Thursday, September 1, 2016

Re-envisioning Youth Development as a Teaching/Learning Problem rather than Acquiring a Vast Array of Generic Assets

Don Siegel


A number of years ago, a prominent psychologist was asked what he had learned during his long and distinguished career about the most effective approaches to therapy. He replied that he had tried them all: psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, humanistic therapy, holistic therapy, gestalt therapy, and various eclectic combinations of these and other therapies. After some reflection and stroking his beard, the psychologist conveyed that after years of study and experimentation he had found that the best form of therapy for his patients was golf.  In actuality this story is not real, but comes from a TV show about a young psychologist and his mentor who is giving him, in a nutshell, what he has concluded over a long and eminent career. In essence, the mentor who had a rich and in-depth knowledge of psychology, in all of its complexity, concluded that therapy was actually a lot simpler than he had been taught. Just going out and playing golf with friends resolved many of the issues patients had come to see him about.

While this parable is facetious, and obtained some laughs from the audience, there is also a degree of truth at what the character is poking fun. Clearly, the various approaches to therapy are very different, as are their complex structures, assumptions, and strategies for enacting treatment. Some approaches work better than others with different people in different situations. Experienced therapists often mix, match, adapt, and do whatever is necessary to help their patients.  But, how does a fledging therapist decide the best way to proceed with a particular patient? Perhaps, there is some wisdom in what the TV therapist had concluded? Golf was the simplest solution for many of his patients who needed relief from high stress occupations, relationship issues, and dysfunctional lifestyles. In science there is a principle known as Occam’s razor, which asserts that if there are multiple ways of explaining the reasons for a phenomenon, the simplest explanation is the best one to choose. Regardless of the therapist’s training, after many years, he had come upon a simple solution that worked well most of the time; golf!

When delving into the literature on youth development, one finds a similar complexity to that found in therapy. There are many approaches that all have a common denominator; that is to say, complexity. For example: The Search Institute has promoted a model that contains the development of 40 assets, including 20 which are internal (e.g., commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, positive identity) and 20 external (e.g., support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time). Research supports the notion that the more assets kids possess, the better they do in school, the better adjusted they are, and the fewer health compromising behaviors in which they engage[1]. Another popular approach comes from Richard Lerner who combines many of these assets into his 5 C’s (Character, Caring, Competence, Confidence, Connection).[2] A different way of looking at youth development comes from Reed Larson who writes about growth experiences that promote such things as initiative, problem solving, emotional regulation, prosocial norms, interpersonal skills, and social capital development[3]. Others, in addition to many of the assets identified above have included physical assets such as  motor skill competencies, physical fitness, and health[4], gender awareness and equity[5], and social justice that produces actions that make a contribution to one’s community[6].

When taken as an aggregate, a practitioner who wishes to craft and operationalize a youth development program that includes what all of these organizations and theoreticians have proposed is easily overwhelmed. The challenge certainly rivals all the different approaches that psychology has produced over the years. In fact, one astute observer remarked that putting all the pieces together is like building a child. For those of us in the field, is there a way to simplify and arrive at an Occam’s razor way of finding a simpler way to approach our work?

A Simpler Approach: What do teachers and coaches want?

Not discounting all of the valuable insights and work that has gone into the various models identified above, is there another golf-like way of viewing youth development that is simpler and more meaningful to workers in the field? Perhaps, rather than starting with an amalgam of every conceivable attribute that a child can possess, and attempting to develop a curriculum that we might ask people such as coaches, teachers and parents to deliver, we should start by asking those in the field, who work with kids, how they would like kids under their supervision to behave, in order to get the most out of their interactions with them.

My guess is that we will come up with a much simplified idea of what youth development is really about in the day to day lives of kids and the interactions that they have with teachers, coaches, and peers. For the most part the interactions that coaches and teachers have with kids is about teaching them stuff. So what is it that they want in the kids that they interact with to make teaching and learning most effective. Legendary coach, John Wooden, had a viewpoint on this.[7] In a TED Talk Wooden conveyed that his ideal player was one who knew that his primary reason for being at UCLA was to get an education.  Then came basketball, and everything else was a distant third. Clearly, this understanding has to do with motivation to achieve in academics and in sports, and not be diverted by other distractions.

He then went on to say that he wanted a player who could play defense, but offense too; could shoot from the outside, but also from the inside; and was unselfish and willing and able to pass. Evidently, from his description, Wooden wanted players who could do everything. But, overall, when asked who his best players had been he returns to a theme that was at the core of his philosophy by identifying two players who he initially did not think would make the varsity when they were freshman, but went on to become critical players on championship teams. He explained that they were not particularly good shooters, but knew when to shoot and when not to shoot. They were not particularly fast, but played excellent defense and rebounded well because they were able to anticipate unfolding events and move into proper position sooner than others. In essence, they had learned such stuff from hours of deliberate practice with him. They were also productive team players who understood, accepted, and executed the roles to which they were assigned. In essence, they were motivated students who paid attention to what he was teaching, were willing to work hard and deliberately at mastering fundamentals, and were team players.

My sense is that Wooden’s reflections about these players are at the core of youth development; getting students to pay attention, work hard at what they are being taught, acquire the knowledge and skills associated with the subject, and be a positive and contributing member of a team or class. Whether it is academics, sports, or some other area, what really counts in youth development is not acquiring an aggregate of abstract generic qualities, but the acquisition of new capabilities by possessing a positive attitude, paying attention to one’s coach/teacher, practicing deliberately, and being a productive team/class member.


As youth development practitioners, we cannot teach everything to the kids in our programs. However, we can teach them how to be effective learners at whatever content that we are teaching them. In the process of learning new things having value to them, they also acquire, as by-products, an aggregate of assets identified in the various youth development models. A Project Coach adolescent who learns how to explain a new skill to players on her team, also learns how to motivate, communicate, and empathize with others. An Artist for Humanities youth who learns how to sculpt is also learning attentional control, how to accept critical feedback, and how to persevere. A StreetSquash participant who loses a close match and is frustrated, learns how to regulate his emotions and become a sportsman.

The critical point to this way of thinking about youth development is that acquiring such valued attributes as motivation, communication, empathy, perseverance, attentional and emotional control, comes about naturally as youth acquire the knowledge, skills, and values associated with activities that are important to them. Such attributes cannot be taught as decontextualized abstractions. Like the therapist who prescribed golf as a treatment for many of the problems his patients were experiencing, teaching kids how to be effective learners is the key to youth development. When kids acquire knowledge and skill in the array of activities in which they are interested and/or required to participate, as a by-product, they also acquire all the assets identified in the array of youth development models. This is the Occam’s razor of youth development.  

[1] Scales, P. C. (2000). Building student's developmental assets to promote health and school success. Clearing House, 74(2), 84.
[3] Larson, R. W. (2011). Positive development in a disorderly world. Journal of Research on Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell), 21(2), 317-334.
[4] Weiss, Maureen, and Wiese-Bjornstal, Diane. (2009). Promoting Positive Youth Development Through Physical Activity. President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports: Research Digest. Series 10, No.3.
[5] Kane, M. J., & LaVoi, N. M. (2007). The 2007 Tucker Center Research Report, Developing physically active girls: An evidence-based multidisciplinary approach. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
[6] Coakley, J. (2011). Youth sports: What counts as “Positive development?”. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 35(3), 306-324.

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