.

Progress will result from keeping visions and plans for the integration of healthy development of young people and neighborhood betterment at the forefront of civic renewal efforts. True breakthroughs will likely come about through alliances between CBHD initiatives and social development campaigns that are savvy to and fluent in the civic virtues of smart human growth and sustainable human development.

Marc Mannes is Director of Applied Research at the Search Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

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