Definition of Youth Development

Definition of Development, Youth or Otherwise

When encountering the question of my personal definition of youth development, I cannot answer without first addressing my perception of youth as a category, as I believe this perception to be central to any interaction with these individuals. After discussing the term “youth” and its many interpretations and connotations, we can prepare to enter a discussion on the development process within this context. Having arrived at a place of shared language, we can talk about the work of youth development, which I believe is about intentionally helping people learn about themselves, others, and the world that influence perception, thought, and action.


I agree with Sercumbe (1996) when he talks of the label “youth” as a way culture has found to deny a group of people the same liberties and rights others are provided. While I do not believe most professionals in our field use the term in this way, it is clear from popular culture that the label of “youth” does not have a positive connotation. Examples of biased interactions and prejudiced circumstances are readily available in our society. Laws exist requiring people of a certain age to go to school, stay off the streets, be dependent, and much more. Age alone is often used to decide when someone is capable of complete participation in democracy and whether they are able to care for themselves and loved ones.

Keeping the reality of limited freedom and outside control in mind, my definition includes an emphasis on youth as nothing more or less than human beings at a particular age. Rather than stress their developing minds or lesser responsibilities, my definition focuses on these humans exactly where they live. They are to be encountered where they are at, not in any unique manner as is sometimes encouraged, but in the same way we interact with adults we come into contact with. If I were to be working on the development of a single mother, I would meet her where she was in that struggle. If I were working on the development of an overworked lawyer, I would meet him where he was. And when working with a teenager, his or her label of youth must become secondary to the struggles he/she/it/they are faced with.

Having been boxed into a category, however, does come with particular struggles for youth. “Single mothers”, “alcoholics”, “low income”, and “youth” all have negative connotations that require these individuals to interact with their worlds in different ways, and any development work needs to understand this. Youth have been isolated from adults, in certain definitions from children, and forced into an arena that assumes the worst and gives little opportunity for the individuals in this category to advocate for themselves and their peers. As a result, development does take a particular form and must address this injustice.


Youth development is just development, the “youth” segment being less significant in my mind as a starting point. It is the type of development defined that most dramatically influences the life of the youth worker. Defining development, I step outside of the biological and physiological models and address the question from a social and emotional standpoint. I believe this development is centered on the task of learning, and learning with a purpose.

Understanding the individual nature of development, my definition of youth development asks youth workers to define development on a case-by-case basis. If development is about learning about others/self/world, and in this context the learning is done by a human of a particular age, the main variable is which human is experiencing this act of development.

Development work can easily cover hundreds of unique particulars, from school success to life skills to coping with loss; the range of possibilities makes it entirely impossible for any definition of youth development to be created that accurately describes the needs of each individual. People who believe they have come up with a program, definition, or other label that can include the needs and hopes of the entire youth category are likely those same individuals who have, intentionally or not, helped to push youth out of positions of self-efficacy and into roles of dependency.

With a focus on self-efficacy and a definition that prioritizes individual goals and needs, youth development work can then widen its scope back out to include the needs of communities and the roles of youth in them (Pittman, 2000). Youth roles both now and in the future need to be highlighted in this work, and community members must be involved in inclusion of youth as part of the community and hold the expectation that youth are capable of contributing to the community in real and significant ways.

A vital purpose of the entire youth development field is to assist this age group in the process of becoming more and more connected to our communities in ways that allow youth to contribute to the betterment of larger society (Chilcoat, 2001). Society has separated youth from the whole, and one of our roles is to develop youth knowledge and skills to help them in the long process of returning. This requires not just tutoring programs, athletic programs, and programs designed to keep youth out of trouble; true community integration requires youth who are able to, and choose to, contribute to the community in real ways. While this process can happen without intentional programming, youth development professionals should view this process as a key component of any work with youth.


Perhaps the greatest downfall of this definition of youth development is the same as much of youth work as a profession; it is vague. Defining youth development as learning done by a human at a particular age leaves any number of programs the opportunity to step in and claim they help in the task. I struggle with this. It seems both a huge strength (anyone can be aided in their work as developers, without hoops to jump through), the vagueness of the entire profession is one of the more significant reasons we are continually on the outskirts. Being on the fringe of academia, professionalism, science, psychology, etc. has long hindered the work that we do, and this definition does little to change that.


My personal theory of youth development has a drastic influence on the aims of any program of which I am part. This theory prioritizes youth feeling capable, valued, and fully human regardless of their specific skills and knowledge. Because of this priority, the programs I work with cannot always support their work as clearly with straight data and quantitative evaluations. I  would not consider a reading program with 50 students moving up two grade levels a success per my definition of development unless these students also gained in their ability to be self reliant and become fully participating members of their communities.

Fuzzy data is not a necessary evil of programs that match my aims of youth development, but is often a byproduct of the types of programs that emphasize leadership, self-efficacy, and community service. And while I am certainly not opposed to programs that offer school support, athletics, and other specific knowledge and skills, I realize that my definition requires that these programs adapt or restructure into programs that encourage people to change the ways they think, perceive, and act.


