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Overview of 4-H Positive Youth Development

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.

MLK Day of Service

Did you know that MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated by US Congress as a national day of service?  Instead of a “day off” from school or work, Americans are encouraged to spend the day serving others. Coretta Scott King said:

“The greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the holiday by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others.”   MLK Day is always the third Monday of January.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of service, this blog post brings together several resources to support 4-H service projects to live out our motto, “make the best better.”

What is the Difference Between Service Learning and Community Service?

Service to the community is one of the pillars of 4-H membership. Our pledge includes “My HANDS to larger service.”  All 4-H members and clubs are encouraged to plan and execute at least one service project each year. Community service and service learning are often confused. Community service can be court-mandated and sometimes has a negative connotation. However, the biggest difference between community service and service learning is that community service is usually a “one and done” activity where youth collect food, clothes, or other items for a local organization or pick up litter. There is nothing wrong with these types of activities, but youth usually have little input on them, and they are one-time events. This is perfect for younger youth. In contrast, service learning is a longer-term process where youth identify a community need, develop a proposal or plan to address that need, and often involve other community organizations or officials to take action. Service learning is a great way for older youth and teens to develop awareness and empathy. For more information about the differences between service learning and community service, check out our previous blog post.

Getting Youth Involved in Service to Others

Service to others is a huge part of the 4-H Model. Not only is it part of our pledge, Generosity is one of the 4-H Essential Elements, and something we strive to integrate throughout our programming. 4-H Clubs are encourages to participate in at least one community service or service learning project each year- it one of many standards for club and individual members. If you are not familiar with standards of excellence, it is part of our 4-H Awards and Recognition Program. To learn more, check out this previous blog post or be sure to attend our workshop on Awards and Recognition next weekend at our Northwest 4-H Volunteer Forum.

Finally, there is a grant program to help clubs with service learning!  It’s called 4-H Community Pride, and not only does this program provide funding for service learning, there is a comprehensive leader’s guide to help volunteers, youth, and parents plan, execute, and celebrate thier service learning.

Ideas to Kick Start Community Service or Service Learning

If you are in need of some fresh ideas for service learning, be sure to read “17 Ways to Kick Start Your Service Learning.” We will also offer a workshop on Service Learning during our Northwest 4-H Volunteer Forum next weekend in Destin, FL. Finally, during our upcoming Northwest 4-H Teen Retreat, youth will have the opportunity to participate in a service project our youth planning committee selected. They will be making teddy bears to give away at a summer camp for youth with disabilities.

Rolling out the Red Carpet for 4-H Teens

Our youth planning committee has been hard at work planning the 2023 Northwest Teen Retreat. This year’s theme is “Lights, Camera, Action!” and promises to be a fun-filled weekend of learning and friendship. The retreat will be held February 17-19 at 4-H Camp Timpoochee. Registration is open to all youth ages 12-18 in 4Honline. This event is planned for teens, by teens, and is designed to help youth develop and practice workforce-ready skills. Over the weekend, youth also have the opportunity to explore different 4-H project areas. Here’s a run-down of the agenda, and what to expect:

Friday Night After check-in, enjoy some pizza, tour the camp, and participate in District games. This year youth will have the opportunity to try to beat the adults!
Saturday Morning After breakfast, youth will have the opportunity to participate in a service project, learn about 4-H awards and scholarships, and how to deal with different personalities.
Saturday Afternoon After lunch, youth will select a fun shop to learn more about a 4-H project area. This year, our teen planning committee selected the following:

1.       Grilling- learn about fire safety, food safety, and how to win a scholarship in the 4-H Tailgating Contest

2.       Sports Fishing- Camp Timpoochee is a great place for fishing. Learn some angler skills and how to participate in the 4-H Sports Fishing Tournament and Skill a thon.

3.       Cake Decorating- If you love those baking shows, then you will love this session! Practice decorating a cake with icing like a pro.

4.       Dance- Get your exercise will learning some fun new line dances, as well as a few favorites.

5.       Forensic Science- This session is about forensic entomology. Work as a team to solve the murder of a Florida Black Bear- a mystery solved by science!

Saturday Evening After dinner, walk the Red Carpet Saturday and dance the night away.
Sunday Morning As soon as breakfast is over, pack up and head home.

Thanks to generous sponsors, the registration fee is only $120 per youth and includes cabin accommodations, meals, workshop supplies, and a t-shirt. Your county 4-H program may be able to offer additional discounts or scholarships, so check with your local 4-H office before registering in 4Honline.  Download this handy packing list to your phone.

If you have any questions, please reach out to your local UF IFAS Extension Office. Registration is open from December 16 through January 31st.



