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Positive Youth Development in Humane Education Programs

June 13, 2024 9:35 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Positive Youth Development in Humane Education Programs

By: Heather Franco

Humane Education Manager, East Bay SPCA

Humane educators come from different career paths and often wear many hats in their organizations. You may be a humane educator who is coming into the role with more animal care or community engagement experience than youth development and it can be overwhelming knowing where to start your professional growth. Read on to learn about the basics of youth development and how to incorporate them into your humane education programming to have the greatest outcomes for your participants. 

What is Positive Youth Development?

Youth development is an umbrella term that covers how youth and adolescents grow and interact with the world around them. It is linked to the intersection of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model Theory, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Garbarino’s work explaining “social toxicity” and their effects on youth and adolescents, among other social and psychological theories. Positive youth development is the committed and concerted effort of those who work with youth and adolescents to partner with participants to navigate the world and develop to their full potential. 

An excellent resource that will be referenced several times here is Positive Youth Development 101 by Jutta Dotterweich (Cornell University, and several collaborators). It is a curriculum used to train youth work professionals and is full of theory, references, history, and actual training exercises to bring to your team. 

From the curriculum, positive youth development focuses on five research-based principles:

  • Focus on positive outcomes: We shift from preventing or fixing problems to creating positive outcomes such as competencies, connections and caring relationships, positive values and expectations, and meaningful participation. This also means we use a strengths-based approach. 

  • Youth voice/engagement: We work with young people, not for them. We engage young people as partners, create youth-adult partnerships, and listen to their expertise and perspective. This usually requires that we as adults become aware of and control the negative assumptions and stereotypes we might have of young people (“adultism”).

  • Long-term, developmentally appropriate involvement: As a community we seek to support young people throughout their development- about 20 years -while adjusting to their changing developmental needs. A 12-year-old needs different support and opportunities than a 16-year-old. We also know that young people need extended exposure to programs and supportive adults to thrive; short-term programs and opportunities are not as effective. 

  • Universal/inclusive: As a community we need to provide support and opportunities to all young people, not just to the “high risk,” targeted groups or the high achieving groups. This does not mean, however, that we cannot provide additional support to young people who face extra challenges. In addition, research tells us that universal strategies are often very effective for high need youth. 

  • Community-based/collaborative: Young people interact with a variety of social environments. For a positive youth development approach to succeed, non-traditional community sectors such as businesses, faith communities, or civic organizations need to be involved. And this implies that we have to work together collaboratively. 

Dotterweich also challenges those who work with youth and adolescents to make a paradigm shift. 



Fixing problems

Building on strengths



Troubled youth

All youth

Youth as recipients of services

Youth as participants/resources



Professional work

Everyone’s work

This table is adapted from Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework and 40 Developmental Assets; both excellent resources when learning about positive youth development.  

How Does this Relate to Humane Education Programming?

Humane Education means different things to different practitioners, so naturally positive youth development will vary across settings. It’s likely only some of these principles and techniques will directly apply to the work you’re doing, and that’s okay! With limited resources (especially time), it’s important to hone in on what will benefit your organization and community most. 

Begin by evaluating your current situation and then identify areas for growth that make sense for your organization, department, team, and programmatic goals and values. Start with an evaluation specifically designed for youth development programs, like The Forum for Youth Investment’s David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. They offer free Program Quality Assessments (PQAs) that measure programs serving youth in grades K-6, grades 4-12, and programs focusing on Social & Emotional Learning (SEL). While these tools were created with school-year long afterschool programs in mind, they have also created a Summer Camp PQA and can be adapted to suit your program’s specific needs. All you have to do is utilize the pieces that make sense and exclude the pieces that don’t. 

After evaluating the current situation, work with your team to identify areas of growth you’d like to focus on. You can use strategic plans, mission statements, values, etc. that are in place and already guide the work you do to narrow this focus. For example, it may not be feasible for your Humane Education team to provide a long-term program by facilitating a school-year-long afterschool program, so you may choose instead to focus on growing the youth voice in your existing programs. There is professional development to build skills or resources such as Afterschool Alliance’s Youth Voice Toolkit to study and discuss with your colleagues. 

Ultimately, continuous improvement shouldn’t be so daunting, as that mindset prevents you from doing what you can to grow and evolve your programming. Seek out support from your peers (have you connected with APHE’s Groupsite yet?) and have fun developing your skills along with the positive development of your participants!

© Association of Professional Humane Educators