Dr. Reed Larson examines the role of youth programs in adolescent development
June 3, 2010 — Researchers and practitioners interested in positive youth development, how youth learn to navigate complex adult-world situations, how youth programs impact adolescent behavior, and group mentoring will enjoy this fascinating presidential address at the Society for Research on Adolescence, presented by Dr. Reed Larson of the University of Illinois- Urbana-Champaign, titled: “Positive Development in a Disorderly World.”
Dr. Larson states emphatically that young people trying to get a toehold in the adult world need to develop a rich set of competencies to navigate disorder and complexity. The question is two-fold: what are the competencies required and how do youth develop them? He provides a vivid overview of what is and is not known about adolescent brain and cognitive development, set against a backdrop of an increasingly labyrinthine challenges youth face as they transition into adulthood. His research looks in particular at youth programs in which youth create art or technology projects or engage in leadership building, service, and civic engagement activities.
- Dr. Larson’s framework supports an alternative to the common public image of teenagers with emotions that are out of control, suggesting that although teens experience strong emotions they can also learn to channel them in powerful ways through goal-directed activities and projects.
- Although mid-adolescence is a peak developmental period for boredom, research hasn’t adequately addressed the flip side of how motivation is developed and encouraged in youth. Even though many theories of motivation state that human motivation is through self-interest and short-term gain, teens often are highly motivated by activities that they perceive will help their communities and peers and that increase their ability to achieve long-term goals with no immediate payoff, such as helping them prepare for future careers. Much of the meaning that youth find in activities, and much of their sense of sustained motivation isn’t drawn directly from adults, but emerges via their own constructive process of finding meaning. It is interesting in this context to reflect on some of the new research from the Search Institute on the “sparks” that motivate youth.
- Many youth who engage in youth programs develop strategic thinking skills that they can transfer to other facets of their lives, including jobs and education.
- Youth develop strategic thinking skills not just through trial and error and learning from mistakes, but also through activities designed to encourage tactical thinking, planning, use of the imagination and reasoned experimentation.
Many of Dr. Larson’s points have direct bearing on how youth programs, including group mentoring programs, are designed and delivered. His research is a wealth of information for how adults engage with youth to encourage positive youth development, including the challenges and benefits of youth-led vs. adult-led models (for example, see Larson, R., Walker, K., & Pearch, 2005, citation below ). In his framework, youth-led programs are ideal for developing leadership skills for youth if implemented and supported correctly. In contrast adult-led programs can be excellent at imparting specific skills, but have their unique challenges.
Dr. Larson has a number of great articles available on his website including topics such as the role of program advisors, adolescent emotional development, development of initiative and strategic thinking in adolescence, and different models of youth programs:
Larson, R., Walker, K., & Pearce, N. (2005). A comparison of youth-driven and adult-driven youth programs: Balancing inputs from youth and adults. Journal of Community Psychology, 33, 57-74.
Larson, R.W., Rickman, A.N., Gibbons, C.M., & Walker, K.C. (2009). Practitioner expertise: Creating quality within the daily tumble of events in youth settings. In N.Yohalem, R. Granger, & K. Pittman (Eds.). New Directions for Youth Development, No 121, 71-88. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Larson, R. W. & Brown, J. R. (2007). Emotional development in adolescence: What can be learned from a high school theater program. Child Development, 78(4), 1083-1099.