Helpful Holiday Tips and Tricks- Save Money, Less Stress, and More Fun!

hands making holiday craftsWhile the holiday season can be a wonderful time, it can also be busy and stressful. We have several tools and ideas to help you be stress-free this year so you can fully enjoy your time with family and friends. Below are quick links to some of our most read and rated articles. Hopefully one or two of these will be just what you need this time of year!

Holiday Savings

  1. Managing the Holidays without Breaking the Bank– this article includes five practical strategies, and even includes step-by-step directions for some homemade gifts.
  2. Christmas Memories Gifts in a Jar– Make memories with your kids or grandkids (and save some money) by crafting gifts in a jar. This article includes some creative ideas and step-by-step instructions

Holiday Health (Physical & Mental)

  1. Three ways to Incorporate Mindfulness During the Holidaysthis article shares three steps to using mindfulness as a way to mitigate the stress of the season.
  2. Handling the Holiday Blues– The holidays can be hard- especially if you are experiencing loss. If you or a loved one has the Holiday Blues, this article has eight helpful tips to make this time a little bit easier.
  3. Healthy Holiday Meals– This article includes ideas for making your favorite holiday dishes a little healthier.

Holiday Fun

  1. Including Youth in Holiday Traditions– some great ideas for sharing your favorite holiday traditions with youth (or creating new ones)
  2. Pin a Holiday Memory with Homemade Magnets– this article gives step-by-step instructions on creating magnets to represent your favorite holiday memories (past and present).

Alumna Reflects on How 4-H Prepared Her for the Workforce

Jessica Wells, 4-H alumna and digital media coordinator for Florida Farm Bureau

The statewide goal of the Florida 4-H Program is to “prepare youth to become responsible citizens and productive members of the workforce.” This is accomplished by providing quality youth programs, opportunities for youth to explore their sparks, and connection between youth, adults, or peers that positively shapes a young person’s identity and encourages a growth mindset.  Jessica Wells shares her 4-H story and how 4-H helped prepare her for her current job.

Jessica was a 4-H member in Washington County for eleven years. During that time, she participated in several different aspects of the 4-H program, beginning with her 4-H club.

“My favorite 4-H project was the horse project. I was able to grow in my riding abilities and see my horse grow through the year. We were able to accomplish competing at the District level, but most importantly my horse and I were able to share a closer bond because of the time I spent working with him.”

However, Jessica’s involvement with 4-H didn’t stop with her horse club. Jessica was involved in nearly every aspect of the 4-H program. Jessica served as an advocate for her county program, and also served on the planning committee for the Northwest Teen Retreat at the district level. One of her favorite “beyond county” experiences was serving as a Florida 4-H State Executive Board Member.

“It was rewarding in every aspect. I grew so much more, I believe, because I was working with fellow 4-Her’s across the state to bring an amazing experience of state events to all 4-Her’s. Executive Board gave me more than fun memories and life experience, it gave me real, lifelong friendships.”

Jessica with one of her club members at a 4-H Horse Show

After graduation, Jessica decided to give back to the 4-H program as a club leader, and during her college years, she also worked for UF/IFAS Extension on campus in Gainesville.

“I was inspired to be a club leader because I wanted to share my passion for horses to youth in my county. 4-H is a wonderful organization that allows one to grow so many personal and lifelong skills while being hands-on with applicable activities. I wanted to use my passion to equip 4-Her’s to grow in their knowledge of horses while growing their public speaking, leadership, teamwork, personal confidence, and many other life skills.”

Today, Jessica serves as the digital media coordinator for Florida Farm Bureau. She credits 4-H with helping her prepare for this role. As a youth, volunteer, and former employee, she had opportunities to learn about leading teams, communication, planning events, and goal setting.

“I am so grateful for all the skills I was prepared with as a 4-Her that has carried into my current position at Florida Farm Bureau. Aside from the general office skills that often

Jessica at a Florida Farm Bureau event

come to mind first, I daily use the management and administrative skills that I learned through 4-H. Through being organized in my projects, leading clubs, planning events, even events as large as horse shows, these different types of management skills prepared me for the daily tasks of a full time job. Like the meeting agenda I would create as a club officer, my current job requires creating simple meeting agendas to keep my co-workers and I on task. Something that small created a big foundation that I can do my job well on. And then on to preparing and leading workshops for my coworkers and other public audiences, again a skill I learned way back in 4-H. Having strong communication skills is vital in today’s work environment, maybe now more than ever. One can be great at the job they were hired for, but if they have great communication skills, it allows them to be even more valuable to their team. An individual does not acquire there skills overnight to use daily in the adult world, these skills are gained over a period of time and usually are rooted in their youth. I was able to gain these skills in my youth through this great organization of 4-H.