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Opinion

How to Keep Young People at the Center

Finding ways to better help young people succeed in life is important. A “supportive youth system” can make all the difference.

Jonathan Zaff Executive Director

This blog is part one of a two-part series focused on the power and influence of youth systems in the life of young people.  

Youth do not grow up in a school, in an afterschool program, or in a child welfare service. Youth grow up in life, and life is filled with experiences, supports, opportunities, and barriers. 

Finding ways to better help young people succeed in life is a constant pursuit for communities, practitioners, and policymakers, and one that requires us all to take what we at the Center for Promise call a youth systems approach. 

In short, a youth systems approach can help more adults working with young people better understand and respond to the needs of young people.

What is our Youth Systems Framework? 

Picture life as a big circle. A young person is at the center of that circle. Around that young person are people, institutions, experiences, cultural norms, societal attitudes, and public policies. Each of these aspects of life independently and interdependently shape the youth’s development

Importantly, the young person’s development cannot be extricated from this rich, multi-layered ecology. The young person is an active agent within this system, interpreting experiences, adapting to the ever-changing experiences around her, and constantly growing within these dynamic relations.  

Based on this reasoning, the Center for Promise developed what we call a Youth Systems Framework that not only describes the supports young people need and why, but also intentionally keeps young people at the center of any work — programs, policies, research — that helps more of them reach their full potential. As a result, whenever we ask a question about how to support young people, we always start with the young person at the center of the inquiry. 

Supportive

When the assets of a community are appropriately aligned with the needs and strengths of a given young person, we call that a supportive youth system.

The Center for Promise’s Youth Systems Framework (above) proposes that a supportive youth system does three primary things: 

  • Recognizes and encourages the inherent agency of youth and their families (deciding what is best and most viable for their own families and future goals); 
  • Includes both informal developmental contexts (the culture of a neighborhood or the power of peer influences) and formal institutions (youth development organizations, schools, social service agencies); and
  • Embeds developmental opportunities within the multiple contexts within which youth develop (school, home, community and continues these opportunities across time).

How does our framework connect to other similar models?

Different contexts (schools, home, community) are not empty vessels. They are filled with developmental opportunities and experiences. A Supportive Youth System, then, aligns positive opportunities and experiences with the strengths and needs of each young person.  

Several existing frameworks delineate what constitutes positive and negative developmental opportunities, such as the Five Promises, 40 Developmental Assets, the Social Development Model, and the National Research Council’s Features of Positive Developmental Settings.

We did a cross-walk of these frameworks, and boiled them down to five key building blocks that research shows benefit young people and that would be reflected within any Supportive Youth System: 

  1. Relationships that provide support and guidance for children (parents, teachers, other adults in the community, and formal mentors);
  2. Meaningful, substantive, and skill-building opportunities in and out of school;
  3. Safe and healthy environments in and out of the home;
  4. Sufficient structure and positive social norms that help to guide a young; person’s behavior; and
  5. Opportunities for young people to make a difference in the community to give them a sense of agency as well as a sense of purpose about something that is greater than themselves. 

Why are youth systems important?        

A Supportive Youth Systems should increase the chances of a young person gaining the resources and skills needed to develop into a successful adult. 

When considering what defines a Supportive Youth System, many of us typically think of environmental factors such as neighborhoods with high-quality schools, afterschool enrichment programs, safe green spaces, grocery stores with fresh fruit and vegetables, and easy access to health care. These types of supports tend to cluster together in neighborhoods, are easily accessible for any given young person, and often result in a better quality of life for all of the young people who live there. 

Likewise, less supportive environments have factors that also cluster, such as school resources stretched thin, gang presence, lack of access to healthy food, and healthcare being out of reach or incomplete—often leading to more young people falling off track.  The differences in these environmental factors help define what a Supportive Youth System is and is not. 

But to answer why using a Youth Systems framework matters, you have to start at the beginning of the problem. When thinking about how best to support the educational achievement of youth, policymakers, advocates, practitioners, and researchers too often start everywhere but with young people: 

“What makes the best teacher?” 

“How do we create supportive school climates?” 

“Should we create more afterschool opportunities?” 

An example of a more youth-centered way to ask these questions could be,“What supports do young people need in order to achieve better educational outcomes?” 

By first focusing on youth instead of programs and institutions, decision-makers will have a more accurate assessment about what each young person needs and subsequently design the set of supports to meet those needs. 

The Parramore neighborhood in Orlando, Florida provides a good example. Once a vibrant middle-class community, over the years Parramore’s schools started to decline as gang violence increased. After years of city and school leaders trying a multitude of one-off “solutions,” a deep-dive assessment of the lives of young people in Parramore resulted in a comprehensive community effort. 

The effort, the Parramore Kidz Zone (PKZ), was designed to provide each young person in the neighborhood with the full set of supports that a young person needs to thrive academically and in life. In short, PKZ created a Supportive Youth System for its young people. The work continues with impressive results so far, but with still more work to be done.

Knowing what constitutes a Supportive Youth System, the next logical question is how to create one for each individual young person. In the next blog post, I will describe further how comprehensive community initiatives, like PKZ, are a viable answer.