Skip to main content

Reflecting on a century of youth development research and practice

Kate-Walker.jpgYouth development is regularly described as an "emerging field." Yet youth development has been at the core of many youth-serving organizations founded in the early years of the 20th century such as 4-H, Scouts, and Camp Fire. In the past 100 years, youth development practice has evolved and advancements in youth development research have been made. What have been key trends, major contributions and core issues during the field of youth development's "coming of age"?

The current issue of the Journal of Youth Development: Bridging Research and Practice commemorates the 100th anniversary of many national youth-serving organizations. For this special issue, authors were invited to reflect on research trends and contributions that have influenced the field over time as well as to consider issues of practice that continue to evolve and challenge the field.

Collectively, the articles provide an account of youth development over the years, covering such issues as how youth development has been studied, understood and measured to how youth development practice has evolved to support, engage and address the needs of young people. The volume concludes with two commentaries about future directions for research and challenges shaping the field's future.

YWI-hist-hat-craft.jpgClearly, today's world is increasingly complex and diverse. The role youth workers and organizations play in helping prepare young people for that world has evolved.

Our understanding of the skills required has grown and we've made advancement in how to measure them.

The special issue authors cite seminal scholarship, policy reports and paradigm shifts that have influenced our field over time.

Where would we be without, for example:
  • Urie Bronfenbrenner's ecological model that emphasizes studying young people in the context of the system of relationships that form their environment.
  • The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development's report, A Matter of Time, which raised awareness of the importance of out-of-school time.
  • A shift to a strength-based approach (especially the Search Institute's developmental assets) that moved beyond prevention to promotion.

Certainly, not all ideas and issues are covered in the special issue. I wonder, as you reflect on our growing field over time, what are some of the influential research contributions? What are some enduring issues of practice that continue to impact the field?
-- Kate Walker, research associate

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Ah Kate, you and Joyce and Michelle Gambone have really done a remarkable job pulling all the myriad perspectives and milestones together in one issue of a journal. I'm printing it right now as I realize what a seminal piece this will be both for newer as well as more experienced practitioners and researchers.
    For me one of the foundations of youth development and youth organizations is the joy and respect we have for young people and our ability to incorporate natural settings and experiential education into what we do. And yet, unfortunately, we have so far to go in terms of society's views of the role of young people, as discussed in previous blogs. Thanks for all the hard work Kate, Joyce and Michelle! best, beki

  2. Thanks Beki! The chapter you and Terri Sullivan wrote helps frame different forms of youth engagement. And as you point out, not enough young people (particularly older, low-income youth) are engaged in these opportunities, and doing so requires a cultural shift to recognize that young people have strengths to offer and a right and need to be engaged. Your message underscores a theme that cuts across the special issue – progress has been made, yet tensions remain.

  3. Kate,
    I just saw the journal issue and look forward to reading it. Thanks for highlighting it so I remember to put it on my bedside table. This week I was sifting through some historical archives - looking at some of the early settlement house documents. I was shocked to see one of the questions they put to their national federation leaders - should they consider "professionalizing" the role of youth worker? The threads of conversations I found in the letters could have been recordings from conversations I have in coffee shops and meetings today. I wondered aloud (yes - I was shushed) about how we can better balance and broaden our way of thinking about contributions that capture knowledge outside of research. What if this kind of significant and enduring issue discussion not only repeats and continues but deepens and builds over time and benefits from the wisdom gained in practice?

  4. Wow Deborah, What a striking illustration of another enduring challenge: professionalization of youth workers. Borden and colleagues’ chapter is about the evolving role of youth workers and they note that the call for professionalization of youth workers has been ongoing since the early 1970s, but I’m intrigued that you discovered the debate dating back to the late 19th century! How is it that we still lack agreement on how to advance the profession (let alone which practitioners to include)? I agree, we need to find better ways to capture and learn lessons from past iterations of these debates.

  5. I printed the Journal off too to read - thank you for highlighted that resource! One of the intriguing pieces of the entries is the professionalization of the youth worker. As I was preparing for my doctorate application, one of the strong messages I found was that youth workers are under trained, nor seen as a profession in many organizations. Besides this, higher education is not keeping up with the demand of youth workers and the field of upper level courses and professors to conduct this training. The world is changing. The youth population is changing. The world of academia needs to step up and meet these needs.


Post a Comment