Strategies to influence the ways in which people think, perceive, and act must be relational in nature. Humans connect with other humans, and as we connect we change and grow. This is no different for the people who have temporarily been shoved into the youth category. Youth base their life views, goals, hopes, and desires on a variety of factors, but these can be influenced by those around them. Programs and organizations that hope to encourage youth towards self-efficacy and community connection should be strategic in creating relationships that are formative.

These relationships can be with staff members, adults in the community, other youth doing similar development, or even younger children. Whatever the relationships, they are intentional opportunities for these individuals to connect with each other and inform the opinions and worldviews of each other. These relationships must have enough structure to be consistent, but informal enough to feel and be genuine.

Another strategy towards greater youth development is having high expectations within whatever program youth are involved in. High expectations say to these youth that they matter, they are capable, and they are full members of whatever they are doing. They will not be allowed to do less than they are capable of simply because society has labelled them a certain way; the people working within the program know these negative connotations are not deserved and expect the youth to understand this as well.


The strategy of rejecting popular culture’s perception of the youth category feeds directly into the ethos of my youth development definition and the way in which programs function under it. A program utilizing my definition would carry the ethos that youth are just as significantly human, just as significantly capable, just as significantly passionate, just as significantly in need of assistance as any other category of person. This ethos may sound basic, but when placed next to the pervasive ethos of youth as individuals who need to be controlled, dependent, and kept in check until a later date when they somehow magically transform into contributing members of society, these is quite a novel idea. The ethos of my programs is not that we are simply aiding in our future, as we help youth to become contributing adults. That is incomplete. The ethos of my programs is that we are aiding in our future, but also in our present. We are helping youth to become contributing adults, but we are also helping them to be contributing people today.


Knowing which activities will exist in any program using my development philosophy is nearly impossible. There are simply too many possibilities. Any range of activities may be present in these programs. What is key for these activities, however, is that they will be decided on by the youth who participate in them. By that I mean no one will be forced to be part of my programs. Good youth development does not happen in a tutoring program with half of the students forced to be there by their concerned parents. A tutoring program filled with students who are choosing to come and wish to participate for various reasons may fit within my ethos and theory, but the first example does not.

It is also likely that much of the activity present in programs within my definition are unstructured, or only slightly structured. As youth are learning and growing in ways that affect themselves, others, and the world, the activities they are involved in cannot always be structured. An individual may greatly benefit from a conversation over coffee with a few friends, or possibly just playing a game of pool with a staff member they have a relationship with. These activities do not fit neatly into any program structure, but they may be vital to healthy development. My definition allows space for inactivity to be purposeful, and for activities to change and morph based on varying needs and desires.


The desired outcomes for youth development are present in the definition; youth will learn about themselves, others, and the world in ways that positively influence perception, thought, and action. Whether this means students are high school graduates, physically fit, or wealthy individuals is not necessarily the point; the hope is that anyone involved in a youth development program will perceive the world differently, think more deeply, and act intentionally upon the world in which they live.

Outcomes, according to many, should be measurable. This one really is not. At least it is not in whole. But there are pieces that may be measured, at least if qualitative evaluation is done in various ways. The data may not be as simple to collect as a program whose goal is as straightforward as something like raising high school graduation rates among participants, but careful evaluation can still produce meaningful results. As a result of programming utilizing my definition of youth development, youth should feel they have changed their perceptions, thoughts, and actions in ways that benefit. Adults in their lives and their communities should see similar results. Creating evaluation tools that assess these feelings and changes in concise and accurate ways will be challenging, but are absolutely possible.


In conclusion, youth development needs to focus on the intangible pursuit of knowledge of self, others, and world.  Evaluating the effectiveness of a program designed for this purpose will provide a unique challenge as youth and adults alike learn to interact in ways that assume people to be capable and complete no matter their age. Youth development should fight against the unfair assumption that youth are capable of, and responsible for, less than their adult counterparts and actively work to instill a sense of worth, independence, and desire to contribute in youth. It is when youth are destigmatized and their development is defined on an individual level, with the contribution of youth themselves, that real and meaningful youth development can take place.



Chilcoat, G. W., & Ligon, J. A. (2001). Discussion as a Means for Transformative Change: Social Studies Lessons from the Mississippi Freedom Schools. Social Studies, 92(5), 213-219. Retrieved from:

McLaughlin, M. (2000) Community counts: How youth organizations matter for youth development. Public Education Network: Washington D.C. Retrieved from:

Pittman, K. (2000) Balancing the equation: Communities supporting youth, youth supporting communities. CYD Anthology 2002, 19-24. Retrieved from:

Sercumbe, H. (1996) Naming Youth: the construction of the youth category. (Unpublished master’s thesis).

Smith, M. K. (2003) From youth work to youth development. The new government framework for English youth services, Youth and Policy 79, Retrieved from:

Smith, R. S. (2010). A universal child? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.





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