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What is Positive Youth Development?

While 4-H isn’t new, the field of positive youth development (PYD) is. For over a century, educators and parents have seen the positive effect 4-H programs had on the way youth developed into productive and compassionate adults- we just didn’t have a fancy name for the process. PYD garnered attention in the early 1990s as society looked for ways to address risk behaviors in teens. Rather than looking at youth as “problems to be fixed,” scholars began to look at youth as “partners.”  Through that lens, PYD leaders in PYD research like Karen Pittman and Peter Benson (founder of the Search Institute) emphasized helping youth build assets and nurture skills rather than “fixing behavior deficits.”

PYD research continued to advance with Dr. Richard Lerner’s longitudinal study conducted in the early 2000s. This led to the 5C’s Model, which provided insight into the outcomes youth gain. The 5Cs include competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring, which leads to the 6th C of contribution. Participation in PYD programs leads to young people who care about others, provide leadership, and are civically engaged (Lerner & Lerner, 2013). Youth development programs play an important role in supporting and shaping the lives of young people.

Most recently, research has shown that the 4-H Thriving Model of Positive Youth Development (developed by Mary Arnold, and published in 2018 and 2019) forms a solid foundation for the 4-H approach to positive youth development. It is what scientists refer to as a “predictive model.” When youth experience quality 4-H programs and are engaged, we can predict they will thrive. Youth thrives when they grow up to experience academic or vocational success, and economic and emotional stability, are civically engaged, and have happiness or well-being.

How do we “do” PYD?

It begins with the developmental context or the “soil.” Looking at the 4-H Thrive graphic, plants need high-quality soil to grow. Youth need the same thing, but we call it the “developmental context.” The “soil” young people need to grow includes opportunities for sparks, quality programs where youth feel they belong, and caring relationships that foster youth voice and engagement.


A spark is a passion for a self-identified interest or skill or a capacity that metaphorically lights a fire in a young person’s life, providing energy, joy, purpose, and direction. 4-H plays an important role in helping young people discover and pursue their sparks. Project work, contests, exhibitions, and other 4-H activities are designed for youth to develop life and leadership skills while learning about their spark. Because learning in 4-H is driven by a young person’s interest, 4-H programs provide a rich context for youth to identify, explore, and sustain their personal interests, often resulting in the development of a young person’s sparks.

Program Quality Principles Where Youth Feel They Belong

Research shows that youth programs must be done well to make a positive difference in a young person’s life. There are eight program quality principles that guide our 4-H programs.

  1. Physical and psychological safety- youth need to feel safe in 4-H programs and be able to interact positively with others.
  2. Appropriate structure – whether it is a club meeting or leadership camp, 4-H programs must have clear and consistent rules and expectations, with clear boundaries and age-appropriate monitoring.
  3. Supportive relationships- all youth need to feel the warmth from and closeness to others in 4-H. Youth need to feel others care about and support them. They also need to receive clear guidance and communication from 4-H volunteers and staff.
  4. Opportunities to belong- all youth need to feel included in a meaningful way in 4-H, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, race, or ability. Youth should have opportunities to share their culture and heritage with others and to forge a positive identity.
  5. Positive social norms – Youth should experience clear rules and expectations for participating in 4-H, including the values, morals, and ethical expectations of being a 4-H member.
  6. Support for efficacy and mattering – Youth in 4-H should be taken seriously and respected for their ideas and contributions. Youth should be given opportunities to develop responsibility and be challenged to set and achieve goals.
  7. Opportunities for skill building – Youth need to develop physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional and social skills as they grow and develop. 4-H provides opportunities for youth to develop these skills, skills that support a young person into adulthood and the workplace.
  8. Integration of family, school and community – Youth in 4-H do best when there is a connection to their 4-H experience with their family, school, and community. This is why 4-H programs begin at the local level, in the community where youth can practice their emerging leadership skills as they grow and develop.
Developmental Relationships that Foster Engagement and Youth Voice

Research shows that the relational quality between the 4-H leader and member is connected to positive youth development. Developmental relationships begin by creating a secure attachment between the 4-H member and adult volunteer, reflected in mutual warmth, respect, and trust. These relationships increase in complexity over time. As such, healthy developmental relationships shift power over time and should reflect strong youth-adult partnerships- particularly as a young person’s competence, personal autonomy, and decision-making skills increase.

There are five dimensions of developmental relationships:

  1. Expressing care, through listening, warmth, and dependability;
  2. Challenging growth by holding youth accountable, expecting them to do their best, and helping them reflect on failures;
  3. Providing support by empowering and advocating for youth as well as helping them navigate situations and systems, and setting appropriate boundaries; 4. Sharing power through inclusion, respect, and collaboration;
  4. Expanding possibilities by exposing youth to new ideas and opportunities and connecting them to others who can help them reach their goals

Over the next few weeks, we will explore these “ingredients” a little more closely, and share tips and activities 4-H volunteers, parents, and families can do to help youth thrive. For more information about how your child can thrive in 4-H, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office


  1. Arnold, M. E., Gagnon, R. J. (2019) Illuminating the Process of Youth Development: The Mediating Effect of Thriving on Youth Development Program Outcomes. Journal of Human Sciences, 7(3), 24-30. Retrieved from
  2. Arnold, M. E. (2018). From context to outcomes: A thriving model for 4-H youth development programs. Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, 6(1), 141–160.Retrieved from
  3. Lerner, R. M., & Lerner, J. V. (2013). The positive development of youth: Comprehensive finding from the 4-H study of positive youth development. National 4-H Council.
Heather Kent
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