Four Concepts Summarize Positive Youth Development

— Written By Sarah Moyer and last updated by

“I just want to fit in.”

“I miss my friends.”

“I want to do it by myself.”

Young people already experience a variety of emotions during childhood and adolescence. Add on top of that COVID-19, social unrest, and many other current events; and it is a lot to handle. Luckily, there are ways for parents, families and others who invest in the lives of young people to unpack 2020 happenings and still have fun this summer, and it starts with understanding four concepts of positive youth development – belonging, mastery, independence and generosity.

It is critical that youth feel a sense of belonging, because it contributes to them feeling safe and included. This can be fostered through a relationship with a caring adult.

A caring adult, according to the National 4-H Council, acts as an advisor, guide and mentor. The adult could also be called a supporter, friend and advocate; and he or she knows the interests of a child or teenager.

The individual could be a parent, but it can also be someone else, who helps set boundaries and expectations for a young person with the purpose of developing autonomy and not control. When drastic changes occur, youth need this type of relationship more than ever.

If a young person is struggling to process current events related to racial disrimination, a caring adult could invite that child to watch “Community Conversations” on July 28 from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. Hosted by Caldwell County 4-H, Community Conversations will be a public panel, where local leaders answer questions submitted by youth on the topic of responsible civic engagement and how to stand up against racial disrimination. (Visit caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu for registration details.)

Youth in 4-H have opportunities to form relationships with caring adults through clubs and other activities. As a community, 4-H seeks to be inclusive and welcoming, so that youth can feel supported and encouraged.

Without a sense of belonging, youth cannot develop mastery, independence and generosity normally. Research published in 2003 on youth clubs and outcomes by Theresa M. Ferrari, youth development specialist at The Ohio State University, and others also shows that a relationship with a caring adult helps curb behavioral issues.

If young people feel a sense of belonging, the other concepts can continue to build on that foundation. 4-H refers to the four concepts of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity as “Essential Elements.”

kids building a shelter

Three youth work together as an independent team to build a temporary shelter at a 4-H summer program in 2019.

When paired with healthy habits, like eating well and staying active, youth experience many developmental benefits that impact them as they mature and in adulthood.

Developing mastery, requires engagement in learning and opportunities for mastery. In order to identify an area that a young person wants to master, he or she needs to be allowed to explore through school, books or other experiences.

All youth want to be good at something. A normally shy child may talk for hours on one particular area of interest. He or she, when engaged in their interests, will show self-motivation and creativity.

“Mastery and competence is about developing skills and abilities,” reports the National 4-H Council. “The projects and activities in 4-H are the vehicles that we use to help youth develop mastery and competence.”

horsebowl participants

Kate Black, Makayla Pruitt, Moranna Deal and Erin Shows pose with their sixth place team ribbons after a statewide Horse Bowl competition earlier this year. This award was earned as a result of mastery in the horse project.

Then, that boosts self-esteem.

Too, mastery is more about improvement than competition. Hands-on activities are a tried and true way to encourage mastery and continued growth. Parents and caring adults can help youth design real projects that make a difference or serve others and are centered on an area of interest.

Moving onto independence, novelist Graham Greene once wrote, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

The quote relates to this Essential Element because young people learn to make goals and have a future orientation by developing independence. It is present when youth think about how their interests match up with possible career paths, or they make plans for the coming year. A caring adult can encourage youth to think positively, and it is critical for adults to see youth as capable.

Giving youth opportunities to develop ideas and see them through to completion is another way to foster independence, which will be necessary for success in adulthood.

Who wants to see youth believe they can influence their life’s events? Who wants to see them be self-directing, rather than passively submitting to the will and whims of others? The active development of independence now will prove invaluable later.

Lastly, generosity is listed, and much of this Essential Element is linked to experiential learning, which is increasingly difficult at this time. Many of the typical service opportunities for youth are not safe or accessible, but there are still some ways to help the community.

An easy one to think of is sewing personal protective equipment. Other options include growing a garden to donate produce, calling neighbors or family members who live alone, making artwork for those individuals, checking in with friends, promoting healthy behaviors, standing up to cyberbullying, or volunteering to lead a virtual book club for younger youth.

Service helps young people gain exposure to the larger community, and it is best done when approached as a process or service-learning. They can research community needs, make decisions and share results of the service project after it is completed.

kids helping pack food bags

Jackson Cook and other 4-H members practice generosity as they prepare food packages for the United Way backpack program in October 2019.

Connecting back to community through service can, circling back to the beginning, improve young people’s sense of belonging.

If the Essential Elements feel like a lot to take in, families can keep into perspective that positive youth development is a gradual undertaking. Attending Community Conversations online, working together to write down a couple goals or starting a conversation about community service are small steps in a long race.

If you need help moving forward, 4-H provides youth development opportunities for ages 5-18, and summer is a fine time to plug into programs.

More information about healthy living and upcoming 4-H activities is available online at caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu. Caldwell County 4-H is a member agency of United Way, and it enthusiastically supports its partnerships.